Cris Cohen: How would you describe the album "Midnight. Hallelujah."?
Jonatha Brooke: This album is an interesting battle between light and dark. And strangely enough, I had the song “Midnight Hallelujah” for a few years. In fact, I joke about it in the “My Mother Has 4 Noses” show. I joke about playing my mom an early version of it and telling her, “Hey, Mom, I'm working on this new song called 'Midnight Hallelujah.'”
And she was thoroughly demented already, but she looked up at me and without missing a beat she said, “Oh, Boolie, that sounds an awful lot like it's about sex.”
She really got me. I'm like, “Oh my God, Mom, I guess it is. You're right.”
And then she goes, “Well you are going to have to wait until a lot later than midnight for that!”
Then she said, “Gotcha!”
So it is kind of an interesting development that this has become the title of my next record.
And that song is indeed about a certain battle between sacred and profane. It is literally kind of about sex, but it is also about battling the notions of what faith means and what adhering to faith means. You know, I certainly grappled with that in my mom play, but I think I'll always grapple with that. It's been part of my continuing dialogue and what I write about. There is probably some element of that in all of my records. This is no exception. And I think this one goes a little deeper, darker. There are some beautifully light, happy songs, but there are some really gnarly, snarling, grappling dark ones.
Cris: Did those dark feeling come out as a kind of venting?
Jonatha: Yeah, I think they do. I think I am venting a lot more anger than I have done in the past.
And some of it is made up. As always. I just make shit up. I'm not all of the people in all of these songs. I'm not the voice of all of these protagonists.
In a song like “Mean Looking Jesus” I'm this … I don't know who I am. It's just not necessarily me. I'm a bitch and I'm just going for it and that's really fun. It's a character. I put on a different persona and I go to Gothic Land.
Cris: For the album title "Midnight. Hallelujah.", why the periods?
Jonatha: I wanted them to be separate ideas, because if you lump them together “Midnight Hallelujah” could just be about sex.
For the album, these are two totally different ideas. Midnight can be just a desperate time. So I guess I wanted to separate out those notions of midnight as a real soul-searching moment, when you are in the dark. You're all alone. You're questioning everything. And then hallelujah has its connections to faith and religion, but it also has its connection to joy and just plain, unbridled happiness.
Cris: About the lyric "I'm a tongue-tied, black belt sinner and I'm running with the saints", how does one come up with a lyrics like that?
Jonatha: One borrows from one's heroes. I think it was Mary Karr who called herself a black belt sinner. I was so smitten with that idea of being a black belt sinner. “I am so good at this, I am a black belt.” But I don't feel like I am that good. So I wanted to set myself in another category of being on the fence. I can't get my words out and I'm not quite certain that I am really good at sinning because I am still kind of hanging out in Goody-Goody Land.
Cris: You draw from some intensely personal experiences when creating your songs. What does it feel like opening yourself up to people like that?
Jonatha: I joke about this sometimes because it is often after the record is out that I realize how much I've said. And that I have completely bared very intimate details. Although, again, I do embellish and I lie a lot. But I do sort of wonder once in a while, “Wow. Have I said too much?” That's just what I do and who I am.
I guess I can't help it. If I hold back or try to whitewash things or conceal, then it doesn't feel honest. It doesn't feel singable or relatable or truthful.
I am the only one who knows my own version of things, my own truth. And so that's all you can do is be honest with that. And if you don't tell the truth, then you are just going to fester.
Cris: How have you changed since the last album?
Jonatha: I think that I am a little edgier. I think I am trying a few new things here. This record I think will probably sound less polished in a good way. I intended that. Just a little ballsier.
I think the last album, because the songs related to the play, had this very beautiful poignancy and chamberish quality. And there were string arrangements and the songs were somewhat elliptical and sweet. And it was really an ode to my mother.
This one is a little more topical. It's rockier. There's more electric guitars threading through. There's a real swagger to it. It kind of came out of that very intense period and I just kind of wanted to romp. I wanted to stomp around a little bit.
Cris: Are you the same person you are onstage as you are offstage?
Jonatha: I kind of am. I'm basically a golden retriever. I'm just so happy to be there, so happy you came. If you throw the ball for me, I will always bring it back. And I just want you to scratch my ears. And I think I am kind of that way in person. I love my job. I love singing. I love connecting with an audience. And I love that repartee where you are baring your soul in a way and people come to like and respect that you are up there really giving your everything. I think that I kind of do that in real life as well.
And the singers and songwriters who I love the most have that same kind of vulnerability. They don't try to be cool or holier than thou with their audience. They address the audience as a friend. And I think that is a really appealing quality in a performer and I aspire to that too.
I remember watching Al Jareau back in the early days. I would go to see him perform. He was just mesmerizing. He had this charisma that made every single person – even in an arena – feel like he was singing sweetly, directly, lovingly to them. And I just thought, “Wow. That is the most magical gift.” I hope someday I can attempt a quarter of that, to really make everyone in that room feel like they are part of something that is happening and I am having a real conversation with them.