Q: You mentioned that your career is on hold. Can you talk about how your creative life has changed in the last few years?
A: Right around the time that I was realizing how bad it was with mom I was planning on writing songs and going to the studio. It’s that cyclical thing that I do: I write songs, I record them, and then I release the record and go on tour, and naïvely I was thinking, “Oh man, maybe I can still do that.” But it was impossible because she became a full-time job, the paperwork alone, and trying to manage what was left of her estate, and juggle caregivers and schedules and rent and lawyers. So the only thing I have really accomplished in the last year-and-a-half is I have written a few songs inspired by this very particular situation. And those are poignant. I don’t know if they should be a Jonatha record. Maybe they’re part of this theater piece that I’m concocting. Because does anyone need songs about a dying mother? I don’t know.
Q: That’s an interesting question. I think maybe context is everything.
A: Yeah. And then the only other things I’ve done is write songs for other people, which has been a great relief. I’ve gone away on these writing trips, one for the Dixie Chicks, one for Katharine McPhee, and then another where it was just a bunch of chick songwriters writing for whoever, you know. So every day we’d be like, “Okay, let’s write this for Christina Aguilera. And then, let’s write this for Katy Perry.” And we’d just sort of go in and hammer stuff out and have a blast.
Q: You have siblings, but you’re obviously the primary caregiver in the family.
A: Yeah. I’m the girl.
Q: Ah, of course.
A: I’m the girl and I’m the baby. My brothers are older and they’re supportive in their own best ways. But they have no idea what I do every day.
Q: So have you been able to maintain any part of your creative rituals or routines?
A: Only recently, because I have this gig coming up, which I’m so grateful for because it’s reminded me that I do need to carve out a routine. And I do need to be singing and writing every day or I will go down. So I have my coffee and then I go right to work. Even physically it has restored me, because there’s such a darkness. Hospice is on the scene, and as much as I was thrilled they were here and I was getting the extra help, it does imply she’ll be gone soon.
Q: I’m so sorry.
A: I’m jumbling all my words, but having a routine really helps step away from that. And singing is such a cathartic, healing thing for me. It sounds very crunchy, but just the fact that I’ve been singing for a couple hours a day has unclenched every clenched thing in my body. And it’s such a great reminder of, like, okay, I sing to survive. And it’s more clear now than ever. I mean, it might have been sort of a luxury in terms of thinking of it that way earlier in my career. Yes, I sing because I have to and I love it and this is what fuels me. But now it’s almost like this is going to save me.
Q: What do you sing?
A: Everything. I’m singing to get into good voice for this gig next week at Lincoln Center. I’m singing these songs that I have written for and about mom every day, and finding new things in them, or where I might take them, or how I might feed them into a story that I tell on stage. And I’m finally coming up with new melodies that might be a Jonatha record, which hopefully will happen at some point.
Q: How fleshed-out is your idea for a theater piece based on this experience?
A: Well, I’ve actually spoken about it to a friend of mine who is a director in Pittsburgh and just this week I met with her and started telling her what I’ve been writing and showing her some of the photographs. And she’s really excited about the idea of us working together on something, whatever it is.
Q: Maybe it’s not the stuff of pop songs but it’s a powerful and universal experience, certainly the kind of thing worth turning into art.
A: Yeah, it is. It’s epidemic. I don’t run into anybody who is not touched in some way by this. We’re all getting there, or are there, and what I’m most adamant about is the humor in my mother’s story, because she is so fucking funny. And that’s something I’m really clinging to. If I do this it has to be a very large and poignant story but also a very funny story. You know, the poop drama alone is like slapstick. There has to be a way to tell this so that it’s funny and not just my mom is dying of dementia.
Q: That would be unbearable.
A: Yeah. I mean, who cares? Shut up. Let me get out of here.
Q: Well, everybody cares. That’s why humor exists, I think, so that we can bear these things. Has your mom’s experience changed the way you think about your own life, how you use your time?
A: Yes. Number one, it makes you very well aware of your own demise. And then, you know, in the most exhausted, dark stretches, you start thinking about every ache and pain that you’re having, and that maybe you’re dying too. So there is this sort of caregiver hypochondria that I’ve had to deal with. And then there is the gift of this unconditional love that wells up from God knows where. Where the hell did I get this patience? I am not a patient person. But all of a sudden I have these just huge reserves.
Q: That duality seems to be a hallmark of this time of life. You know, the awareness that we’re aging, we’re dying, and we can’t deny it. And the closer we get to that, the greater the awareness of how much we can do with the time and the energy that we have.
A: Yeah. There’s such a comfort, too, like finally just relaxing into your skin and not sweating bullshit.
A: There have been these very existential moments of, like, “Oh my God, what am I doing?” And yet, on the other hand, it’s like, I’m going to turn her down? No. This is life. This is it. And this is my mother. And somehow, it always makes me cry, but somehow she is the one who gave me this capacity. This is directly from her. And she’s giving it back to me every day. I mean, she’ll tell me, every day, “I love you so much. Don’t leave me.” So on the one hand, I’m like, “Oh my God. I have to go practice, mom, I really do.” And, on the other hand I’m, like, I want to be with her.