Jonatha Brooke is a singer, a songwriter, and a caretaker. For the past couple of years her music career has taken a backseat to caring for her mother, a poet who is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Brooke has been writing about it with signature candor in the journal on her website. We spoke on the phone recently during a lull in the action.
Q: I know things are kind of crazy right now. Is this still a good time to talk?
A: This is actually good timing, because we just finished up this morning’s poop drama with mom.
Q: Poop drama? That’s a good place to start.
A: I am a poop expert. I could write a thesis on poop management for the elderly.
Q: Give me a snapshot of the situation. Where is your mom living?
A: Mom lives on three and I live on seven. A year ago August I moved her from her supposedly independent living facility in Boston to an apartment that happened to be open in my building, She was at this very lovely Christian Science manor called The Benevolent Association, but she was not independent or really living. I mean, it was a mess, and she was falling, and everyone was in denial about the reality of her physical needs. So I kind of rode in and told everyone to fuck off and said, “I’m taking it from here.”
I had lunch last week with a friend of mine who’s in the music business. He’s a passionate guy, around my age, with an impressive resume. I like talking to him. We debated the fine points of the Black Keys’ rise, the difference between real and cultivated authenticity, and whether people know or care about it. Then the conversation turned to taste and I asked my friend about his criteria for working with a band. Must he love the music? Does he have to believe they’ll be big? What matters? One thing that matters, my friend told me, a little bit quietly, after he told me about some other things that matter, is cool. He wants his music choices to make him look cool. “More than I should,” he said.
The next day I had a phone conversation with another friend, who was describing a business venture that required him to either face off with or extend a hand to a competitor. My friend wanted to make nice. He told me that he’s no longer attracted to exclusivity and the sort of mystique it confers. ”As I’ve gotten older I care less about cool than I once did,” he said. “I’ve defined it for myself as not wasting a lot of time lying. It’s become tedious.”
The day after that (it was one of those weeks) I had a long talk with my dad. We spoke for maybe the 300th time about the importance of relying on your own internal guidance system instead of external cues for direction and meaning, and about how hard that is to do — even if you know it’s the way you want to live, even if you’re the mindful type, even if it will without a doubt make you happier. My dad thinks it’s because from the get-go we’re taught to seek approval from other people. We’re ingrained with the belief that we’re only as good or smart or valuable as our parents and teachers and friends think we are, and it’s tough to unlearn those early lessons. My dad is a wise man, a font of short-form allegories, and he trotted out one of my favorites. It goes like this: imagine yourself standing on a stage, preparing to give a performance. You gaze out at the audience and discover that the theater is empty. No one is watching. But the show goes on.
I swear, these conversations never get old. Much as I’d like to evict the imaginary chorus heralding the imaginary spectators whose imaginary cheers and jeers inspire too many performances, they’re determined squatters. So it’s war. It’s me versus a hallucination. Me versus a misguided notion of value and power. Some days I win. On those days I know that the cool kids are muddled like me, not at all as sure as they seem to be about what’s good and what’s smart and what matters. Some days, consumed with self-doubt and comparitis, I lose. I wonder why I even bother. So it’s one step forward and one step back. Actually it’s more like this:
Here’s a conundrum: what do you do when the thing you love makes you sick? Juliana Hatfield has been trying to answer that question for a long time. In 2008 she put out a hopefully-titled album, How To Walk Away.At 44, she’s finally making her move. We met for tea recently at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where Hatfield is enrolled in an intensive studio art program, to talk about closing the book on performing and starting a new chapter as a painter.
Q: How’s school going?
A: It’s going great. I’m not really ready to show my stuff to people. I feel like I’m just here at school trying to develop my skills and ideas. One of the faculty used the premature birth analogy. He said, “Don’t push your work out prematurely.” I don’t want to do that.
Q: How long is the program?
A: Just a year. It’s a post-baccalaureate certificate program. But a lot of people see it as pre-MFA training.
Q: Are you looking at it that way?
A: Well, I wasn’t. I really just wanted to learn and have a more intensive art school experience and just develop, but I think I’m going to apply to a couple of MFA programs, although I don’t know if that would be practical for me.
Q: That brings up the question of plans.
A: If I could afford to, I would just paint for the foreseeable future. It’s the way I saw music before. I only wanted to do that. Now I want to paint. That is probably going to sound so pretentious coming from someone who’s been a musician. It’s weird, no one even knows I’m doing this school. None of my quote unquote fans knows that I’m in school. I haven’t really told anyone.
Q: Why not?
A: I’m doing it for me. I always felt that I had potential but I put it on the back burner when I started doing music full-time. Now I’m trying to see if I can develop the skills that I have.
I vowed to finish and post “Different Kind of Lucky” a couple of weeks ago but if you’ve been reading this blog you know that despite my best intentions a few things have gotten in the way. Well, one thing. Me. The song is finally done and there’s even a line about good intentions in the chorus. This is real life, people. Anyway, I had started thinking about how sometimes when things go wrong it’s not just a drag but an opportunity. I don’t really know what sort of song it is, which sort of bothers me. I recorded it late at night with no effects but in my my head I hear lots of clattering instruments, all shambling and propulsive-like. Also, THERE IS A BRIDGE. My first one. Sometimes I really can’t believe I’m doing this.