By Kenyon Wallace
Unlike most contemporary acoustic artists, Jon Brooks doesn’t mind being referred to as a folksinger. In fact, he embraces the label.
“I do feel very much a part of the (folk) tradition, which is inherently subversive and always has been,” says the Toronto-based singer-songwriter. “I would not be justified in standing behind a microphone and adding to the glut of noise and vapid distraction if I didn’t believe I had some kind of moral purpose.”
Brooks’ new album, Delicate Cages, is unabashed folk, with each song on the 11-track disc offering social commentary about issues that catch the artist’s attention — and, in many cases, scorn. The album is a rumination on what Brooks says are his three favourite topics: hope, love and death.
There are songs about the proliferation of prisons across the United States, child soldiers, suicide bombers and, closer to home a lament for Aqsa Parvez, the 16-year-old Brampton schoolgirl murdered by her father and brother for embracing western culture.
“I want people to understand that they’ve been lied to about what it means to be hopeful — that it’s not some easy, cheesy, self-help feel-good message,” explains Brooks, 43. “It’s in fact brutal. It’s a bloody affair to be hopeful. It’s an action word.”
Followers of Brooks’ music have come to expect nothing less.
His breakthrough CD, Ours and the Shepherds, released in 2007, is a collection of war stories that challenged Canadians’ traditional view of themselves as peacekeepers rather than fighting soldiers. That album, inspired by the experiences of Romeo Dallaire, peace activist James Loney and John MacRae garnered Brooks a Songwriter of the Year nomination at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.
Two years later, he earned another songwriter nomination for 2009’s more contemplative Moth Nor Rust. Brooks’ brand of in-your-face folk continued to make waves, especially in the southern U.S., where he won the prestigious Kerrville Festival New Folk award in 2010. Not bad for a guy who didn’t seriously consider a songwriting career until his mid-30s.
A trained keyboard player, Brooks spent his formative years in a blues and rock band, even playing Hammond organ on the Headstones’ first album in the early ’90s. After becoming disenfranchised with the state of modern music, he gave it up. It wasn’t until one of his literary heroes, Austin Clarke, suggested several years later that Brooks embrace songwriting seriously that he decided to give it another go.
As with any developing career in music, an increasing profile necessitates more touring — a never-ending endeavour that sees Brooks performing at the Gladstone Melody Bar Tuesday night to promote the new album.
“The only measure of success in music anymore is how many gigs you have. Touring is everything.”
But it’s not a bed of roses. You have to want it, you have to have purpose, Brooks says.
“It’s not fun and it’s not easy, and it’s lonely. It can be brutal sometimes. It can be brilliant because of that too,” he says. “That’s where the songs come from.”