Writer skilled at mixing emotional music with everyday, extraordinary tales
By STEPHEN COOKE Entertainment Reporter
Jon Brooks heads east this week for a series of Maritime dates. A conversation with authors and personal mentors Barry Callaghan and Austin Clarke after a night of off-track betting on horse races made him rethink his decision to trade music for prose.
Jon Brooks is in love with words and the power they possess. For the past five years the Ontario singer-songwriter has been using melody as a verbal amplifier over the course of three albums, telling vivid tales of people caught up in situations both everyday and extraordinary, from the midst of love gone wrong to the heat of battle and its aftermath.
Heading east this week for a series of Maritime dates, Brooks’s musical history goes back further than 2005, but it was a conversation with authors and personal mentors Barry Callaghan and Austin Clarke after a night of off-track betting on horse races made him rethink his decision to trade music for prose eight years before.
“Austin said, ‘You’re going to be a writer, a novelist, yet you know how to play guitar and put a four-minute song together? You’d rather write a 400-page novel?’ And totally guileless, I said, ‘That’s the plan, I suppose. And you guys are inspiring that,’ ” recalls Brooks.
“I’m paraphrasing here, but Austin looked at me and said, ‘You know, I envy you in a way, and you also frustrate me to no end. If I could mix emotional music and rational word in four minutes, do you think I’d waste my time writing novels?’ ”
With his guitar and warm, slightly gruff voice, Brooks’s literary skills still shine through on songs that are also stories, from a portrait of New Waterford war widows in Auction Days to Jeremy Hinzman’s moral struggle on War Resister.
Their strong points of view and his desire to inspire social and personal change have led some to label him a “protest singer,” a term he personally dislikes, due to the simplicity and onesidedness it represents.
“My feeling is, personally, protest only works in the form of story and empathy,” he explains, “whether it’s a painting, a poem, a story or a song. If you really want to protest the way the world is right now, you have to make people feel empathy for people they otherwise wouldn’t feel it for.
“In other words, you have to unite people in a positive direction.”
The song War Resister, from his latest CD Moth Nor Rust, is a case in point, where Brooks wanted to make sure that Hinzman wasn’t presented as a victim or a martyr for the anti-Iraq War cause, and to portray him as a fully rounded person “with a few skeletons in his closet.”
“He actually asked me, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but would you be into hanging out a bit? Because everywhere I go in Toronto, people want to use me as a poster boy for the war resister movement,’ ” recalls Brooks, who spent time getting to know the South Dakota conscientious objector while writing the song.
“The point I’m trying to make is that for any character to come to life, there has to be some moral ambiguity there; you can’t just paint him as a poor, hard-done-by American. He’s made mistakes, he’ll be the first to admit it, so the challenge is to not tell people how to vote, but to try to elicit from them an opinion or a thought, and empathy, that’s key.”
In Brooks’s songs, the human element supersedes ideology, whether it’s a snapshot of a brief encounter between a waitress and a homeless man on In the Alleys or a broader portrait of life for the mis-employed on If We Keep What’s Within Us What’s Within Us Will Kill, But if We Give What’s Within Us What’s Within Us Will Save Us.
The important thing is that his tuneful mix of imagery and emotion grabs a hold of listeners and strikes some sparks of recognition.
“If it’s done properly, that can really have an effect on people. Not every song works, but I have to say at the end of every one of my gigs, whether I’m playing in front of four people in Wabigoon, Ont., or 400 people at the Italian Cultural Centre in Halifax, it never fails. Someone turns their head ever so slightly, they’ve gone home slightly changed, they’ve been inspired and related to people, and the world has become a little bit smaller.”
Jon Brooks performs at Halifax’s Carleton Restaurant on Wednesday, Maxwell’s Lounge in Sydney on Thursday, a Point Rock House Concert (860-2345) in Fall River on Saturday, and Brookside Cottage Concerts ( firstname.lastname@example.org) in Hubbards at 2 p.m. on Sunday. He’s also playing just over the border in Sackville, N.B., at the Bridge Street Cafe on Wednesday, May 26, and the Evergreen Theatre in Margaretsville on Friday, May 28.