Great songwriters, like the best artists in any discipline, defy convention and confound those who seek comparisons.
Toronto’s Jon Brooks stands among an exalted few in the enduring Canadian song tradition – Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Fred Eaglesmith, Bruce Cockburn – as a lyricist, composer and performer with a fierce commitment to his craft and his vision.
He says he’s proud to call himself a folksinger at a time when that particular f-word has ceased to have much meaning to armies of wannabe artists seeking little more than ordinary fame and glory.
For Brooks, 41, who wandered into Bosnia-Herzegovina in the late 1990s and was virtually struck dumb by the misery and senseless inhumanity he witnessed there, the stakes are much higher.
For several years the King City native put away his guitar and turned his back on music. He wrote poetry and essays until music found him again in 2006. That year he released No Mean City, a searing evocation of spiritual atrophy.
The follow-up, Ours and the Shepherds, examined the Canadian experience of war from 1914 to the present through the eyes of imaginary characters or ones drawn from published accounts. Neither cries of protest nor patriotic hoopla, these songs are postmodern dispatches, a series of dispassionate and unconnected snapshots of the warrior psyche under pressure.
Ours and the Shepherds earned Brooks a best-songwriter nomination at the 2007 Canadian Folk Music Awards, an achievement repeated this year with his third album, Moth Nor Rust, a call to arms, in the best Pete Seeger spirit, to those weighed down in an uncaring and troubled world.
Brooks performs alone, with his Taylor jumbo guitar and a couple of minimal effects pedals, content to let his words and tunes convey his meaning. When he does talk on stage – in the past two years he has appeared at a dozen major North American festivals and tours Canada’s folk circuit relentlessly – it’s in the voice of a humble troubadour.
“The most important things in a song are learned through experience, and those experiences take listeners on a trip to places they might never have known” says Brooks, who’s married to CBC employee Sandra Alves.
Toronto-based Scottish expat folksinger Enoch Kent, a festival favourite on both sides of the Atlantic and a noble survivor of the 1960s British folk revival, believes Brooks is the real deal. “Jon Brooks,” he says, “is the kind of writer who makes me think.”
This year, Brooks plans to release his fourth CD, Delicate Cages, with songs about different kinds of imprisonment in the modern world. He’ll be touring the Maritimes in the spring, Western Canada in the fall, and doing the summer festival circuit, all the while collecting stories for more artful songs.