By Joey Ferber
photo: Jon Brooks shares stories and collects some new ones at Taffy’s Sept. 21; photo: Jay Morrison
Don’t call him a singer-songwriter. Don’t call him a folk artist. Just go listen to the stories he sings. The songs of Toronto-based Jon Brooks strike the depths of human emotion, from anger and resentment to hope and redemption.
Brooks spoke with the Dayton City Paper about his Sept. 21 show at Taffy’s, writing and performing, and the hearts of small towns.
Jon Brooks: This is the first time that I’ve actually played a gig in Ohio. I like playing in small-town America. I like playing small-town anywhere, small-town Canada, small-town Australia. It’s in the little, tiny communities where you can actually feel the pulse of the country’s soul.
There’s a really strong folk ideal in that.
JB: Exactly. I love the side of this business where I get to travel to places. If I didn’t, I would be in the wrong vocation. If you’re a Canadian songwriter, you have to travel. There’s not enough work in my own country to eke out a living. I depend on the States, I depend on other countries, and I depend on travel, and, truth be told, that’s where the new songs come from. I’m basically out there collecting stories’ emotional data. That’s what I do, I go out there, and I get peoples’ stories, and I’m going to go to Ohio, and I know I’m going to hear a story that I cannot get off of watching CNN.
I’d like to talk about some of the aspects of “what makes folk, folk.”
JB: One of the safe ways to put folk into perspective is that pop music tends to come from the “I,” the “me”—“my problems, my car, my girlfriend, my marriage,” but folk… comes from the “we.”
I’m proud of the idea of folk as a subversive art form…as a way to point people to virtue, to point out the problems, to begin healing a wound by first showing what the wound was…to reveal ourselves to each other. And that, to me, was folk, and so I came from the tradition of Woody Guthrie and a lot of the revivalists in the ’60s. I wasn’t interested in pathological idealism, but I was interested in folk songs as a subversive and as a positive force.
As an artist, do you primarily identify as a songwriter?
JB: I wish people would have the courage and the will to just come see a songwriter… One of the saddest times was a gig about five or six years ago in Toronto, my hometown, and it was a CD release. I finished the sound check, and I was hanging outside the place and a group of young guys, probably in their late 20s, were walking by and looked in to see the stage, and one of them said, “Oh, it’s just a guy with a guitar.” And it’s like, man, if you could hear what that guy with the guitar was going to do and not just assume based on the instrumentation… “style” and “genre” are really destructive ideas, and I wish we’d get over it and move on. In a like manner, so is the binary understanding of fiction and non-fiction. The two are not two. They blur into each other; they’re the same. The greatest novels ever written ostensibly are fictional, but you know in your heart that every page was closer to the absolute truth than any so-called non-fiction book.
JB: You know…there is a mystical union between the audience and the performer. We follow each other. It’s what keeps me inspired and passionate about this career – it’s a purpose for living. I will put up with society’s general disrespect of songwriters and gladly live just above the poverty line if we can continue the experiences I have on a stage with people.
So, are you working on new material currently?
JB: I’ve been busy writing, and I always feel perpetually two-thirds of the way there. It takes me a long time to write a song, it takes me an even longer time to decide whether or not I like it. It’s been over a year and a half since I released my last album, and my last album was all murder ballads. I got that out of my system, and now I’m determined to go into the opposite direction and sing…I certainly don’t know what “happy songs” are, but I do know the difference between a gentler, kinder, more healing type of approach to a song.
Right. Are there any other topics you’d like to touch on?
JB: The only thing I’d like to leave people with is the idea that a songwriter without hope for the human beast, I think, is a fraud. I feel compelled to remind people that I’m only doing this because I am, at heart, an optimist, and I think we can do better. This idea that this person is left, this is right, this is black, this is white… you know… that whole binary kind of worldview is what I’m trying to transcend.