Songs That Set The Archive Free: Interview with Jonatha Brooke

For the latest edition of Information Professional magazine, I interviewed singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke about her experiences creating an album of new songs from Woody Guthrie’s archives.

You can read the Information Professional article here, and I’ve also included the full conversation with Jonatha below.

Matt: Guthrie’s archive is a blend of images and words, sketches and paintings – it’s not just a collection of texts, let alone ready-made lyrics waiting to be put to music. What surprised you when you started to explore what he’d left behind?

Jonatha: Especially at the outset, seeing the passion behind what he documented and saved was really compelling. I had no idea that he painted, nor that his script would be so beautiful. I knew “This Land Is Your Land” and all the songs you learn as kids in school, but immediately this other side of him was revealed:

I fully aim to get my soul known again

As the maniac, the saint, the sinner, the drinker, the thinker, the queer

I am the works, the whole works

And it’s not ’till you have called me all of these things

That I feel satisfied.

This went straight into the first song I wrote, “All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me”. The title, and the remainder of the lyrics, came from a totally separate entry. 

I went from this beautiful, vivid landscape of paints and charcoal, and this amazingly open language, to this tattered yellow slip covered in chickenscratch which his daughter Nora Guthrie handed me:

“All you gotta do is touch me”

All you gotta do is touch me

All you gotta do is touch me

All you gotta do is touch me

Touch me good

Finish later.

I saw this was far from a finished song, but it got me thinking, maybe there were things I could cut and paste from across the years, things which no one has thought of putting together before. That’s what I get to do.

It felt like being an anthropologist doing fieldwork. Once I had Nora Guthrie’s blessing, I was free to explore and create. With time, it came to feel like Woody was in the room during these sessions. It felt painless and at times effortless, which was unusual for me; I’m often tortured when I’m trying to write!

M: Nora obviously heard something in your work which made her feel you’d be a great choice to work with her father’s archive. What was that first call from her like?

J: A couple of Philly DJs, Gene Shay and Michaela Majoun, had sung my praises to her, so she approached me to write two songs using the Guthrie archives for a Philadelphia Folksong Society benefit. 

She called me out of the blue from across the Atlantic, where I was hanging out with Boo Hewerdine. I told Nora I was interested, and let me get back to you when I’m back in the States, and it was Boo who told me, “You’ve got to do this, it’s an amazing opportunity.” And Boo got me to read this book of Guthrie’s artworks, which got me hooked.

For the Philly event, I wrote “All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me” and, I think, “No More Letters”.

M: How much awareness did you have of Woody Guthrie before this project? Was he a big figure in your pantheon?

J: No, not at all! And that freed me from the terror of trespassing on the territory of an American folk icon. I considered myself more of a pop songwriter than a folkie, for starters. I came up through a different route: Ricki Lee Jones, Suzanne Vega, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young.

It’s the same with Dylan, many of whose songs I love, but I can’t say I’m an aficionado: I know his music mostly through covers by Shawn Colvin and others. 

So there was no weight on me: “Oh my god! It’s Woody Guthrie’s words, I can’t f**k this up!”

M: Once you’d written those initial songs, were you nervous singing them for the first time to a folk music event?

J: Yeah! It was really scary, and it was over very quickly. I’m not sure I did my very best job on that first performance, and I’m not even sure that “All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me” was even finished. I’d only had one afternoon in the archives, and I was still in this tentative place of feeling like I had to ask permission to really play around with what I found in the archives.

Pat, my husband and manager, both felt like I needed to go back to Woody, because it didn’t feel like what we had was finished. So we went back to Nora!

M: And that relationship really helped your work in the archives.

J: We had so much in common. Nora’s a little older than me, but we’d both been modern dancers for many years. Our meetings were just two women hanging out, having a great time, both with very bawdy senses of humour. That’s something Nora shares with Woody.

As we realised how simpatico we were, and how irreverent, it developed into a gleeful camaraderie. 

M: What was the process you developed for working in the archive?

J: I get a bit obsessive about completeness and not wanting to miss things, in general, so I went at it like a full-time job. I was determined to go through every page and not to miss anything that someone else might have overlooked. 

I knew all these dudes – Billy Bragg, Jeff Tweedy, and others – had been through the archives already, but I was looking to make a full record of my own. That meant two weeks with white gloves and spatula, going through every single page.

I ended up with this binder – decorated like high school sweethearts, with my name and Woody’s surrounded by a big heart – holding about sixty or seventy items I thought I might be able to make use of. 

Nora and her team would check in with other songwriters to make sure that, Bon Iver or whoever, wasn’t already working on one of the items I’d identified. Some of them I had to fight for, like “You and I”, which ended up on a subsequent album. I had to press Nora to get that text back from another artist who had claimed it, when it turned out they weren’t really working on it.

M: Did you get the sense of being in a crowded field with other songwriters, or was it just you and Woody?

J: I didn’t listen to anyone else, not Woody himself, nor Mermaid Avenue, or anyone. I was alone with these bits of paper and my own musical sensibility, letting the words dictate how I would musicalise them. 

That’s my favourite thing to do, anyway, and it’s how I got started as a songwriter, putting an e.e. cummings poem to music for a college assignment.

M: So in a way, it was like coming full circle?

J: That cummings song, “Love Is More Thicker Than Forget”, was a weird lightning bolt moment. It made me realise this was something that I loved and that I could do. I realised words alone had this power to dictate cadence, time signature, melody, tempo, all of it. 

It was just a matter of time before I grabbed some of my own jottings and expanded them into songs. I have to give that professor a lot of credit for revealing that route into a song, the way words can tell you everything about where a song should go.

Working with Woody’s words felt very free, a strangely painless and joyful experience. The melodies felt so obvious once I had the framework of words. Some of the texts I was drawn to had already been claimed, but I found myself exploring a number of pieces that were very female, where he had really gotten into a very female-sounding voice. Maybe the dudes had passed over those lyrics, so I took those and claimed them for my own.

M: In your songwriting classes, you talk about the need for distillation: “Nobody wants to hear you sing your journal.” Did you have to distil Woody Guthrie’s words, too?

J: A song like “You and I” had, like, fifty verses. I had this great conversation with Nora, who was understandably very protective of her father’s writing. She was able to give me context for his writing, knowing that he had written these words, this headlong litany of love, less than a week before he lost his infant daughter to a house fire. 

In turn, I brought an editor’s eye to what was in the archive: we had to get from fifty verses of Kerouac to something that had a trajectory. 

When she heard my song, she got it. She loved my pop sensibility, too; the fact I’d bring a B section or a chorus to the song structure, some kind of musical change or lift, not just the folk template where you can just have fifty verses all in a row. She told me, “This is about you, Jonatha, it’s your record. Don’t worry about Woody, I think he’s going to be fine.” But knowing the context freed me to do this work in a respectful way.

M: You get to see a life in a different way in the archive, juxtaposing different time periods. What was it like seeing young Woody and old Woody at the same time, and then making those choices of juxtaposition?

J: Even seeing the chickenscratch letters from the times when Huntington’s chorea was taking its toll, and he was barely able to hold the pen, told a story when you had those papers alongside the confident, beautiful handwriting and the paintwork and drawings of his youth. He could write dumb goofy songs about the nurse in the hospital alongside lyrics of amazing insight and clarity. At every stage of his life, on napkins and torn paper, in journals and on legal pads, he was always this explorer. 

Pairing those later words with his couplet “I’ll never dread the day I die / Cause my sunset is somebody’s morning sky”, written before he’d suffered from the illness, was immensely powerful. You could see: he’s still the same guy. He’s still searching, and he’s still teaching us the same lessons throughout his life. He was still fighting his battle even when he could barely get his pen to the page, and he was finding ways to make his peace with this.

M: “My sunset is somebody’s morning sky” is a pretty good testament to the power of the archive too. The past returns to light. 

Did songwriting feel like a work of discovery or construction?

J: Definitely discovery: there was a feeling like, “This must have already been here, and I’m the lucky one who gets to bring it to the surface.” Even parts of the process that could have seemed arduous just fell into place.

M: Was there a sense of physicality to this project, too? You were working with his language but this idea of touch, and of the physical act of reading and writing – chickenscratch writing, cotton gloves in the archive – seems to play throughout the experience.

J: My reaction to seeing those first pages in the archive was physical. This was a guy fully in his essence, ravenous for experience, expressing himself through paint on the page, words on the page. And Nora and I were there, former dancers, doing grand pliés in the hallways. 

The way I approach music is physical, it’s like choreographing. The way I learn music is physical, because I’m not trained, so I learn by ear and then by feel, the choreography of fingers on strings and keys: “It feels like this when my hands go here, and this is how I get to this emotion, this chord.”

There are times that I wish I’d studied this, so I didn’t have the nerves before performing: “What am I going to do if my hands forget?” And every tuning is different, each with its own different feel! Woody wasn’t a trained musician either, and he was refurbishing old melodies from spirituals, hymns, and folk songs too, travelling around, picking them up as he went and plugging in new words so that people could sing along, because they knew the melody.

All this meant that I felt a physical kinship with Woody’s energy and the energy of the whole family, including Nora and Marjorie too. 

M: In his paintwork and penmanship, you saw the record of his hands dancing across the page.

J: And melody is such a dance. That’s why I’m so drawn to really difficult melodies! I can see the choreography of them. I might build into a song a huge jetée, a physical leap of the voice where the stakes are high and evident, because it communicates the great thing I’m trying to get across to you.

M: Both you and Woody seem like high-wire artists of a sort. You need those high stakes.

J: And for him, it’s because of some altruistic goal — with me, it’s more: I need to feel this. I need to feel this physical exertion.

M: Did you feel like you were part of a continuity of songwriters from doing this work? Did you have a sense of a lineage of which you and Woody were both a part?

J: I guess so, although I’m so ignorant of this folk tradition of which he’s part, and what I was taking from his archive weren’t songs, but tidbits and journal entries and strange notions scribbled on napkins, so it’s not that I necessarily felt, “Oh, I’m part of The Tradition now.” It was more like being a passer-by, using one of those metal detectors people take with them to the beach.

M: Metal detector enthusiasts find treasures, but also trash, and sometimes it’s hard to tell one from another. You discovered – and made – beautiful things even from the scraps that you found in the archive, maybe things he himself wouldn’t have recognised the value in.

J: Even Nora was surprised when I found that couplet about the sunset and the morning sky. I got lucky that day, happened to that page, and uncovered treasure. 

More than a sense of lineage, however, when we got the incredible musicians together to record the album, Joe Sample, Chfistian McBride, there was a sense of witnessing something spectacular: a perfect storm of message, kismet, talent, luck, skill, joy, heartbreak, all in this moment.

M: What was that side like, the recording and production?

J: I had such a clear picture of every single thing, and who were the right players. I knew we needed top notch people, and I was lucky that through my connections and their schedules and my cobbling together the dough to pay them, we got two days to record the songs together. It felt really special and unique from the beginning. We were offering them something to get their teeth into: not just Jonatha, with her weird dissonances and her tunings, but Woody Guthrie on top of that, and something they could take to a whole other place musically. 

They were totally into it. I’d play the song once, so they could sense the genesis of the song, and then they’d do it, and it would just jump out of the speakers. The record was almost done after each take, two takes at the most. That’s down to the genius of Bob Clearmountain, too. 

M: How did working with Guthrie’s words fit with your own development as a songwriter? Did the project come to you at just the right moment in your career, or would it have worked for you at any time?

J: I think it was the exact right time for me to try something very different. Pat and I are always trying to figure out how to avoid repeating myself. The idea of this very interesting collaboration across folk and pop genres, being the first woman to do a full-length album based on the Guthrie archive, seemed like it was meant to be. I felt so lucky, and so ready to take it on.

It was a great story, too. The press loved it, and it was reinvigorating to my career and my profile. Sadly, just as that Guthrie record The Works was getting some attention and some airplay was right when my Mom needed help, and I had to step in to be her carer. There was no question that I would take her in, and that would become my full-time job pretty immediately. I went from touring full-time in support of that record and teaching songwriting to daily phone calls with my mother, understanding that things were getting serious and I couldn’t abandon her. 

I left touring to go to her side in Boston, and didn’t leave there until I took her to New York. And that became the beginning of another crazy detour, which led to me writing the show My Mother Has Four Noses. I certainly wasn’t repeating myself – and I was certainly learning a lot.

M: Did your time in the archives, reading your way through Woody Guthrie’s experience with Huntington’s, speak to what you then went through with your mother?

J: I took a note from what Nora told me about the family coping with Woody’s diagnosis of Huntingdon’s. Marjorie, Nora’s mom, paid other residents in his care facility to feed him, because it’s very hard to get Huntington’s patients to consume enough calories. She’d bring extra food and they’d help by feeding Woody when they could. It must have been so scary for the kids to see their father deteriorating in this place. It was compelling to me that Marjorie was so involved with his care even though it was really tough, and it was so difficult to know what to do at a time when so little was known about Huntington’s. That did inform the way I took on the responsibility of looking after my mother.

M: I can see it’s a very personal thing, to be admitted to a songwriter’s archive.

J: I understand the protectiveness a lot more clearly now. It goes way beyond intellectual property. Especially in an age when everything is digital and can be send far and wide. The notion that “everything is free” has caused so much trouble for us as musicians and photographers and writers. It makes you understand the preciousness, the need to respect the treasure of the archive.

M: It sounds like the archivist becomes a collaborator in the creative process, part of the dialogue about what you can do and where you can go with these materials.

J: Very much so.

M: When you first visited, Nora told you, “You’re going to find yourself in this archive.” So what did you discover about Jonatha?

J: I guess the hopeless romantic in me! Those were the songs that I was drawn to: the deeply spiritual ones and the gorgeous, poetic love songs. There was one piece from the archive, which fed into the song “Sweetest Angel”, where he writes, “let me come to you as close as I can with whatever poems or scattered pages you want me to bring”.

I didn’t have any interest in the political songs. I guess I set out to find the lover in this guy, and I ended up finding the lover in myself.

M: Would you ever open your archive for posterity? 

J: Pat has very clear instructions to burn everything if I die first! To get to something that I want to keep is such a laborious process, with so much bull, pages and pages being wasted with embarrassing crap. The thought of someone having to weed through that is just tortuous, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy! The hard drives, the recordings, sure – but notebooks? They’re going on the bonfire. Maybe I’ll just save one or two things.

Find out more about Jonatha Brooke’s work at her website, jonathabrooke.com.

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