Fifty-one-year-old singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke has just entered a new phase in her long career. Next week, she brings her one-woman play, My Mother Has 4 Noses, to town for a series of performances. She describes the play, which has received acclaim since debuting in February of 2014 in New York, as a “hybrid” of music and narrative.
In many ways, My Mother Has 4 Noses, with its mix of acting and singing, represents the culmination of Brooke’s many different impulses. She got her start back in the 1980s. A product of New England, she played the coffeehouse scene there with fellow singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball as a duo they would eventually christen the Story.
“It’s wild to look back and see your life passing before your eyes and all of these albums you put out and the tours and the schlepping across the world,” she says via phone when asked if she thinks back fondly on those early DIY days. “I’ve done a lot of stuff and I’m very, very proud of it all. I got my start in church basements in Massachusetts. That was the whole coffeehouse scene. I was lugging my guitar around and trying my songs out. It’s great training for life and for anything.”
She likens that experience to the type of training an athlete endures before participating in a big race.
“You have to build your stamina,” she says. “You have to keep your voice in shape and keep your body moving and keep creating. It’s been a great discipline to be doing this for so long and finding new challenges.”
Her mother’s illness was a particularly difficult “challenge.” When her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago, Brooke decided to become her caretaker. That meant she couldn’t tour and record new material. And yet, she didn’t turn her creativity completely off. She took notes on things her mother said and did and eventually turned those notes into My Mother Has 4 Noses, which she put through a serious series of workshops before finalizing it.
“[Director] Jeremy Cohen invited us to the Playwright Center in Minneapolis,” she says. “I had performed it in L.A. and Chicago and he gave us the space and time and wanted to hone in on it. We had the luxury of performing it four times in a row in four days. We realized that some things were funny all the time and others were falling flat and we would fix them. I could see that the audience could see certain things, and I knew when I was over-telling. People really responded. They really got it. My biggest worry was balancing the comedy and tragedy. I didn’t want it to be too much of one or another.”
Songs such as “Are You Getting This Down?” feature elegant string arrangements and hushed vocals. The play makes use of original music and personal narrative to tell the story of that experience of caring for her late mother.
“I’m the youngest [child of my mother’s] and from the second that I started spending time with her and knew that I would take her in, I started writing stuff down,” Brooke recalls. “I thought it was a story that no one would believe unless I tell it. She was complicit. She was funny. She would ask me, ‘Are you writing this down because it’s going to make a very good play some day?’ My life was on hold. I was going to be doing this for a while and I wasn’t going to be touring or making records. I thought there was something here that was really beautiful and creative in the story that was unfolding.”
Some of the songs in the play (and on the accompanying album) shift their point of view. The aforementioned “Are You Getting This Down” is told from her mother’s point of view.
“In the play, I don’t sing the full version that you hear on the record,” she says. “I don’t sing the last verse because it gives it away. That’s the beauty of theater. You can chop things up and do a verse and a chorus here and insert a bridge that will take you to the final chorus and maybe the final story. You don’t tell the whole story. You let your audience intuit it, in a way.”
The title is meant to be literal; it’s a reference to her mother’s prosthetic noses.
“If you see the play, you’ll realize it’s not a metaphor,” she says. “My mother really did have four noses. I won’t give it all away, but she had skin cancer that did a number on her face. Without getting into the comedy of the tragedy of it, we fixed her up at one point and she ended up with these prosthetic noses that were the stuff of comedy, especially as she became more and more demented.”
The singing comes naturally to Brooke, a seasoned folk/pop artist who made her recording debut with the Story in 1991. The acting has been a work in progress, but she says he’s reached a place where she’s comfortable with her abilities.
“People would tell me I was such a storyteller and that I was kind of acting,” she says. “I told them that saw something they would never see me do. Here, I was off Broadway doing this play for 12 weeks. It’s something I have embraced. I would never say, ‘Now, I’m an actress.’ But I am an actress in this piece and it’s come second nature. It’s a lot of acting. I have to switch beats and modes and voices. I’m mimicking a lot of people’s voices. It’s really fun. It’s a new challenge and that’s what I’m drawn to, which is kicking my own ass.”
So how does she imagine following the play up?
“Just in the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about writing something else,” she says. “It’s also going to be personal but might involve more characters. I think it will involve music because I think that’s a compelling way to tell a story, to alternate from text into a song when a song will say it better. I do have an idea for a new thing. I don’t want to jinx it. It will be personal and about my world but I’m going to embellish it more.”
In the time since her play debuted, she’s spent more time around playwrights and come to appreciate their craft, which she says isn’t far removed from songwriting.
“I’m around so many playwrights,” she says. “I’m amazed at their output. They just crank the stuff out. They’re rewriting every day. I’m currently working on a play in Minneapolis and the playwright is fearless. He keeps rewriting and fixing scenes. I do that as a songwriter but it’s cool to see this other discipline up close and see the fearlessness of it. That’s what I found exciting about this new phase. All of a sudden, I’m writing musicals and performing as an actor. I love it. Given the way the music business is falling down around us, I was wondering if I could sustain it. This is really exciting left turn that feels really open. There may be a future in it.”
My Mother Has 4 Noses
May 14-16 at the Allen Theatre
1407 Euclid Ave., 216-771-8403, playhousesquare.org