Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks

 Toronto, Ontario, CAN
SoloFolkSinger/Songwriter

"If my songs and purpose could be reduced to an 'Elevator Pitch' I'd have no songs or purpose."
2012, 2009, 2007 Canadian Folk Music Award Nominee: Songwriter of the Year, 2010 Kerrville NewFolk Winner.

Band Press

Take an introspective music journey – Cottage Country Now

SOUTH RIVER – Singer-songwriter Jon Brooks says he doesn’t write “happy music.”

The decision is for good reason.

“It’s sort of an illiterate request,” said Brooks. “My aim is to inspire. I’m not in the business of taking people away from themselves. That’s the role of pop music.”

Brooks said he writes music that takes people on the type of introspective journey so-called happy music could never conquer.

“An hour of pop music could take you away from your life and make you happy for a bit, but when the show is over, everyone goes home alone,” said Brooks. “I write music that takes people on a journey and asks them to look at themselves, so when everyone goes home, they have the feeling they are not alone in the world.”

Brooks is set to perform a house concert at the Blue Babes Guest House and Studio on Friday, Aug. 17, bringing his unique brand of music to the intimate venue, which holds about 20 people.

A folk singer-songwriter with four albums under his belt, Brooks says the industry is embarking on a dangerous course.

“The music business as it is, is run by 15-year-olds,” said Brooks. “These are the dark ages. The world for some reason doesn’t want us to be thoughtful. It pays people to shut up, so if it seems the folk singer has less of an audience, that’s why.”

Brooks said his South River house concert is one of only a handful of Northern Ontario performances he has ever played.

“You’re never a prophet at home, and Canada, whether she wants to admit it or not, is sort of culturally insecure,” said Brooks. “One thing that you can’t take away from Americans is their pride in their culture. Canadians like to wait for New York to say thumbs up, or London to say thumbs up first before they will get behind their artists. But that’s not always a bad thing. There’s a virtue to our cultural humility. It’s part of our charm.”

Toronto-based Brooks said that cultural humility is likely why he has a larger fan base in the state of Texas than on his home turf.

“The irony is, I write about Canada. But I think that is part of my success in the U.S. We’re always drawn to the exotic,” said Brooks.

To further support Brooks’ thoughts on the allure of the exotic, his opening act is a very talented Australian singer-songwriter.

Gina Horswood opened for Suzie Vinnick during the Blues Babes’ grand opening last month. The young singer gave a heartfelt performance of original music combined with her endearing humour on her trials and triumphs as a quasi-Canadian. Horswood is a fan favourite and is set to come back to Blues Babes for a full-length performance in the near future.

Delicate Cages: "Fear is the Cage; Love is the Key" – NxEW

Jon Brooks has an incredible ability to tell intensely personal stories with huge lessons: parables, in other words. His latest CD, Delicate Cages, demonstrates this with full force and a bold but simple theory: life is a series of cages largely built by fear, and love is the only tool we have to live with it. Lyrically this theme is obvious from the title of the record, Delicate Cages, taken from a Robert Bly poem: “Taking the hands of someone you love, You see they are delicate cages”. Bly’s sentiment not only lends a title but rings throughout all these songs. Along with Brooks’ trademark gravelly voice, Delicate Cages features his awesome guitar playing including a slapping technique, which coaxes a syncopated beat from the guitar while also holding chords. In a live setting, Brooks stomps his big boots on the floor, making for a mesmerizing performance.

Some of the songs refer expressly to cages. “Cage Fighter” is about a pay-for-blood pugilist and the seedy world of that business. Brooks recounts in detail the hopes and fears of the dark world of a cage fighter. The song perhaps best illustrates the record’s theme: the cage fighter finds a love for his opponent in the cage, born out of mutual respect and tension. The cage of course is both
a physical enclosure and a metaphor. But the genius of this song, and the record as a whole, is the recognition that cages are inevitable and sometimes necessary: for the cage fighter, “I wish I was still in the cage where I loved more than I feared.” In fact, when the cage fighter returns to a “normal” life, he finds himself in a factory cage.

The explicit cage theme resurfaces in “There Are Only Cages”, which also features the guitar beat and a light banjitar. The last songbefore a lovely piano only reprise of “Because We’re Free”, this track lays out the theme expressly: “There’s a cage of freedom we have, dear, and this cage of freedom is love”. Contradictory? Maybe, but Brooks revels in thoughtful lyrics which challenge the listener. Philisophically he is simply recognizing that we are always enclosed by something, which we often choose. Brooks uses a nice technique on this and other tracks, with the insertion of the word “dear” throughout the song, clearly indicating that its wisdom is being passed to a loved one. This is, of course, reminiscent of Springsteen’s use of “sir” when speaking to the establishment, and it’s use is just as effective. Carrie Elkin’s background vocals adds a special touch to the song.

The question of which cage to choose is taken up expressly in the opening track, “Because We’re Free”. Here Brooks confronts the age old question of why evil exists in the world: set to a mellow guitar melody, with a crying violin and Brooks’ most gentle version of his voice, the song conjures up images of horror:

“I saw the earth open up under a satisfied sky.
I saw the homes not flooded shrivel up in fire.
I saw them loot all the corpses and rape all the wives.
I saw the cops shoot themselves; the law fall on its knives.”

Brooks has never been a “we have to do x” type of songwriter. His message lies in exploring the human condition, and he leaves us to choose our own path. In this song, Brooks makes the point that we have choices, and the biggest choice is between love and fear. In the midst of recounting so many horrors, many caused by human kind, Brooks adds “I saw the people choosing fear ’cause they wouldn’t choose love.” This is one of the horrors too. But there is a glimpse of hope: “Yes, there is hope for this world, for this world there is hope….because, my dear, because we’re free”. Again, Brooks doesn’t tell you what to do with your freedom, but the implication is clear: we cause horror, and we can change that.

There’s a handful of more personal or localized songs on this record as well. “Fort McMurray” features the wonderful background vocals of Lynn Miles, and describes the difficulties in the regular exodus from the East Coast (Harbour G

Jon Brooks: Folk For Folk's Sake – Penguin Eggs

Just like the late nineteenth century aesthetes who believed in “art for art’s sake,” Toronto-based folk singer Jon Brooks believes in folk for folk’s sake. The passionate artist — who quotes everyone from Jesuit priests and seventeenth century philosophers to Pablo Picasso — speaks more like an academic than like an artist.

I meet up with the truth-seeking songwriter and self-professed idealist following his short set at Toronto’s Winter Folk in mid February. Dressed in a black hat and denim and armed with only his words and trusty Taylor 615 acoustic guitar, Brooks played with several other song slingers as part of the Protest Songs session. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s timeless anti-war song, “Universal Soldier,” sung by Brooks was one of the highlights of the songwriters’ set.

After he packed up his gear, we grab a pint of Guinness and head to the backroom at the Irish pub across the street. With a band playing out front, we engage in a discourse on Brook’s folk thesis. With each answer, Brooks pensively strokes his grey goatee, laying out the astute arguments of his oral essay.

“For my money, the folk song is the only thing violent and brutal and loving and tough and brave enough to get inside people,” he says. “I see it every night, whether it is my own songs or the Buffy Sainte-Marie song I sing, you make an effect on people and they’re forever changed.”

Brooks feels Canada has always struggled to classify its art and there is a certain inherent insecurity with the celebration of these home-grown forms of expression. He says the music industry today is so glutted that pop singers are getting invited to folk festivals; it frustrates the songwriter that no one really knows how to define folk music since, for him, there is but one definition.

“Folk music is the intent to arrest in song the truth about a particular people at a particular time and place … that is folk,” he explains. “All the great rap records of the late 80s and 90s had their roots in folk. “All the great punk rock of the 70s had their roots in folk. Of course Guthrie is the obvious example, but folk is an artistic decision. The artist looks at his or her world and decides to show it to others in the hopes of showing it we stand some chance at improving it … that’s folk to me. All the rest is pop music.

“Folk music is that opposing blend of opposites,” he adds. “You have lyrics, which are rational poetry, but then the music comes along and mixes with it and the way it works on it is more irrational … you mix those two things together and you’ve got a very violent instrument of change.”


The 2007 Ontario Council of Folk Festival’s “Songs from the Heart” winner is in the midst of writing a folk trilogy that he hopes taken together can be used as an instrument for change in what he deems “dangerous and diseased times.”

Brook’s debut No Mean City (2005) chronicled the underbelly of his hometown Toronto while exploring the metaphorical homelessness of the modern soul. This was followed by his latest Ours and The Shepherds, which is a disc of Canadian war stories inspired by heroes from history – from John McRae (the author of the famed poem “In Flanders Fields”) to Senator Romeo Dallaire and James Loney. The title of this sophomore effort was taken from a Dorothy Day quote: “Whose fault is it? Ours and the Shepherds.” Brooks describes the record as an attempt to tell the truth about Canadian soldiering in the midst of the present malaise of what is going on.

“When I sing in the first person in the voice of a war widow from 1917 Cape Breton, people have no connection to that world, but if the song works on them they are there and through the power of empathy we have connected,” he explains. “I feel disappointed that so many people I thought were card carrying folk community members in Canada were slightly miffed as why someone who introduces themselves as a folk singer would do an entire record of war songs. To me, that’s absurd.

“A folk sin

Ours And The Shepherds CD Review: "***1/2" – The Toronto Star

Twelve songs - originals except for World War I Canadian veteran Frank Dixon's poem “Cigarettes”, which Brooks has put to music – examine the Canadian experience of war from 1914 to the present through the eyes of characters that inhabit this gifted Toronto singer-songwriter’s imagination, or are drawn from published accounts in newspapers and journals. Though Brooks’ evocative work chronicles emotional, spiritual and corporal pain, it is neither a cry of protest nor saccharine patriotic hoopla. Apparently inspired by a trip to Bosnia in the aftermath of the civil war there, these songs are chapters in a classic musical version of Dispatches, a series of dispassionate and unconnected snapshots of the Canadian warrior psyche – if there is such a thing – under pressure, and compelling tales of those at home who are left to ponder the consequences of war. Brooks is an exceptional acoustic guitarist, and co-producer Pat Simmonds – a ubiquitous expat New Zealand folk artist who is known for his work in the Celtic music arena – has deftly captured both the power and compassion in Brooks’ big voice and the fascinating subtleties of his guitar technique.
Top Track: “Hill 677” – for the constant, harrowing question in the chorus “Whose fault is it?”
Greg Quill

Ours And The Shepherds CD Review: "Critic's Pick" NOW Magazine – Bryan Borzykowski

NOW critic's pick JON BROOKS Ours And The Shepherds (Exile) Rating: NNNN

It's hard to believe, but there's more going on in Toronto than just indie rock. This city has a thriving folk scene, and it's a shame more stoic indie kids aren't heading to Hugh's Room to hear 40-something guitar-slingers peddle their organic tunes. One such musician (though he's still under 40) is Jon Brooks, a wandering folkie who's spent time playing in Poland and Bosnia. His new record is full of simple but infectious guitar tunes about Canada's history with war. Tunes about Roméo Dallaire, the country's mission in Afghanistan and even a haunting rendition of In Flanders Fields make this record not just a fab listen, but a thought-provoking history lesson as well.

Canadian Folk Music Award Nominee Jon Brooks – The Canadian Press

HL:Canadian war stories drive Ontario singer-songwriter Jon Brooks
By Cassandra Szklarski
THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO -- Canadian folk music is failing its grand tradition of
truthful storytelling in times of war, says Ontario
singer-songwriter Jon Brooks.
The straight-talking musician is nominated for a Canadian Folk
Music Award for his disc of Canadian war stories, "Ours and the
Shepherds," a stirring collection of tales touching on the Korean
War, the genocide in Rwanda and Canadian peacekeepers in
Afghanistan.
It includes songs about James Loney, the northern Ontario
activist held hostage in Iraq while working for a Christian pacifist
organization, Romeo Dallaire, the former general who led an
ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda and Sgt. Tommy
Prince, the decorated Canadian aboriginal veteran who died a
forgotten hero in 1977.
"If we went back 40 years and I was a folk singer and it was
1967, I don't think I would be able to call myself a folk singer if
I didn't have a song about Vietnam, you know?" he says.
"I wouldn't compare the two, but still, the idea of singing
about wherever there is violence and social inequity in the world,
that to me is the essence of folk songwriting, and yet, it's not
that common. There's a lot of people uneasy about it."
While artists like Neil Young, Steve Earle, Green Day and Bruce
Springsteen have all produced albums critical of the U.S.
involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brooks says the Canadian
experience has been largely ignored.
The 39-year-old adds that he has even been turned down for gigs
because of his provocative portraits.
"They said, `We're not quite sure, we think you might be a bit
intense for our audience."' he says of being rejected by some
venues in northwestern Ontario.
"It makes me angry and it also makes me laugh because I just
think that folk singing is not about writing in my diary about my
last break-up. That's pop. The folk singer should be singing about
the problems of the world."
Fellow Folk Music Award nominee Bruce Cockburn, however, says
he's been inspired by what he sees as a healthy social awareness in
music today.
Cockburn, whose catalogue of politically charged songs includes
"If I Had a Rocket Launcher" and "Lovers In A Dangerous Time,"
says many of today's protest songs are subtle in their approach.
"I'm hearing a lot of stuff lately that does seem to touch on
the current goings-on, I think I hear it in the Arcade Fire stuff,
kind of across the board," says Cockburn, who has a leading four
folk nominations for his disc, "Life Short Call Now."
"The references I was thinking of are more oblique and seem to
be more springing from a recognition that we are faced with a period
of conflict and that the times are very volatile and that there's
reason to be fearful. And to me that's very much like what was in
the air in the '60s during the Vietnam period."
Cockburn says his job as a musician is to simply describe his
feelings about real-life encounters.
"For some people it's not necessary to personally encounter
something before they write about it but for me, it generally is,"
says Cockburn, who heads to Nepal this week, 20 years after his
first visit.
"A song like `If I Had a Rocket Launcher,' I didn't write that
in the abstract, I wrote it because I felt that way, because I'd
been in those refugee camps in the south of Mexico where the people
I had met had been subjected to unbelievable horrors."
Brooks said he spent the better part of two years researching
material for his album, which included interviews with dozens of
veterans and military chaplains, and befriending Loney.
"Jim Loney, in my opinion, is a Canadian hero," Brooks says.
"I know he's a figure of contention, he put a lot of people's
lives at risk, he was over there doing something which most people
in this day and age would consider completely irrational. B

Concert Review (French): L’Entincelle – L’Entincelle

Ulverton (GM) - Pour fêter le deuxième anniversaire des spectacles intimes à Ulverton, Jon Brooks, l’artiste qui avait inauguré la série il y a deux ans, sera de retour avec un nouveau spectacle aux couleurs folk le samedi 28 novembre prochain, à 19h30.

Jon Brooks est un artiste engagé qui, par le biais de ses chansons, nous livre des réflexions intelligentes à propos de ce qui nous motive en tant qu’individu, ainsi qu’en tant que membre de notre société actuelle. Il est très préoccupé par les questions d’identité, d’intégrité et de solidarité. Son parcours artistique lui mène à chercher ainsi qu’à révéler les éléments essentiels de notre expérience commune, et il nous interprète ses chansons avec une voix un peu rauque et très doux à la fois, toujours à la recherche de la simplicité.

Son dernier album, intitulé « Moth Nor Rust », est une collection d’une dizaine de ses compositions autour du thème de la compassion, de la paix et de la justice. Son avant dernier album traite de l’expérience de guerre des Canadiens depuis le début de l’histoire du pays jusqu’au présent, et fait partie de la collection permanente du Musée Canadien de la guerre à Ottawa. Il a reçu de nombreuses éloges à travers l’Amérique du Nord, ainsi que plusieurs prix et récompenses, dont une nomination en tant que le meilleur auteur-compositeur (anglophone) lors des prochains Prix Canadiens de la Musique Folk, qui seront décernés le 21 novembre prochain à Gatineau.

Présentement en tournée à l’ouest du Canada, il reviendra vers l’est du pays pour deux spectacles au Québec seulement (l’un à Ulverton, l’autre à Montréal) pour ensuite poursuivre sa tournée en Colombie Britannique.

Le spectacle du 28 novembre prochain se déroulera à la salle communautaire d’Ulverton à19 h 30 et le coût du billet est de $10.00, tandis que ce sera 5 $ pour les enfants de 12 et moins. Pour information:819-826-5427.

Par Julie Millier and Guy Marchand

Concert Review – The Port Alberni Times

Sound Advice inaugurated its modest new performance space this past
Saturday with a pretty full house showing up to hear Jon Brooks, a
singer/songwriter/guitarist from King City, Ontario. The space itself, while
unprepossessing, was entirely appropriate for a small gathering, and the
intimacy of the surroundings meant that the sound system was almost
unnecessary, though in the end the electronics allowed for projection
without strain. The management also made refreshments available.

The cozy room also led to an easy communication between Brooks and his
audience, an audience that seemed predisposed to empathy and which was not
at all disappointed by either the music or the patter that anticipated or
clarified the musical material. Brooks is an eminently competent guitarist
who resorts to some reasonably novel approaches at times (using slaps at
various locations on an open-tuned scale as well as the lower bout of the
guitar, lots of different open tunings and a capo that rose to dizzying
heights at times) and who employed electronic enhancements in subtle and
judicious ways to enrich his sound without ever becoming anything of a
focus. He has a convincing voice with about the right amount of rasp to give
an edge to his delivery, and managed throughout his two sets to vary pace
and mood in such a way as to avoid the tedium than can sometimes set in with
limited instrumentation. There was much interaction with the gathered
listeners including some dialogue about the content of some of the songs as
well as references to various people and places in a way that elicited
mostly appreciative laughter.

The music harkened back to some classic folk repertory from the era of
protest, though Brooks penned most of the material himself: he performed
Buffy Ste.-Marie’s Universal Soldier, but in his own material, there were
echoes of Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin, and bits of Dylanesque rhyme smithing woven
through the songs. Brooks was pretty up front about being a story teller and
leaving the interpretation to the listener, though it was pretty clear where
he stands on issues ranging from the militarization of Canadian society to
the debasement of language. There was a song early in the first set about
the many people who are miscast in their work roles, including a bit of a
shot at Don Cherry (though the sportscasters with political opinions could
just as well be Dave Zirin or Keith Olberman), all of which elicited
considerable comment and not a little hilarity. At no time did it really
seem as though Brooks was preaching, but rather laying out a situation and
calling on the listener to process the lyrics in his or her own fashion.

So it was also with the considerable Canadian content woven throughout the
performance, references to people, places and events uniquely Canadian that
somehow carry hints of a more general and universal meaning to those wanting
to make the connection. Brooks’ evocative and somewhat self-deprecating
sense of humour paced both the songs and the accompanying discourse in a way
that gave a social unity to the whole performance. At the end of the
performance, he was quite willing to play an encore, but put the gathering
on notice with a comment that he was ready because everyone gets an encore
in Toronto, accompanied by what might have passed for a wink and a nod.

The whole show had a relaxed, jolly and folksy character to it and was well
worth the reasonably modest price of admission. Thanks to Sound Advice for
putting the event on and to Jon Brooks for a fine show. Jon’s music is
available through is web site (http://www.jonbrooks.ca/) and through iTunes
Canada. Expect another show in February.

-Dan Schubart
December 08, 2009

Moth Nor Rust Review: Jon Brooks' Moth Nor Rust: "For The Disturbed And The Comfortable" – North By East West

Jon Brooks' latest CD features an ominous title - "Moth Nor Rust" - a phrase taken straight from new testament scripture - and equally ominous artwork entitled "Out of the Cave: Series III". These touchstones point to a serious disc, indeed. But like so many a biblical phrase, there are hints of horror and damage but also hope and joy. Brooks elegantly rails against the injustices of our times, but this is no easy cynical blast of anger. Brooks' music features pretty melodies and soft picking guitar which are set against a gruff gravelly voice and syncopating guitar beats. Black and white, good and evil, love and hate, yin and yang - it's all there. Brooks is clearly a fan of contrast, and this disc does a fantastic job of capturing these elements.

"War Resister" sets the stage for this dynamic tension: the first person narrative comes from a soldier, proud and mighty: "...Yeah we don't know why we do what we do, it's just breathe, trigger, squeeze. And I was trained to kill. Kill we will. In the 82nd Airborne we exceed the standard of soldiering..." But back at home there is a realization and an aching: "I got a secret that I can't tell. My conscience is making me a criminal. And my hands they shake with the paradol. And I asked Allah and God's son, 'What's freedom worth when it's bought with a gun...'"

There's no catharsis there: the song ends soon with a lament for the soldier's hometown - a symbol of innocence lost. Brooks knows that life is not often resolved with easy changes. But all is not sadness on the record: "When We Go" picks things up with a brighter pace and a hopeful lyric. Although the song stresses that "If it's not love, we can't take it when we go", the song reminds us of what is truly valuable in life: forget about all those material things and events, and focus on what makes us real humans.

"The Crying of the Times" is here in two versions: the first, shorter track is another call for recognition of what is important in these times of pain. Brooks uses the title phrase as a subtle criticism of mass disinterest in real change: we hear about so many problems - as close as the "neighbour's walls" - but we can't hear the broader crying of the times. Brooks' simple guitar strumming provides a mellow backdrop: like on most tracks here, the lyrics and Brooks' voice are the focus. The longer, slower, bluesier reprise of the track introduces a new element: while the first version is an exhortation - a rhetorical call to action - the second is a desperate statement of sad fact.

I can picture Brooks performing in a coffee house in 1964 just as easily as I could see him in a local club today. "God Pt. IV" is an old-timey folk protest song - complete with slow pickin', a foot stompin' chorus, and an uplifting refrain with gentle harmonica. This is obviously a play on U2's "God Pt.II", but this is no hero worship. Brooks takes on what he sees as the hypocrisy of wealthy rock stars preaching about peace, love and understanding:

"Well, I don’t believe in Lennon,Beatles, Bono, or U2;
I don’t believe in heroes ‘cause they’d say the same thing, too.
But I believe - if just one thing -it’s what a lot a little more justice
could bring, it’s what a lot a little more justice could bring.

On his website, Brooks describes the role of the folk singer - a classic definition which stands in stark contrast to many mega-performers:

"I believe the opposing blend of rational word and emotional melody may afford us the rare chance to see others as we might see ourselves. I want my songs to be three and half-minute pills which, if digested, induce upon the listener empathy toward others. ....I aim to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. The songwriter should attempt to improve the world by way of showing it to us as it is the mandate of all art to improve the world by inspiring empathy…ultimately, the folk singer is trying to politicize love – to lobby for compassion to be our principle representative

Moth Nor Rust Review: Jon Brooks' Moth Nor Rust: "For The Disturbed And The Comfortable" – North By East West

Jon Brooks' latest CD features an ominous title - "Moth Nor Rust" - a phrase taken straight from new testament scripture - and equally ominous artwork entitled "Out of the Cave: Series III". These touchstones point to a serious disc, indeed. But like so many a biblical phrase, there are hints of horror and damage but also hope and joy. Brooks elegantly rails against the injustices of our times, but this is no easy cynical blast of anger. Brooks' music features pretty melodies and soft picking guitar which are set against a gruff gravelly voice and syncopating guitar beats. Black and white, good and evil, love and hate, yin and yang - it's all there. Brooks is clearly a fan of contrast, and this disc does a fantastic job of capturing these elements.

"War Resister" sets the stage for this dynamic tension: the first person narrative comes from a soldier, proud and mighty: "...Yeah we don't know why we do what we do, it's just breathe, trigger, squeeze. And I was trained to kill. Kill we will. In the 82nd Airborne we exceed the standard of soldiering..." But back at home there is a realization and an aching: "I got a secret that I can't tell. My conscience is making me a criminal. And my hands they shake with the paradol. And I asked Allah and God's son, 'What's freedom worth when it's bought with a gun...'"

There's no catharsis there: the song ends soon with a lament for the soldier's hometown - a symbol of innocence lost. Brooks knows that life is not often resolved with easy changes. But all is not sadness on the record: "When We Go" picks things up with a brighter pace and a hopeful lyric. Although the song stresses that "If it's not love, we can't take it when we go", the song reminds us of what is truly valuable in life: forget about all those material things and events, and focus on what makes us real humans.

"The Crying of the Times" is here in two versions: the first, shorter track is another call for recognition of what is important in these times of pain. Brooks uses the title phrase as a subtle criticism of mass disinterest in real change: we hear about so many problems - as close as the "neighbour's walls" - but we can't hear the broader crying of the times. Brooks' simple guitar strumming provides a mellow backdrop: like on most tracks here, the lyrics and Brooks' voice are the focus. The longer, slower, bluesier reprise of the track introduces a new element: while the first version is an exhortation - a rhetorical call to action - the second is a desperate statement of sad fact.

I can picture Brooks performing in a coffee house in 1964 just as easily as I could see him in a local club today. "God Pt. IV" is an old-timey folk protest song - complete with slow pickin', a foot stompin' chorus, and an uplifting refrain with gentle harmonica. This is obviously a play on U2's "God Pt.II", but this is no hero worship. Brooks takes on what he sees as the hypocrisy of wealthy rock stars preaching about peace, love and understanding:

"Well, I don’t believe in Lennon,Beatles, Bono, or U2;
I don’t believe in heroes ‘cause they’d say the same thing, too.
But I believe - if just one thing -it’s what a lot a little more justice
could bring, it’s what a lot a little more justice could bring.

On his website, Brooks describes the role of the folk singer - a classic definition which stands in stark contrast to many mega-performers:

"I believe the opposing blend of rational word and emotional melody may afford us the rare chance to see others as we might see ourselves. I want my songs to be three and half-minute pills which, if digested, induce upon the listener empathy toward others. ....I aim to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. The songwriter should attempt to improve the world by way of showing it to us as it is the mandate of all art to improve the world by inspiring empathy…ultimately, the folk singer is trying to politicize love – to lobby for compassion to be our principle representative

Moth Nor Rust: "Meaty Solo Effort A Collection of Stories" – The Edmonton Journal

When touring Alberta, singersongwriter Jon Brooks likes to have a steak with his breakfast.

Such was the case this Friday morning past, when at a Whyte Avenue eatery, the Ontario-based troubadour ordered up a juicy portion of beef with some eggs. One couldn't help but draw a line between his plate and the compact disc case sitting on the table. The latest collection of 10 songs from Brooks, which was released under the title Moth Nor Rust, also has much meat on its bones.

So much so, that Brooks was nominated as English Songwriter of the Year for the 2009 Canadian Folk Music Awards. It was an event he dearly would have loved to have attended this past weekend, but here he was, out on the prairie singing songs like War Resister, When We Go and Safer Days, his fly-on-the-wall tale of staying in Calgary's infamous Cecil Hotel. (As it turned out, Susan Crowe wound up winning that Folk Music Award.)

Brooks describes himself as "a collector of stories" who has sucked up the fumes and inspiration of such folk greats as Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen over the years.

"I've been doing some of that on this tour. I was up in Fort McMurray, and even though I was doing a show, the main reason for being there was to get a deeper understanding of what that town is like," said Brooks, who plays the Blue Chair Cafe this evening--his second show in as many weeks in Edmonton.

"It is a place that is profoundly of our time."

While Brooks insists he is not interested in politics, he certainly has a handle on the events of the day and what spurs and motivates change, both good and bad. If he's not sure what the real story is, he is just as apt to head off to some unsettled region and find out. In 1997, he made such a pilgrimage to wartorn Bosnia to get a first-hand sense of the devastation caused by years of violence and deprivation. He was so struck by what he encountered there that he put down his guitar for a time. But since 2006, he has released three albums--including the critically acclaimed Ours and The Shepherds, a collection of Canadian war stories.

While sawing on his steak, Brooks talked about recording his latest disc, which takes its title from the New Testament. It is the definition of a solo effort, as listeners hear combinations of his voice, guitar and harmonica, and nothing more.

"It took three rounds of sessions to get it right and I don't really know why."

Tickets for the 8 p.m. show at the Blue Chair Cafe(9624 76th Ave.) are available by phoning the venue at 780-989-2861.

Moth Nor Rust: "Powerful Set Of Political And Personal Songs" – Maverick Magazine

'Political' songwriting is all too often assumed to be shouty simplistic protest, and all too often it is and therefore tends to be ignored by those who should take the most notices of it. Canadian Jon Brooks knows this and his songs are songs first and messages second. The result is a powerful set that cuts to the heart of all that matters, and one that Brooks, a man with a powerful and at times brutally clear-sighted vision, has created armed only with an acoustic guitar , a harmonica and a gritty ragged voice.

War Resister tells the story of Jeremy Hinzman, the first American soldier to desert because he opposed the Iraq war. It's a compassionate view of a man who joined the army without really knowing why, whose whole life revolved round 'breathe, trigger, squeeze' until he saw the light, while The Crying of The Times is more a general work that questions how we can walk by on the other side when all that's wrong with the world is staring us in the face. The political can be personal too, and the heartbreaking Small about the failure of a marriage whose participants only stay together for the sake of their child, is Springsteen-esque in its power and insight. Brooks always sees that there is hope though, no matter how small or hard to find, and his credo can be summed up in the title of the album's centerpiece If We Keep What's Within Us, What's Within Us Will Kill Us, But If We Give What's Within Us, What's Within Us Will Save Us. Ending on There Is Only Love, a powerful expression of belief in the future, this is a real find of an album and Brooks a star in the making. JS


October 06, 2009

Jon Brooks is the fighting sort of folk – Toronto Star

Unlike most contemporary acoustic artists, Jon Brooks doesn’t mind being referred to as a folksinger. In fact, he embraces the label.

“I do feel very much a part of the (folk) tradition, which is inherently subversive and always has been,” says the Toronto-based singer-songwriter. “I would not be justified in standing behind a microphone and adding to the glut of noise and vapid distraction if I didn’t believe I had some kind of moral purpose.”

Brooks’ new album, Delicate Cages, is unabashed folk, with each song on the 11-track disc offering social commentary about issues that catch the artist’s attention — and, in many cases, scorn. The album is a rumination on what Brooks says are his three favourite topics: hope, love and death.

There are songs about the proliferation of prisons across the United States, child soldiers, suicide bombers and, closer to home a lament for Aqsa Parvez, the 16-year-old Brampton schoolgirl murdered by her father and brother for embracing western culture.

“I want people to understand that they’ve been lied to about what it means to be hopeful — that it’s not some easy, cheesy, self-help feel-good message,” explains Brooks, 43. “It’s in fact brutal. It’s a bloody affair to be hopeful. It’s an action word.”

Followers of Brooks’ music have come to expect nothing less.

His breakthrough CD, Ours and the Shepherds, released in 2007, is a collection of war stories that challenged Canadians’ traditional view of themselves as peacekeepers rather than fighting soldiers. That album, inspired by the experiences of Romeo Dallaire, peace activist James Loney and John MacRae garnered Brooks a Songwriter of the Year nomination at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

Two years later, he earned another songwriter nomination for 2009’s more contemplative Moth Nor Rust. Brooks’ brand of in-your-face folk continued to make waves, especially in the southern U.S., where he won the prestigious Kerrville Festival New Folk award in 2010. Not bad for a guy who didn’t seriously consider a songwriting career until his mid-30s.

A trained keyboard player, Brooks spent his formative years in a blues and rock band, even playing Hammond organ on the Headstones’ first album in the early ’90s. After becoming disenfranchised with the state of modern music, he gave it up. It wasn’t until one of his literary heroes, Austin Clarke, suggested several years later that Brooks embrace songwriting seriously that he decided to give it another go.

As with any developing career in music, an increasing profile necessitates more touring — a never-ending endeavour that sees Brooks performing at the Gladstone Melody Bar Tuesday night to promote the new album.

“The only measure of success in music anymore is how many gigs you have. Touring is everything.”

But it’s not a bed of roses. You have to want it, you have to have purpose, Brooks says.

“It’s not fun and it’s not easy, and it’s lonely. It can be brutal sometimes. It can be brilliant because of that too,” he says. “That’s where the songs come from.”

Jon Brooks is the fighting sort of folk – Toronto Star

Unlike most contemporary acoustic artists, Jon Brooks doesn’t mind being referred to as a folksinger. In fact, he embraces the label.

“I do feel very much a part of the (folk) tradition, which is inherently subversive and always has been,” says the Toronto-based singer-songwriter. “I would not be justified in standing behind a microphone and adding to the glut of noise and vapid distraction if I didn’t believe I had some kind of moral purpose.”

Brooks’ new album, Delicate Cages, is unabashed folk, with each song on the 11-track disc offering social commentary about issues that catch the artist’s attention — and, in many cases, scorn. The album is a rumination on what Brooks says are his three favourite topics: hope, love and death.

There are songs about the proliferation of prisons across the United States, child soldiers, suicide bombers and, closer to home a lament for Aqsa Parvez, the 16-year-old Brampton schoolgirl murdered by her father and brother for embracing western culture.

“I want people to understand that they’ve been lied to about what it means to be hopeful — that it’s not some easy, cheesy, self-help feel-good message,” explains Brooks, 43. “It’s in fact brutal. It’s a bloody affair to be hopeful. It’s an action word.”

Followers of Brooks’ music have come to expect nothing less.

His breakthrough CD, Ours and the Shepherds, released in 2007, is a collection of war stories that challenged Canadians’ traditional view of themselves as peacekeepers rather than fighting soldiers. That album, inspired by the experiences of Romeo Dallaire, peace activist James Loney and John MacRae garnered Brooks a Songwriter of the Year nomination at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

Two years later, he earned another songwriter nomination for 2009’s more contemplative Moth Nor Rust. Brooks’ brand of in-your-face folk continued to make waves, especially in the southern U.S., where he won the prestigious Kerrville Festival New Folk award in 2010. Not bad for a guy who didn’t seriously consider a songwriting career until his mid-30s.

A trained keyboard player, Brooks spent his formative years in a blues and rock band, even playing Hammond organ on the Headstones’ first album in the early ’90s. After becoming disenfranchised with the state of modern music, he gave it up. It wasn’t until one of his literary heroes, Austin Clarke, suggested several years later that Brooks embrace songwriting seriously that he decided to give it another go.

As with any developing career in music, an increasing profile necessitates more touring — a never-ending endeavour that sees Brooks performing at the Gladstone Melody Bar Tuesday night to promote the new album.

“The only measure of success in music anymore is how many gigs you have. Touring is everything.”

But it’s not a bed of roses. You have to want it, you have to have purpose, Brooks says.

“It’s not fun and it’s not easy, and it’s lonely. It can be brutal sometimes. It can be brilliant because of that too,” he says. “That’s where the songs come from.”

2010's People To Watch – The Toronto Star

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.