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February 14, 2014IM -
Folk rock singer-songwriter, and Local 802 (New York City) member, Jonatha Brooke is putting the finishing touches on her new play, My Mother Has Four Noses. It’s a one-woman show that she wrote, scored, and stars in. “It’s a very real story about my mother and me,” she says. ?“It’s kind of a love story.”
Brooke’s mother had Alzheimer’s and the singer took care of her mother for the last two years of her life. “It was a very crazy time in good and awful ways,” she says. “I documented everything because she was always being very theatrical and very funny. It became this compelling story.”
In addition to Alzheimer’s, Brooke’s mother had skin cancer, which required a prosthetic nose, hence the title of the play. “My mother really did have four noses, so it made for great comedy as well,” she continues. “They made her four because you have to have choices and you have to have different pigments for different seasons and stuff. So it became this great, crazy humor around her noses.”
Brooke is no stranger to taking life’s curveballs and turning them into home runs. She first broke out of Amherst College in Boston in the late ’80s as a member of the folk-pop duo The Story, known for its ethereal and dissonant vocal harmonies. But after two acclaimed releases with Elektra Records, she and Jennifer Kimball dissolved the partnership without much fanfare, even downplaying the duo’s significance.
In 1994, Brooke launched a solo career with the release of the album Plumb. And though her 1997 sophomore release on MCA, 10 Cent Wings, was a critical success, she was unceremoniously dropped from the label as part of its merger with Universal. Realizing that she still had sold-out shows on her docket, an audience seemingly indifferent about her label affiliation, and business acumen finely tuned from years of major-label support, she decided to start her own label, Bad Dog Records, and go the indie artist route.
Since then, her music has been featured in a TV episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy creator Joss Whedon chose the single “What You Don’t Know” to be the theme song for the TV series Dollhouse. Plus, in 2008, her song “Be True” appeared on the Tinker Bell movie soundtrack.
Today, with a label to run, a music career to guide, and a play to mount, she’s busier than ever. “The busier I am the more creative I get,” she happily admits. “So, if it’s going to happen, the muse will find her way through the spaces.”
Brooke first joined the union in Boston as a member of The Story, but she’s currently a member of Local 802 (New York City). “They’re busting for our rights all the time and setting the rates that will be fair,” she says. “The [revenue] streams are coming from the more bizarre and varied places as we continue down the road of not getting paid for our music. So, the union is ever more important.”
Now that she’s making a record for a potential Broadway show she’s learning about another aspect of union rules. “There are different union rules that apply for the Broadway theater version of things, so I had to educate myself about that,” she confesses. “There are so many clear rules that protect the musicians from getting completely walked all over, which is great, because it’s already hard enough to make a living doing what we do.”
The title of Brooke’s most recent album, The Works (2008), comes from a Woody Guthrie lyric she came across in a notebook stored at the Guthrie archives: “I am the works, the whole works,” the American folk legend had scribbled, “The saint, the sinner, the drinker, the thinker …” The Works is Brooke’s seventh solo release and the result of a chance meeting she had with Guthrie’s daughter, Nora.
The Philadelphia Folksong Society was organizing a benefit that would include a tribute to the Guthrie family; the Guthries wanted to invite a small group of singer-songwriters to visit the archives and choose lyrics for a new song. Two deejays from the radio station WXPN gave Brooke’s name to Nora. Brooke became the first female artist offered unfettered access to the archives for that purpose.
“It was a pretty small archive on 57th and Broadway,” recalls Brooke. “One medium-sized room with well-oiled moveable shelves and an archivist. They made me wear the little white cotton gloves and I was only to turn the pages with a tiny silver spatula so that I wouldn’t muck up the corners of things that were already aging.”
She says her biggest advantage was that she didn’t know a ton about Woody Guthrie going in. “I was not a huge follower or aficionado in any way,” she admits. “I was blissfully ignorant, so I didn’t feel this weight of having to honor any tradition or stay true to some voice other than my own. And my biggest and most lovely surprise was that his daughter, Nora, felt the same way.”
Nora, it seems, urged Brooke to put her stamp, and her voice, on her findings. “I would find these little treasures in his notebooks, or snippets of songs or poems or crazy ranting and ravings that he wrote on hotel napkins and wrapping paper, and she would say, ‘Awesome, go for it, he’d be thrilled. Make it about you. Bring it into your world. That’s what is going to be most exciting about it.’”
Brooke approached the process like an office job for about a week—going in every day and sifting through all the things that Guthrie wrote as poems or songs. There were 26 folders alphabetized by title, as well as journals, art sketchbooks, and six feet of wrapping paper that he had typed on, single-space, for the entire length.
“He had Huntington’s disease,” she says, “so there was some really poignant stuff—you could see his handwriting change as the illness progressed. Some of the later lyrics, though simple and plaintive, were the most compelling to me.”
Brooke’s goal was simply to choose stuff that moved her in some way. Back home, she would leaf through all her choices and randomly land on one. “And almost every time it felt like a melody appeared really quickly,” she says. “It was the most painless creative stretch I think I’ve ever had. It seemed effortless—almost like he was on my shoulder just saying, ‘giddy up.’”
Before Brooke was tackling such ambitious, independent projects as The Works, she had gone through three major label record deals in her career, and she admits she still feels a little bittersweet about the whole ordeal. “Every time it seemed like I was building steam and getting to the next level, there would either be a regime change at the label, and I was lost in the shuffle, or some idiot made a bad decision about my contract and I ended up getting dropped on a technicality,” she says with a laugh.
“It would be interesting to have a conversation with someone just starting out now to see if that gold bar is still: ‘I want a major label deal; I have to get with Sony or whomever.’ The odds are stacked against you even more nowadays because there is no artist development. If you’re not 18, and totally malleable and producible to sell two million records on the first time out, then you’re probably not going to get that major label deal. You’re not going to win the lottery,” she asserts.
Despite such candor, Brooke says she doesn’t have anything against the major labels. “You just have to go in eyes wide open,” she says. “For me it was a great way to transition into independence. The people were still there; I just had to figure out how to reach them.”
Brooke is currently orchestrating the play versions of the songs for My Mother Has Four Noses with cello and electric guitar for upcoming workshops at Midtown at Davenport Rehearsal Studio in New York City. She’s also working out the technical details so that it’s a bit more polished than a workshop would normally be.
“I think that the reason I feel so compelled to tell this story is that it’s the only way through,” admits Brooke, whose mother passed away in January. “It’s such an epidemic and we’re all going to be facing some version of it, whether we’re caregiving or we’re facing it ourselves. If you live long enough it’s kind of a 50/50 chance you might end up with some kind of dementia, so why not get it into the vernacular and talk about it, and hopefully be able to find some laughter in it.”