When Jonatha Brooke was invited out of the blue to openly peruse the Woody Guthrie Archives, the veteran folk-pop artist was pleasantly surprised. But when she was offered the opportunity to create songs around the folk legend's previously unreleased lyrics, she was understandably intimidated. Guthrie's daughter Nora, who oversees the archives, was warmly supportive of the singer-songwriter, and Brooke eventually eased into the project.
The first female artist given free creative reign over Guthrie's works, she crafted kaleidoscopic, jazz-kissed arrangements around the songwriter's often-poetic lyrics. The resulting album, aptly titled The Works, is among Brooke's best efforts and features classy accompaniment by the great Joe Sample, Christian McBride and others.
The independent, New York City-based artist is on the road promoting the CD. She performs at M&T; Bank Pavilion on Saturday and the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., on Sunday.
What was the most surprising thing you found combing Woody Guthrie's lyrics and letters?
I thought I was going to find this leftist, Communist, political guy. But I found this romantic, sexy, spiritual dude. He was really randy, which was surprising. He could rhyme anything. It was a real revelation. The poetry of "My Flowers Grow Green" [a standout cut on The Works] is amazing.
What was the whole process like?
I was a little intimidated to ask if I could get rid of, like, seven verses in a song. I had to kind of tiptoe around some things. I had to get over asking Nora if I could edit and merge some lines. Once we were on the same page, it was like digging for treasure.
The entire album is really nice, but one song that stands out is the sensual duet with Keb' Mo' ["All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me"]. How did that come about?
I called him up and he saw who was playing on it and wanted to take it to church with the feeling, you know. Everyone was just beyond my expectations.
You recorded most of the album live, right?
Yes, we did. Doing live takes to tape was magical. I keep learning not to fix it. Go with the one that has the vibe. I couldn't afford to do a lot of takes, anyway. But I love that it's not perfect. It's just real and what went down.
After going through so much of Woody Guthrie's work and putting this album together, what did you learn as an artist?
Because Woody was so liberated and didn't censor himself, it was hugely inspiring to me. He just wrote. He would use everything and trusted his instincts. That's what I learned. Now, as an artist, I feel like all of a sudden I'm doing the tango instead of just a ballet.
Rashod D. Ollison
IF YOU GO
See Jonatha Brooke at the M&T; Bank Pavilion, 12 N. Eutaw St., at 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $28 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com. Or see Brooke at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Va., at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35 and are available through Ticketmaster.