Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Alt Disney World: Jonatha Brooke

Disney doesn't have the best rep with (non-Disney) music fans. Say the word and images of questionably talented tweens singing not terribly good pre-fab pop trash. I am guilty of it, too. Though I once judged them quite harshly, I must say I've come to have a soft spot for many of them as they've grown. Miley Cyrus may not be much of a performer, but she's a strong supporter of LGBT rights. Raven Symone has grown into an amusing comedy actress. Britney and Christina and Justin broke away from the MMC factory to become legit pop superstars. And, admittedly, when I was little, even I was all about MMC and Kids Incorporated with their cheese-tastically awesome nineties-ness.

I have a feeling that we will probably grow to appreciate some of the Disney pop music of our time the same way that I'm now completely charmed by Annette Funicello and Haley Mill's pop music from back in the day. Nostalgia has the magical ability to coat everything in a glittery sheen. Now nineties throwback is already happening, kids. Thirtysomethings, brace yourselves. We're that old now. (See Katy Perry's new video for "T.G.I.F." if you don't believe me. Aw, heck. I'll just put it here. Please to enjoy.)

I say all this to say that Disney is not exactly the place that most people look to for songs by legitimately great pop, alt-rock and folk songs. I am a huge, somewhat pretentious, music fan. My tastes run rather Lilith Fair, but are on the whole pretty wide reaching. I am just as likely to be jamming out to Pattty Giffin, a film score, Beyonce, or Aerosmith on my iPod. That's how I've always rolled. I take pride in being the person that introduced my Mama, and thus all her friends, in Tallahassee to Amy Winehouse and Adele months before they broke out nationally. I have pretty high standards for my music.

I decided to start this series of entries, Alt-Disney World, to discuss some of the really great musical artists that Disney has collaborated with recently. It's a way for me to marry my love of the Mouse with my love of music. I think you will be surprised by how many seriously great musicians, some established, some breaking, some indie and comfortable there, Disney has brought in to contribute music for assorted projects. I will be casting my net pretty wide, combing Kingdom to find the unexpected troubadour, rather than focusing on how Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson covered "A Whole New World" on the Aladdin Platinum Collection DVD. Snicker. Shudder.

Give the folks in these columns a chance, you may find Disney introducing you to surprisingly great music that you won't have to be ashamed to admit that you love.

Jonatha Brooke. Ready to pounce, apparently.

First up is Jonatha Brooke. I have been a big Jonatha Brooke fan since high school. I have a very clear memory of my introduction to her. I was leaning against a wooden railing on a gorgeous spring day with her song "Nothing Sacred" drifting from a nearby window. An amazing breeze and this amazing song washed over me. It was perfection.

I have seen Jonatha perform twice. She is fantastic on stage. She can raise the roof or make you cry. She started off as part of a duo called The Story, which morphed into Jonatha Brooke and The Story, and finally she went solo, making some of the best folky rock music of the last ten years and staying under the radar. One of my favorite of her songs is this gorgeous ballad, "Because I Told You So" (which coincidentally was covered by Nick Lachey- not great).

All of her albums are worth checking out. I am particularly fond of 10 Cent Wings, which "Because I Told You So" is from, Careful What You Wish For, which has a bit of a harder, poppier edge and The Works, which is an album where she brilliantly sets words by Woody Guthrie to music.

The first time I saw her live a couple of years ago, she sat down at the piano and talked briefly about writing a song for Disney. I have no idea how I missed it, but I was blissfully unaware of such goings-on. She sang the song "I'll Try" and brought me to tears. The combination of this one woman, a piano and this amazing song was so powerful that I literally wept. The whole concert was great, but the performance of that song in particular renewed my love for Jonatha and kickstarted my consciousness of the alt-Disney phenomenon. This live video of the song has great patter about her writing the song.

In the great tradition of "The Age of Not Believing" it captures the emotions running through someone who is too young to know but too old to know better. The lyric is stunningly moving and adult. The melody as simple but sweeping. She gives voice to emotions in a way that is achingly accessible to both those who are experiencing them and those who have been there. It is easily one of my favorite of her songs, period. It probably fell through the cracks for me because I don't hold Disney's direct-to-video sequels in terribly high esteem. This is from Return to Neverland, which I still have not seen, though I'm sure I will one day just to see how the song is used. On the soundtrack she also performs a haunting reprise of "I'll Try" and a gorgeous version of the classic "Second Star to the Right".

"I'll Try" has become one of the better known recent Disney songs. It has been covered pretty often and made it onto several compilations. Since then, Jonatha has kept it in the fairy realm for Disney, writing lovely songs for both Tinkerbell ("Be True") and Tinkerbell & the Lost Treasure ("It's Love That Holds Your Hand"). She is a spectacular singer and songwriter who has made a singular impact in the music of the Magic Kingdom and who is highly underrated outside of it. Give her a listen!

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