“I’ve always been obsessed with subjects and I words that twist my heart, like a sob, and lose me in some way,” singer-songwriter-guitarist Jonatha Brooke told Billboard magazine. She and vocalist Jennifer Kimball, who have been performing together since their college days, make up the Story, a duo that incorporates folk-music guitar traditions with melodic vocal harmonies. Their name is aptly chosen, according to Detroit Metro Times contributor Lisa Cramton, who suggested that the pair’s lyrics sound “more like short fiction set to music than ordinary songs.” Often compared to the early sound of Joni Mitchell and the all-female a cappella group the Roches, the Story combines a knowledge of literature with contemporary feminist themes in unexpected vocal blendings.
Music critics, however, have had a difficult time fitting the Story into rock, pop, folk, or even acoustic genres. Billboard’s Timothy White called the ghostly tenor/soprano braid of Brooke and Kimball’s voices “an intersecting hum,” and “an airborne metaphor for heartache.” In a review of their album Angel in the
Members include Jonatha Brooke (born in 1964; daughter of Nancy and Robert Nelson; studied ballet in London; married Alain Mallet [a jazz pianist]), vocals, guitar, songwriter; and Jennifer Kimball (born in 1963; raised in New York City; daughter of Geoffry and Carol Kimball; married Dan Beard), vocals.
Brooke and Kimball met in 1982 at Amherst College; sang in college choir and doo-wop groups before debuting their own works under the name “Jonatha and Jennifer;” moved to Boston after college, where Brooke danced professionally and Kimball designed children’s books; demo tape picked up by Green Linnet, 1988; duo renamed the Story, 1991 ; Green Linnet release Grace in Gravity reissued on Elektra; toured folk festivals.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019. Management —Patrick Rains and Associates, 1543 Seventh St., 3rd floor, Santa Monica, CA 90401.
House, White elaborated: “If the strangely stirring music of the Story were overly spiritual or feminist in mood, it might be easier to qualify the issues of dignity and faith that it addresses.… But such simplifications fall short.”
Vocally, the two singers play off each other, layering harmonies, creating echoes, and sometimes singing different lyrics at the same time. “That’s our little signature,” Brooke told Rolling Stone. In a 1994 press release issued by Elektra Records, Brooke added: “Our choices are our own—we found our ‘thing’ very naturally and nurtured it ourselves … the singing style and the writing and the harmonies, the attraction to dissonance. We choose the notes no one else would choose.”
When Brooke was six years old, she lived with her family in London, England, and began studying ballet at an all-girls’ school. She was very serious about dance until the end of high school, when she found herself having to choose between complete devotion to life as a ballet dancer or a traditional college education. Brooke had already spent summers as a part of the Joffrey Ballet’s summer scholarship program; she loved dance but disliked the politics surrounding ballet. “I couldn’t stand it,” she declared in the Elektra press release. “All of these obsessive, lithe-limbed talents, and few of them could even stay on the music.”
In 1982, while majoring in English at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Brooke met up with Jennifer Kimball. Kimball was raised in Manhattan and considered herself first and foremost a visual artist, although singing had always been a big part of her family life. “We have these extended family reunions where someone invariably will break into asong and of course, everyone joins in. I learned to sing harmony that way,” Kimball noted in the press release.
Kimball and Brooke became friends while performing together in a doo-wop a cappella group and the college choir. Throughout the 1983 school year, they experimented with harmonies and arrangements that incorporated Brooke’s lyrics. Encouraged by a music professor, they began producing full-length concerts of their own under the humble signature of “Jonatha and Jennifer.” These efforts resulted in the songs “Always” and “Over Oceans.”
After college, both women relocated to Boston to pursue their other interests—art and dance. Kimball worked as a graphic artist for Little, Brown publishers, designing children’s books, while Brooke maintained a successful career as a professional dancer, joining three different modern dance companies. By 1988 Brooke had compiled a demo tape that was picked up by Green Linnet, an independent record label. The album, Grace in Gravity, was a hit in Boston, where the duo (now renamed the Story) was nominated for several Boston Phoenix and Boston Music Awards. In 1991 the Green Linnet release caught the attention of Elektra Records; the label signed the Story and re-released the album to a national audience.
Kimball’s unmistakable alto vocals combine with Brooke’s higher register and guitar on each of the Grace in Gravity cuts. The lyrics, all penned by Brooke, can easily be seen as a collection of narratives that skillfully intertwine humor and irony with more serious topics. “I’m an optimistic person, but I’m drawn to dark, urgent topics,” Brooke noted in the Elektra press release. “My upbringing might be part of it—my [Christian Scientist] family was pretty religious, so I was always aware of the deeper connections.”
The title track to Grace in Gravity tells the story of a black dancer/choreographer friend who was in a train wreck with his company while traveling through South Africa. He sustained minor spinal chord damage but because he was refused treatment in the whites-only hospital, the injury eventually resulted in paralysis. Another song from the album, “Just One Word,” describes a young girl’s efforts to grapple with the emotional scars of sexual abuse. “It’s what we do—create short stories, then leave,” Brooke told Eliza Wing of Rolling Stone in a 1992 interview.
Brooke’s background in English literature informs many of the songs on Angel in the House; the album takes its title from a poem by Victorian poet Coventry Patmore. In the poem, Patmore extols the “virtues” of womanhood: to stay at home by the hearth, take care of the husband and children, and always have a cheerful countenance.
Brooke found inspiration in English writer Virginia Woolf’s response to the poem: “Woolf got a hold of the poem and used it as a metaphor for that particular phantom that tells us, as women, not to offend, not to do our work, but to flatter and coo. The song comes down to the struggle we still have with that notion of womanhood,” Brooke explained in the Elektra release. In the Billboard interview, she added: “I think that I and my generation are still messing with this stupid angel that says, ‘Why don’t you take care of your house before you write a song!’”
Set up as a series of drawing room ballads, the first song on the album, “Mermaid,” addresses the image of women portrayed in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Little Mermaid.” Referring to the difference between Andersen’s version and the commercially popular, sugary-sweet, Walt Disney film version of the tale, Brooke wrote in the album’s liner notes: “In the original story, she doesn’t get the guy, she doesn’t live happily ever after, she loses her voice, her tail, her family and turns into sea foam.”
Cramton described “Mermaid” in the Metro Times as representative of the “multilayered meanings” present in many of the Story’s songs. “They voice the frustrations of many women who want bustling lives but fear public reprisals for ‘neglecting their feminine duties.’” People magazine called Angel in the House “the year’s most radiant folk record,” while White, writing in Billboard, suggested that “fans of the fragile gleam of Grace in Gravity will find Angel in the House a darker prism.”
The title track of Angel in the House was also inspired by a literary work—this time, a short story by Grace Paley about a middle-aged woman who is forced to reexamine her life: “My mother moved the furniture / When she no longer moved the man.… / She wanted to be a different person.… / And he walked away.” “My mother is a big part of the song,” Brooke told White in the Billboard interview. “It’s about me and my mother, and … any woman who’s been torn between desires and what they’re supposed to do as a female in this world.”
Kimball added her own feelings about the song, which conjured up memories of her parents’ divorce: “That was an awful time; they were very friendly, almost too friendly, and I wanted them to be more angry with each other and more separated.”
In addition to its lyrical experimentation, Angel in the House differs from the Story’s first release in musical arrangement: the duo added a band. “With the band, the sound still comes from Jonatha’s guitar and the way she writes,” Kimball related, “but there’s all this room for other interpretation, other layers.”
For example, Brooke’s husband, jazz pianist Alain Mallet, produced the album and added his own Latin rhythms to “Fatso,” a humorous treatment of the obsession with thinness and the larger, serious issue of eating disorders among women. In his assessment of the release for People magazine, Billy Altman wrote, “Though cellos and violins, the tools of mawkish song writing, filter through a few songs, this isn’t the wispy, mopey chapter of folk.”
The Story has been credited with the ability to transport listeners to different places or back to their own childhoods. While songs like “Fatso” have moved concert audiences to laughter, others like “So Much Mine” (about a teenage runaway) and “Just One Word” have moved them to tears. “We enter these characters,” Brooke told Billboard, “and sometimes it’s difficult when you see audiences being overcome by emotions. It’s hard to know why we do it.”
Grace in Gravity, Green Linnet, 1988; reissued, Elektra, 1992.
Angel in the House, Elektra, 1994.
Billboard, June 19, 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, August 13, 1993.
Metro Times (Detroit), October 6, 1993.
People, September 27, 1993.
Rolling Stone, August 6, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Elektra Records press materials, 1994, and liner notes to Angel in the House.
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