Poet and Musician Jon Brooks Brings Anti-Folk to Pump House

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Thursday, April 12, 2018, 9:47 am
Christopher A. Wardell

Be careful around Toronto- based musician Jon Brooks if you’re trying to pigeonhole his music. It’s easy to peg him as a singer-songwriter or a folk music artist, but he prefers not to be labeled into either of those genres, thank you very much.

(He prefers performing songwriter, if you must.)

Brooks will be in East Lansing April 14 for a performance at the Orchard Street Pump House. Actor-musician Tim Grimm will perform as a part of the show.

The musician’s blend of deep, emotive songs recalls other Canadian music icons such as the late poet Leonard Cohen, or “Harvest” era Neil Young. Both influence Brooks’ own music.

“Neil is the teenage reason I chose music, while Joni [Mitchell] was a slightly more mature reason.” Brooks said. “And although I still adore both Neil and Joni from a distance, I feel very removed from both of them as a writer and performer. As for Leonard, his music remains the closest thing to what I've been stumbling towards doing for the last twelve years. I reference him a lot in my shows as a means of providing new audiences some essential shorthand to my songs and purpose.”

In Brooks’ view, the word “folk” has been long exhausted as a way to describe his music.

“I currently prefer 'anti-genre' as my box to tick.” Brooks said. “What relevant and contemporary artist wants to make sounds that have already been adequately defined? Music, like all living things, is a flowing and colliding atomic force. Bluegrass didn't just happen! It was a cross-pollination of musical traditions of European hymnals and Appalachian sounds. And what is a folk musician exactly? I used to have a proud and well-articulated answer. I used to refer to myself as such an artist. I used to believe it was a subversive music of cultural import and moral purpose. I used to believe it was a fearless aesthetic that pointed the human beast inward and thus, to some virtuous end. But, such language has failed to do anything but ensure nobody under 65 attends my performances. Today I avoid the word at all costs.”

Brooks has six full-length albums to his credit, with his latest album, “No One Travels Alone,” set to be released in September. The album has been a labor of love over three years, and is inspired by a form of poetry called Corona, or crown.

“This album’s central strangeness is that it's the only example of popular music that has used the Corona form, a form of sonnet writing made popular by John Donne and some lesser known Elizabethan poets,” Brooks said. “The form is called a Corona because each song is linked by first and last lines. The last line of the first song becomes the first line of the second song, and so on, until the final line of the final song completes a circle by connecting to the first line of the album. The suggesting that 'no one travels alone’ is the suggestion of interconnectedness - even in the age of alienating digital media - is enhanced by the literal interconnectedness of the songs.”

While the album at its core is complex, and at its heart, very deep, Brooks keeps it all in perspective.

“That is to say, I'm very proud and very anxious to get this new album out and into the hearts of my 138 super fans all over the world.”

Although tongue may be firmly planted in cheek, Brooks clearly has more than 138 fans as the artist has won the Songwriter of the Year in Canada four times, while drawing comparisons to other gritty musicians such as Steve Earle and Bruce Cockburn.


Brooks studies the great poets of our time, and he loves meeting and talking to new people he meets on his travels around the countryside while out on tour.

“I tend to interview people who've lived interesting lives,” Brooks said. “People who've emotionally experienced something I feel is on the pulse of the current age. Last week I interviewed a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor. In May, I'll be interviewing a Syrian refugee family in Toronto, and a Mexican migrant aid worker in Texas. I've interviewed soldiers, cops, cage fighters, oil workers, war resisters, politicians, homeless vets, mothers of murdered First Nations girls. The job of the 21st century songwriter is no longer the job of the 20th century songwriter.”

Again, Brooks points out that, in his eyes, the old, tired folk-music narrative is dead.

“Wikipedia and the 24-hour news cycle have rendered much of our 'journalistic' Woody Guthrie style of ballads irrelevant.” Brooks said. “Yesterday's songwriter was a collector and would redistribute a linear storytelling data. Today's songwriter is now free to collect and redistribute, full time, the more compelling emotional data of our age. Wikipedia fails woefully at distributing emotional data. To elaborate further would be uncivilized.”

The musician’s ability to connect with his audience on a deeper level was just one of the many reasons why Dudley “Smitty” Smith, who books shows for the Pump House, decided to bring Brooks back to the Pump House.

“Jon Brooks is one of the best songwriters performing today.” Smith said. “His lyrics are literary, and for the thoughtful listener, using humor and sarcasm and historically accurate themes often focused on social justice. Jon can develop and personalize a character in song better than almost anyone else.”

Brooks is currently out on a tour with Tim Grimm, and Grimm’s son Jackson, which is slated to last until the end of June. Brooks is excited to return to East Lansing, and excited to be performing at the Pump House again.

“87% will leave inspired, reinvigorated, affirmed, and transformed.” Brooks said. “13% will slink off alone into the chilly, Michigan April darkness with a vague feeling of anger and confusion.”


The Pump House is located at 368 Orchard Street. Doors open at 6:30, the music starts at 7pm, and there’s a suggested donation of $20, with all money going to the artists.







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