Singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke is accustomed to moving. She’s lived in Boston, Los Angeles and New York City.
“I never thought I’d move to Minnesota,” she said the other day, ensconced in her favorite south Minneapolis restaurant, where the staff knows her. “I like getting my ass kicked. I do love adventure.”
When their landlord reclaimed his Harlem apartment and they discovered that rents around Manhattan had skyrocketed, Brooke packed up her guitars, mandolin and other belongings and relocated to her husband/manager’s hometown of Minneapolis in November.
“I didn’t expect to be so happy here,” she declared without sounding like a Chamber of Commerce commercial.
It started with the Playwrights’ Center. In 2013, the center invited Brooke to stage her one-woman musical, “My Mother Has Four Noses,” about her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, who lived with Brooke and her husband in a New York City apartment for two years. The play later moved to the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio and off-Broadway for four months.
Other things attracted Brooke to the Twin Cities. Like her cellist, Rebecca Arons, who lives here. The singer’s husband, Patrick Rains, graduated from Washburn High School and still has many nieces, nephews and cousins in the area.
“I love walking around Lake Harriet. That’s my new favorite thing,” Brooke, 53, continued with genuine enthusiasm. “I can’t wait to swim in it.”
She also sings the praises of Minneapolis restaurants because, in the great we-bought-an-old-house tradition, the couple are having their kitchen redone.
And no less significant, Brooke is excited about the Minnesota musicians she’s meeting.
“I’m on a scouting mission to find out who’s in town and who’s cool and who’s got a nice space,” said Brooke, who performs at the Dakota Jazz Club on Thursday. “At the Dakota I want to make sounds that I couldn’t necessarily make anywhere else.”
Among her discoveries are vocalist Aby Wolf, arranger/keyboardist Adi Yeshaya, multi-instrumentalist Paul Peterson and producer John Fields, who has returned from Los Angeles.
With so many skilled players to choose from, Brooke intends to use different musicians at her regular gigs at the Dakota. Last time, she featured ex-Prince keyboardist Tommy Barbarella and Aussie backup singer Jo Lawry, who was seen in the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.”
Brooke is long and lean, with strawberry-orange hair and Buddy Holly glasses befitting her intelligent music. She’s already adopted Minnesota’s layered look with a knotted scarf. The Boston native has spirit and spunk as well as the gracefulness of a dancer, which she was, having to quit three dance companies when she signed a record contract.
Brooke’s move to Minneapolis comes as she’s experiencing something of a midcareer crisis.
In the 1990s, she recorded for three major labels, first as part of a two-woman duo known as the Story. She’s since released nine solo albums of literate adult pop and two live discs, most on her own Bad Dog Records.
For her, albums don’t sell except at concerts. Should she just issue songs one at a time for streaming? Should she persist as an album artist? Should she use a social media campaign to let fans pay to watch every step of the recording process?
“People are understanding the new financial reality of what I’d call middle-class artists, the 99 percent of us who are out here trying to make a living,” Brooke offered.
She’s gone the fan-funded route for her past two albums, including cooking for winning bidders at her Big Apple apartment. She’s uncertain if a fan-supported business model would be effective for releasing one song at a time.
Meanwhile, Brooke has tried to figure out other avenues for creativity and moneymaking.
Katy Perry collaboration
For instance, Katy Perry was a big fan of hers and reached out to Brooke for a songwriting date.
“Someone pointed me to an interview she did and there was a picture of her getting my autograph around the time of [Brooke’s 2001 album] ‘Steady Pull,’ ” Brooke said. “I spent three days with her and Greg Wells, a songwriter and producer. I thought: What could I bring to a Katy Perry session that no one’s ever brought before? I thought of my kalimba [a handheld African thumb piano]. So I started playing this pattern. My kalimba made it onto a Katy Perry song. It’s a dark song. It’s very Jonatha-esque. She pushed for it.”
The song, “Choose Your Battles,” ended up on the deluxe edition of Perry’s 2013 best-selling “Prism.”
“My big paycheck was for $2.87 for like a half a million streams,” Brooke whined.
As a more profitable endeavor, Brooke now teaches occasional songwriting workshops, usually in Nashville, mostly for adults who make music for fun. She’s also been hired to produce a record in Los Angeles for a former pop hitmaker.
Raised primarily in Boston, Brooke turned a music-class concert with an Amherst College classmate into a music career as a duo. Brooke’s subsequent solo discs have featured her critically acclaimed original material, though her 2008 recording, “The Works,” paired unreleased lyrics by the late folk giant Woody Guthrie with new music by her.
Brooke’s songs have been featured in such TV shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dollhouse” and on the soundtrack to the movies “Return to Never Land” and “Tinker Bell.”
She took a five-year hiatus from recording to care for her mother, who died in 2012, and to create and perform “My Mother Has Four Noses.”
Last fall, Brooke released “Midnight. Hallelujah,” another well-crafted collection of thoughtful adult pop. The pop-country title track prays for love as “a 2 a.m. amen.” “Put the Gun Down” consoles a person in trouble. “Really Really Love” celebrates the joy of romance. It would have hit potential if Top 40 radio weren’t so ageist or Katy Perry called again.
Despite having released a new album and promoting it at gigs around the world, Brooke still has the theater bug. She had begun work on a musical with jazz keyboardist Joe Sample of the Crusaders fame before he died in 2014. She’s planning to complete that project — “Quadroon,” about a 19th-century New Orleans nun who remains under consideration for sainthood — with St. Paul playwright Harrison David Rivers.
After “My Mother,” Brooke created two other plays, “Death and Venice” and “Hopper,” in collaboration with New York playwright Anton Dudley. She’s also working with Geoffrey Nauffts on another play, “Switched,” about two women who don’t find out they were switched at birth until they’re 40.
“Theater people started contacting me, saying, ‘Your songs are so theatrical, your characters so vivid,’ ” she said. “It still terrifies me. I guess that’s a good thing. Because you work harder when you’re scared.”
Since she’s been traveling often, Brooke hasn’t quite figured out the Minnesota work ethic. But she’s liking just about everything she has experienced here — from her neighborhood “mingle and jingle” at the holidays to the MSP airport.
“I love this airport so much. It’s clean. It’s organized,” she said. “It’s like $12 in Uber to get to the airport. I’ve never been late or stuck in traffic.”
She was in New York the other day and guess what?
“I missed it here. I missed the quiet and kindness,” she said, sounding like an ambassador for Twin Cities transplants. “And the lake. And my little neighborhood restaurant. And the house. I really did.”
What’s the most Minnesotan thing about Brooke?
“I’ve got SmartWool everything,” she said. “I’ve got Nano Puff pants. I fall into the accent already. I go on the road and starting saying ‘You betcha’ and ‘That’s super.’ ”