On a cloudy, cool California afternoon, Minneapolis singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke stood in the middle of a tree-lined street, wearing only her silver boots, a red necktie and a giant bass drum.
Four people (fully clothed) surrounded her, looking aghast, including her stepdaughter and her BFF.
“Kids were coming home from school and the FedEx guy kept driving by,” Brooke recalled of those 20 minutes in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles. “It was 60 degrees, but it’s cold when you’re naked.
“I started to enjoy it, I have to say. Just being out there naked felt very liberating.”
The scene was a photo shoot for “Imposter,” the first made-in-Minnesota recording by the Boston-bred veteran, who moved to the Twin Cities 2½ years ago.
Like one of those nightmares where you imagine yourself exposed as a fraud, the cover photo reflects Brooke’s struggle with so-called impostor syndrome. “I feel like a total loser, a failure every time I go into the creative mode,” she said. “That inner voice just beats you up. I’m my own worst critic.”
While audiences in Denmark thought “Imposter” was about President Donald Trump, “it’s really about me struggling with that fear: ‘Such a loser. You faked ’em out last time, but it’s never going to happen again.’ ”
She’ll see how Minnesota music lovers interpret the tune at a record-release concert April 22 at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis.
Brooke has quickly found a place in the local scene since she and her Minnesota-raised manager-husband decided to leave New York City and its skyrocketing rents. She has performed regularly at the Dakota, and participated in a multi-singer tribute to Peggy Lee at the Guthrie Theater. And she got the true imprimatur of local stardom by being invited to join the New Standards for one of their sold-out holiday shows.
“Imposter” is firmly rooted in Minnesota. Recorded at Creation Audio in south Minneapolis — the fabled studio where the Trashmen made “Surfin’ Bird” — it features a cast of locals including bassist Jeff Bailey, drummer Joey Van Phillips, keyboardist Adi Yeshaya and several string and horn players.
Co-producer Rebecca Arons was the key connector. They met when Brooke came to the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis in 2013 to work on her one-woman musical, “My Mother Has Four Noses,” about her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, who lived with Brooke and her husband for two years. Arons accompanied Brooke on cello during performances.
“Rebecca was one of the reasons I was OK moving here. She lives two blocks from me,” Brooke said.
At 55, Brooke is finding midcareer challenges after stints on three major labels and more than a decade as an indie artist.
Since this was her first made-in-Minnesota recording, she did something typically Minnesotan — she got a grant, from the McKnight Foundation.
“This was the first grant I ever applied for,” said Brooke, who had used crowdfunding for her previous two albums. “I listened to the coaching video. And it worked.”
She wrote three of the five songs on “Imposter” since arriving here. If there’s a theme to the record, she’s still trying to work it out: “It’s impostor syndrome meets badass feminist meets making peace with your life and losses meets having a really good time meets peace and solace and having a spiritual composure in the face of it all.”
Brooke considers this new batch of songs “cinematic.” She has envisioned a video for the tune “Revenge.”
“A misunderstood kid is getting bullied in school. She’s pissed and wants revenge. She has three friends who are misfits and freaks, too. They have a bake sale and raise money and get all the nice parents to support them and they create an event and all the good people get behind them and create a parade for these kids. It’s not a mean-spirited video.”
The final tune, “True to You,” was written with the late jazz keyboardist Joe Sample (of the Crusaders) for a musical they were developing. Penned for a character in the play, it certainly sounds theatrical, with Yeshaya’s arrangement helping to tie it sonically to the other tracks.
Theater makes her ‘braver’
To supplement her music career, Brooke now leads workshops on songwriting for hobbyists while continuing to pursue theater projects.
Her latest is “Switched,” about two 40-year-old women who were switched at birth. They receive a letter from one of the mothers who knew about the mix-up all along. It’s based on a true story.
“The thing I love about this new avenue, it’s collaborative,” Brooke said. “You’re constantly brainstorming with people who are smarter than you. That makes me less precious about writing for myself. I feel braver now.
“You don’t send unmastered, unmixed songs to anyone in the record business, [but] in theater, I’m sending demos I sing in my phone to the actors to learn the songs. This world is constantly in flux. You’re the clay.”
It also forced her to learn how to write music. She relies on software called Sibelius. “The irony is, I still can’t read it back,” she said. “I play by memory, feel and sound.”
Balancing theater and adult pop is part of her challenge as the music business has evolved.
Brooke has presented “My Mother Has Four Noses” in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Minneapolis, at the Jungle Theater in 2018.
As a singer-songwriter, she usually tours solo, and this five-song recording is her first EP, after nine full-length albums.
She’s trying “a new model here,” she said. “People love the playlist [on streaming sites such as Spotify]. Maybe you don’t want 12 Jonatha Brooke songs in a row anymore. Maybe after this, it’s a song at a time.
“I can be much more nimble. That’s what’s great about the digital [era]. As much as it’s decimated our income, you can do stuff quickly on the fly and get it out there and hopefully catch a wave.”
Without exposing herself.
What: “Imposter” release show.
When: 7 p.m. April 22.
Where: The Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $35, dakotacooks.com.