The Ottawa Citizen

Making the bodies count: Jon Brooks explores the dark traveller in new album

Singer-songwriter Jon Brooks set out to write a collection of Canadian murder ballads for his fifth and latest album, the Smiling and Beautiful Countryside, figuring he’d give a modern twist to a classic folk-song tradition. 

It’s twisted alright, hearing him sing in the voice of a killer, but the songs are brilliant, adding up to one of the most provocative albums of the past year. You’ll be fascinated by characters like Trevor, the homicidal maniac who goes on a workplace shooting rampage in The Only Good Thing is an Old Dog, the murderous siblings in The Twa Sisters, and the helpful fellow in Gun Dealer who’s got what you need “whatever you are, a psychopath or a hunter.” 

Then there’s the long-haul trucker who picks up hitchhikers in Highway 16. That song will send a chill down your spine, as it’s clearly inspired by the 800-kilometre Highway of Tears where scores of young women, mostly aboriginal, disappeared or were murdered while hitchhiking along it. 

Written from the perspective of a serial killer, Highway 16 may be the most convincing tune Brooks has written on any issue, largely because the character rings true. Brooks not only devoted hours of research to the well-documented theory that serial killers are attracted to the trucking industry but also visited the area to get a sense of it, arranging a series of house concerts to play between Prince George and Prince Rupert, B.C. 


“The idea of basing an entire CD on murder, you have to go at it with either understatement or overstatement. I can’t imagine sitting down to write a song about the Highway of Tears in an earnest way,” Brooks said in a phone interview. “I think that would be useless and cloying and sentimental. It would be hard to listen to. 

“On the other side of it, Highway 16 was one instance on the CD that I really did want to provoke in a violent manner. I really wanted to make some people go, ‘Did he just sing that?’ I wanted this song to conjure up a violent response, not necessarily a happy one either.” 

Ultimately his mission with the song is to raise awareness, and hopefully encourage people to pressure their elected representatives to support an official inquiry into the hundreds of cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada. 

“Personally I’m blown away by the fact that we live in an allegedly first-world country and we’re not looking into this formally,” Brooks says. “(The song) is the most overt attempt at trying to raise awareness but let’s be serious: I’m not Bryan Adams writing a song and doing this. It would be arrogant of me to think that the fourth or fifth song on my CD is going to do anything but that’s my interest as a songwriter anyway.” 

A keyboard player by training, Brooks didn’t get serious about writing his own songs until a decade ago. In the late 1990s, dismayed by the proliferation of boy bands, he had given up on music, returned to university and worked at a variety of jobs for several years. But by 2005, the musical landscape had changed, and folk-roots music was making a comeback, at least on a grassroots level. 

“It took a long time to realize this but I came to understand that if there’s such a thing as a sin in this world, it’s turning your back on the thing you do the best,” says the 46-year-old. “It took one of my literary heroes to tell me that if you can write a melody and somehow arrest the essence of some life, and do it within four minutes, that’s a kind of artistic magic that you would go to hell if you don’t pursue. If you can do this, you have to do it, in other words.” 

So he did, crafting a string of albums that have established him as a masterful singer-songwriter with a strong sense of social justice. Brooks been nominated for three Canadian Folk Music Awards, and was named a winner in the prestigious Kerrville New Folk competition in 2010. 

Despite the accolades and his reputation as a riveting live performer, Brooks is having a hard time finding his audience, especially in Canada. He’s had more airplay in the U.S., and frequently performs south of the border, but his upcoming tour schedule is strangely empty at a time when it should be filling up with Canadian festival dates. Although some bookers have told him they already have their quota of solo, male singer-songwriters, one wonders if they’re shying away, nervous about exposing audiences to someone who’s created an album with a body count of 75. 

If that’s the case, it would be disappointing but not a complete surprise. “I’ve already done four albums that inspire: it’s now time to offend,” Brooks says. 

Lynn Saxberg, Ottawa Citizen 

April, 2015