Today Garrett Borns might be the foppish baroque-pop trendsetter who records as simply Børns, with three adventurous albums to his credit, including the new Blue Madonna, his second for Interscope. But there was a time not so long ago when the Michigan native was at the mercy of a pack of marauding masked bandits after moving to Los Angeles. And he could do nothing to stop them. Or, as he laughingly recalls, “I ate what the raccoons left for me. Which was, basically food they didn’t like.”
It’s not a metaphor or some purple-prosed exaggeration. The singer, 26, is talking about a real family of fearless, very smart urban raccoons, who had a nightly territory they prowled. And his treehouse abode just happened to be in their dibs-calling path. And when you live in such arboreal seclusion, you reckon, this is the price you have to pay for such a hippie-ish lifestyle. Borns, however, maintains that it was always worth the wildlife hassle. Just outside of the city clamor, the hideaway – which he’s long since departed — was an actual treehouse, cozy if not necessarily warm, where he happily retreated to after getting signed to compose his introductory Interscope EP Candy quietly. “I don’t know if I landed in that treehouse, or the treehouse landed on me,” he notes. “But it was a really fun place to get some writing done. Until, of course, those raccoons happened. But I think it’s important for anyone who’s creating anything to have artistic distance. And there are multiple ways of creating – you can work with another person or a group of people. Or, if you’re like me, you can create alone, even though it can be very isolating.”
The gamble paid off. Released in 2014, Candy – preceded by the single “10,00 Emerald Pools” — would hit the upper reaches of the Billboard charts, as would its sleek, chic followup, Dopamine. Soon, Borns was constantly touring, appearing alongside like-minded acts such as Bleachers, Charli XCX, and MisterWives; taping a PBS Front and Center concert special; and – thanks to his typically spiffy sartorial choices – taken under the wing of no less a house than Gucci. “So now I’m pretty invested in the fashion world since I’ve done work with some designers,” he says, with a substantial degree of pride. Touted also for his leonine-maned androgynous looks, there was no doubt about it – Borns was a star in the making, with a dandy-delicate voice combined with a visionary outlook reminiscent of past textural masters like Brian Wilson and ELO’s brilliant Jeff Lynne. There was just one problem — where on Earth could he possibly conceive his next magnum opus, sans distraction? Some remote bathyscaphe submerged deep in the Marianas Trench?
At first, the problem gave Borns pause. It wasn’t his second album, technically – in 2012 he’d issued his debut proper on an indie, to little fanfare. So even though this was his third effort, overall, he still acutely felt that old sophomore-jinx pressure bearing down on him once word of its inception began to circulate. Returning from the Dopamine tour, he was still paying rent on an apartment, but it had long since lost its appeal. “I needed someplace to lay my head, but with that place, it didn’t feel like I was coming back to a home,” he recalls. “It kind of felt like I was sleeping on my suitcase, after which I’d just go off and hit the road again. And I was living with my guitarist at the time, but I found this spot kind of in the hills.”
Location, location, location. Something about the place spoke to him, Borns says, even though he was forewarned that there was no air conditioning unit and the temperature inside was boiling. “It was just super-hot, and not in a good way,” he says. “But it turned out to be kind of fun – there was something about the heat that just kept you there and kept the energy flowing. So I think sometimes, having an AC unit can really keep you too cozy. But when you’re really hot, and you’re being creative? Somehow, that works for me.” He promptly disappeared into said abode, stag, only emerging a year later with the ornate Blue Madonna, conceived with his co-writer/producer chum Tommy English, whom he affectionately refers to as “my secret weapon. “I recorded the entire album while I was living there,” he says, matter-of-factly. “But now I’ve already been on the road again for half of this year.”
What did the man arrive at within those specific ascetic confines? The finger-popping sinister sashay of a title track was inspired by murals of splashy Catholic imagery – mainly Our Lady of Guadalupe – which he saw everywhere in LA. “That picture got stuck in my mind, which was why I called the record what I did,” he says. But from a piano-pounding pop anthem called “Faded Heart” through a shambling “Sweet Dreams,” the punky Far Eastern-filigreed “We Don’t Care,” an ethereal falsetto ballad, “Second Night of Summer,” and the glossy closing processional “Bye-Bye Darling,” he’s leaning more Jeff Lynne by the minute. Borns thinks that big, in sweeping dusk-hued soundscapes are as inviting as they are ominous. And almost as colorful as the outlandish designer suits he’s grown fond of wearing.
The hermit’s daily existence started at dawn during his tenure. “I’d be cooking breakfast, watching the sun come up every morning,” says the vegetarian, whose nutritionist mother instilled in him the importance of a healthy diet as a child. “Then I’d start playing piano, writing songs, and heading into the studio to record them. Just me, by myself. And you know, that’s still pretty much my life.” What did Borns learn about himself in the process? Any epiphanies? “Epiphanies? No, not really,” he sighs. “But I learned that I really enjoy cooking. I love to cook now, and that’s always a good feeling – knowing where your food comes from and shopping at the local farmer’s market. You know,” he adds. “The simple pleasures. But it was bigger than that – living there was about being in one place for more than a few seconds, like a lull, because with touring you’re never in one place for longer than 48 hours. It’s kind of crazy.”
Lyrically, its author continues, Blue Madonna runs decidedly deep. “Briefly, what it’s about is, I was reading a lot, so the songs were personal, but also inspired by really old stories,” he explains. “Like Paradise Lost, the epic poem, or the love poetry I was reading by Octavio Paz, and also some old myths, just because they had some interesting perspectives on supernatural phenomena. Stuff like that. So I was intertwining those ideas into my own stories of love and relationships and things I was thinking about, and how our culture is radically shifting. Everyone’s getting into music so differently now, and it was really interesting to see that shift. In response, I wanted to make an album where all the instruments were being played by a human… So I tried some different aspects of recording that I’ve never tried before.”
Borns – no surprise here – loves talking ELO and T Rex, hints of which you can easily spot in “Faded Heart,” for starters. “If anyone hears Jeff Lynne or Marc Bolan in my music, that’s a huge compliment to me – they’re huge inspirations for me,” he enthuses. “I think you can tell that everything they do – every harmony, every guitar part, comes from within them until you know immediately that it’s a Jeff Lynne song from just the chord progression. And when an artist can find that musical landscape and be able to interpret it and articulate it over and over again? That’s some tricky stuff. And when you look back on the credits for an ELO or T Rex song, sometimes Lynne and Bolan are the only credits as songwriters, and a lot of times they played all of their own instruments.” Something to aspire to, at least. And the fellow is already wrestling with album number four, but he has no idea in which direction it will careen. “I’ve been working on a lot of different ideas, and I’m continuing to find different ways to sing because there are a lot of different voices inside myself that I have yet to discover,” he says.
Lest any naysayers dismiss him as some overnight sensation, this artist likes to point out that he has been involved in show business ever since he was ten years old and performing paid Florida gigs as the magician Garrett the Great. He was already displaying prodigious talent, first in visual art (which earned him an $ 8,000 college scholarship at 13), then filmmaking, classical piano, and finally – at Muskegon Community College – jazz. In 2013, while residing in New York, Borns took an exploratory vacation to LA and liked it so much he moved there. Raccoons be damned.
Borns has to admit he left his hushed new California digs, once his Blue Madonna mission was accomplished. “It was melancholy,” he says of the eventual moving day. “But everything digresses, I think, and I was ready for the road again, to be honest. So you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do.” But wasn’t it a little much, effort-wise, tracking down all the necessary raw ingredients and cooking your own meals from scratch after dragging himself home from the studio each evening? He laughs, then gets serious. “There is always time,” he stresses. “You’ve just got to find the time. And there have definitely been nights when I get home tired, extra-late from the studio. But you don’t have to make something too elaborate, so you can always make it happen.”
– Tom Lanham
Appearing 8/3 at Lollapalooza, Chicago; 9/30 at Aragon Ballroom, Chicago.
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