BØRNS Interview: Garrett Borns on Billy Joel, Taylor Swift and "Electric Love"

Dopamine, the first album by singer-songwriter Garrett Borns, better known as BØRNS, who headlines at the Gothic Theatre on May 9 and 10, sounds thoroughly modern.

At their foundations, however, tunes such as the highly charged single "Electric Love" mirror old-school pop. Sturdy, solid and built to last, they'd still be irresistible if they were strummed on an acoustic guitar — but they sound even better after a sprinkling of electronic accoutrements and other high-tech production wizardry by collaborator Tommy English.

And that's not to mention Borns's ethereal, effortlessly magnetic voice.

This combination of elements inspired none other than Taylor Swift to brand "Electric Love" an instant classic in a much-viewed tweet, and Prince, in one of his last in-depth interviews, praised the ditty in a typically enigmatic way. “We were just listening to ‘Electric Love,'" he said. "I like that you can’t tell what it’s inspired by.”

At the beginning of our conversation, Borns does his best to maintain that mystery. For example, he declines to say anything personal about his parents beyond acknowledging that he has two of them (plus a sister whose name he doesn't share). But he loosens up when the topic turns to his earliest musical touchstones, many of them surprising; his dabbling in magic; the impact of his first performance before an audience; the musical journey that took him from his native Michigan to Los Angeles, with a New York pit stop in between; the sound he and English found together; his decision to sign with the giant label Interscope; the limited impact of celebrity tweets like Swift's; his compositional sweet spot; the romantic advantages of lyrics that don't detail every thrust; and his disinterest in the concept of guilty pleasures.

No guilt necessary.
Westword: What kind of music did you hear around the house when you were growing up?

BØRNS: All sorts of music. My parents had a pretty eclectic record collection. They listened to a lot of folky stuff and Fleetwood Mac, that kind of stuff. But there was also a good amount of disco, like the Bee Gees and Earth, Wind and Fire. Danceable music, I guess.

Is there a song or an album that you can remember having an impact on you at an early age? A first favorite?

I bought a Three Dog Night album when I was pretty young, and I remember listening to all those songs. That's just greatly crafted songwriting, and the songs have such great harmonies. I remember marveling over those and trying to figure them out on piano. That was my early education — figuring out records, older records, as a kid.

Three Dog Night was definitely old by the time you came around. Did you find yourself drawn to older music as opposed to the stuff that was playing then on pop radio?

Yeah. I didn't really listen to much new music. I listened to an oldies station that played a lot of Motown.

Your songwriting has a classic quality to it. Do you trace it to those roots?

Yeah, I think so. I think it's just innately in my songwriting because I listened to so much of that. That's how I learned to write songs.

[Here's a highlight from Dopamine, "10,000 Emerald Pools."]

You grew up in Michigan, and I read something about you attending conventions in Colon, which has been called the magic capital of the world. Were you into magic as a kid?

Yeah, I was into magic.

What kind?

Close-up magic, cards, sleight-of-hand type of stuff. Also mentalism, and I was pretty into escapism, too. I studied up on Houdini's big illusions.

Could you slip out of a pair of handcuffs if absolutely necessary?

Well, that's not a bad thing to know.

What was the first instrument you learned to play?

I had a drum, a toy drum, and kind of a broken, out-of-tune guitar that I kind of mime-played as a kid, pretending I was Elvis Presley or something. Piano came a little bit later. My folks bought a baby grand piano and that's where I did the majority of figuring out the songs I heard on the stereo. I feel like piano is my main instrument. I'm most comfortable on the piano.

During that period, did you start writing songs of your own?

Not really. It was more like learning Elton John songs or Billy Joel songs. I was trying to mimic them. And then I would occasionally improvise funny songs off the top of my head for my folks when they had parties. I liked the idea of being a sort of piano man — the entertainer of the evening. So I wasn't writing too many songs then. I was more interesting in learning other songs.

What was your first band?

I had a band when I was in middle school, but I was the drummer. I kind of thought if I was going to be in a band, I'd be the drummer. I'm innately drawn to rhythm. But we didn't have any shows. We just jammed in our parents' basement.

So what was your first experience with an audience — beyond singing at your parents' parties?

I feel like it must have been singing karaoke at a school dance. I think I was in sixth grade, and I was singing some Billy Joel song at the top of my register. That was my song, and I sang it five times that night. I sang it Michael Jackson-style, upped the octave, and I thought, "Wow, that sounds good." It was my first experience performing out for people and seeing them respond to it. That's when I thought, "Maybe I can sing." So I rocked the karaoke life for a while.

At what point did you start thinking seriously about music as a career?

Close to when I graduated high school. I was really passionate about filmmaking, too. It was either go to film school or keep working on music. So once I graduated from high school, I studied music theory at a community college in Grand Rapids. And then I wanted to hit the road to see what life experience would do for my music.

I understand that before you went to California, you lived in New York for a while.

Yeah, I went to New York for less than a year. I was there just discovering my sound.

Were you playing out at that point?

No, I was just working on my music in a studio in Brooklyn with this really talented recording collective called the Lion's Share. We recorded a bunch of music together, and they helped me to figure out a sound. But I was still in the discovery process. I didn't know what I wanted my album to sound like. I just knew that I was going to have to keep writing and writing and traveling and meeting people. Just getting better at my craft, slowly but surely.

Was the move from New York to Los Angeles directly related to music? Or was it more that you felt you and Los Angeles were a better fit?

I actually had no idea. I had a one-way ticket to California. I thought I'd probably be out there for a month — maybe less, maybe a little bit more — so I decided just to book my return ticket later. So I moved out here, but I really didn't realize I'd moved out there until like a year later. It was like, "I guess I'm moving here."

At what point did you meet Tommy English?

Pretty soon after I got to L.A. He's actually from Chicago, so he's kind of a guy from the Midwest — mutual friends, you know. And so I got together with him, and one of the first songs we wrote was "Past Lives," which is on my album.

That's a pretty good first song.

Yeah. It felt like there was really something there. It just happened, and we didn't think too much about it — but I felt there was a really good energy between us. He's an incredible producer and songwriter, and he has such a great ear for melody. He's a really talented guitarist, too. I feel like we both balance each other out in a recording atmosphere.

How quickly did things develop to the point where you had multiple songs and labels were getting interested?

Labels didn't come right away. I was just working on a bunch of music, and I put some up on a website. I had a makeshift website that I wrote "BØRNS" up on, and a picture of me in a swimming pool and a digital player where you could listen to some of my demos. And pretty soon I was getting a lot of e-mails and inquiries from managers and publishers and labels. But I realized I needed to get everything in order first. I had to find a manager and a publisher and all that before I talked to labels, just so I knew what I was doing — because I didn't know what I was doing.

Interscope is about as big a label as exists right now. Did its size make you a bit nervous?

A lot of thought went into it. There has to be a mutual love on both ends when it comes to putting your art out there and teaming up with a company as big as Interscope. But John Janick is the new CEO there, and he really brought a different energy. He came from an indie world; he started Fueled by Ramen from his dorm room. So he understands nurturing a project, and I really felt comfortable with that. I felt like they really understood the music and trusted me creatively, so it was a good move.

The first thing you released was an EP, but after Taylor Swift tweeted about how much she loved "Electric Love," it seemed like making a full album became a big priority for the company. Was there a connection there?

I was planning on making the album all along. I had that whole year pretty much booked with tours. I had a few months in between, and if I hadn't made the album then, I wouldn't have an album, because I've been on the road for about a year....

You can get a boost from followers online (because of celebrity tweets), but at the end of the day, it's about who's coming to your shows. It's touring and grinding on the road. That's what's really going to be the most important thing for your career. It's about what you're putting out there as art and how hard you're working. So I've been putting my time in on the road.

How long did it take you to get the set to where you wanted it and feel like you'd established a personal style onstage?

I'm still figuring it out. Every show is different. But I haven't had any down time. I've just been traveling. And when you're in that momentum, you're learning a lot about yourself as a performer — and you kind of almost forget how far you've come.

The music you've released so far is very produced, with a lot of electronic touches. But beneath that is a very solid structure. Is it important to you to make the songs as sturdy as you can, because that allows you to put anything you want on top of them and they'll still hold up?

Yeah. I think the song at its core needs to be a great song no matter how it's presented, whether it's on an acoustic guitar or even a cappella. I like melodies to be able to stand by themselves.

Your lyrics have a very sensual side to them, but they're not explicit. Do you think those kinds of romantic lyrics are done so seldom nowadays that it makes your songs feel fresh and new?

I think that's a good point. I really don't think about it too hard. I just write about what comes into my head. But these days, it's easy to write something that's going to shock people — be explicit just to grab people's attention. And you don't really need to do that. I think you just need to write a really good song....

For me, certain melodies already have words built into them, and some words just sound good with a certain melody. It's always a puzzle to find the perfect marriage between the melody and the words.

Some people have described your music as indie rock, but to me, it's pop music — the kind of stuff that some people see as a guilty pleasure. But I don't feel guilty in the slightest when I'm listening to your music. To you, is there any such thing as a guilty pleasure?

I don't consider my music indie rock. I've never said that; a lot of people have, but I haven't. I think it's influenced by a lot of different eras in music. But I don't understand the idea of a guilty-pleasure song. I've never understood that. People have asked me what my guilty pleasure song is, and I'm like, "I don't have one." I'll listen to anything, and there's no reason to feel guilty about it. If it's good music, it's good music.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts