Music History

Brian Bourgault Is a Survivor

Brian Bourgault threw himself into fulfilling his musical dreams after being diagnosed with a debilitating condition.
Brian Bourgault threw himself into fulfilling his musical dreams after being diagnosed with a debilitating condition. Courtesy of the artist
Brian Bourgault refuses to give up. Despite ongoing financial challenges and a disability that would destroy most careers and psyches, the Denver musician, who fronts the band Borgo, creates the kind of music that first inspired him as a teenager: soulful rock.

It’s a tall order for the 46-year-old songwriter, singer and former guitar player and music shop owner who at one time was positioned for success in the Mile High City. In 2005, Bourgault was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a hereditary disorder named after the three doctors who first described it. In short: His muscles and nerves are deteriorating.

“I started losing the use of my left hand in 2002,” Bourgault explains. “At first I thought it was just carpal tunnel syndrome, and I ignored it. But by 2005 it was so bad that I went to see a neurologist, and I was immediately diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth. It had gotten so that it was impossible to fret my guitar. Now both of my hands are totally paralyzed, and my arms have atrophied. I don’t have the strength to lift a cup of coffee. It’s puzzling to me, because no one in my family has it, but supposedly your genes can mutate on their own. It affects your peripheral nerves. My nerve signals can’t reach my fingers, because the insulation on those nerves is deteriorating and don’t function as they should. If you saw me from across a room, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong with me, but if you watched me trying to pick something up, you’d know right away. My hands kind of flop around, and I can’t hold anything.”

At the time of his chilling 2005 diagnosis, he was running his own music shop on Larimer Street.

“When I got the diagnosis, I ended up getting really depressed,” Bourgault says. “And in 2007, I decided that I had to get away from music. I was 35, and I just had to move on from my shop, where I also lived at the time. So there I was, with no business, no income, no home and a severe disability. I sold all my guitars for the second time in my life. I went from having 100 guitars to zero overnight and crashing at a friend’s house for a while.”
Even after leaving music, he continued to work full-time, struggling for economic stability.

click to enlarge Brian Bourgault - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
Brian Bourgault
Courtesy of the artist
“Eventually, I got a job at Marczyk Fine Foods on 17th Street, in the prepared-foods department. I applied myself and worked really hard, and they wound up offering me a salaried position managing the kitchen. I only had the use of my right arm, so it was a challenge. But I took the job and managed the kitchen for five years. I earned enough to buy a house in 2010 in the Clayton neighborhood near 35th and York.”

But Bourgault’s condition continued to worsen. Once he could no longer hold a knife, he left the job at Marczyk and applied for government assistance for his disability. He was turned down and managed to find more work, this time selling rooftop solar systems.

“I had to keep going,” he says. “I worked for the solar company for three years, but once I got to the point where it was too dangerous for me to drive, I had to quit. I can’t drive anymore. That was two years ago. At that point, I sought the help of an attorney, and I reapplied for disability and was approved.”

He devoted himself to taking care of his health and spirituality. “There is no known cure for my disease and no meds that I can take,” Bourgault explains. “So I meditate, and I eat a vegan diet in hopes of keeping my condition status quo.”

An earlier dream of recording his songs quickly came back into focus.

“As soon as I was able to stop stressing about work, I decided to use my time to pursue my music again,” he recalls. “In 2017 I had an epiphany. I was like, ‘You need to figure out how to record your music. You need to record that album that you wanted to record in 2005.’”

He picked up a copy of Logic Pro X, turned his Mac into a digital-audio workstation and taught himself the ins and outs of recording, laying down tracks for “Serenade,” “Red Light Shakedown” and “Bitter Root.” He used both hands to stabilize the computer’s mouse as he worked, summoning his older songs from memory.

“I re-created them by punching the notes into a digital piano keyboard, using my computer and then assigning those notes to whatever instrument I wanted,” he says. “I’d start with a bass line and then put in the drums to that bass line, and then I’d sing the vocal over that. I could also add horn lines and organ and produce it to whatever level I wanted to produce it. So I was able to make a few demos that sounded pretty good.”

In early 2017, he decided to enter a songwriting contest. But first he recruited fellow musicians to add instrumental parts to the tracks.

“It sounded amazing, and after that, I decided to do a whole album, Be Kind, using real players to help me. I wrote ten songs in 2017 and put a dream group together.”

That included keyboardist Erik Deutsch from Leftover Salmon, guitarist Dan Schwindt from the Kyle Hollingsworth Band, and saxophonist Dwight Bement from Gary Puckett & the Union Gap and Frank Zappa’s Blackouts, who arranged the horn parts and brought on trumpeter Chris Lawson. Also on board were Kim Dawson of the Pimps of Joytime and Tanya Shylock, a former member of the Motet, both on backing vocals. Carl Sorensen drummed.

With producer Marc Benning, the musicians lived and worked for a week in Sedalia, at Hideaway Studios. Bourgault, who has a soulful and authentic voice, says that after listening to his demos just a few times, they would lay down sizzling takes of his Motown-, jazz-, rock- and funk-inspired cuts on the spot.

“I’d go into the vocal booth, and then we’d just record,” Bourgault recalls. “What you hear on the record is live.”
Now he’s in the process of bringing the music to live audiences with an eight-piece band. “I have to pay them, so it’s not easy to pull off,” he says. But the expense is worth it, he adds, because the music is “gonna crush.”
Building up steam, the group is busy producing a music video for the song “Serenade,” releasing vinyl recordings and spreading the word.

“I think when people hear the music, they’ll really want to come and see it,” Bourgault says. “I put the quarter in the ride, and there’s no getting off now.”

On a day-to-day basis, Bourgault continues to struggle, and his prognosis is uncertain. It’s a grind to walk his two dogs and undergo life’s daily routine with limited mobility. While the disease is not fatal, if it impacts his respiratory system, he could land in a wheelchair or on a respirator.

But with his first album in more than a decade wrapped up and ready to drop on April 13, he’s looking forward to what’s coming next.

“I can still do what I have to do,” he says. “I can’t hold a microphone in my hand, but I can get on stage and perform. I’m losing leg strength, but I get around.”

Borgo’s Be Kind Listening Party
6 p.m. Sunday, April 15, Pon Pon, 2528 Walnut Street, free.

Borgo Album Release
7 p.m. Thursday, April 19, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $10-$12, 303-291-1007.

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Nick Hutchinson writes about music for Westword and enjoys playing his guitar when not on deadline.
Contact: Nick Hutchinson