Posted June 6, 2016 by Jeff in Tunes

BØRNS: A New Sound With Old Influences

Børns photo by Nikko LaMere
Børns photo by Nikko LaMere

After self-recording his 2014 EP Candy, singer-songwriter BØRNS (Garrett Borns) released his full-length debut, Dopamine, last year. The album features a mix of electronic and organic instruments and showcases Borns’ distinctive, androgynous voice. He spoke to us via phone from his Los Angeles home, where he was doing laundry — “There’s something therapeutic about washing your own socks,” he said.

You’ve had a busy year so far. Talk about what it’s been like?
Yeah, it’s been super busy. We recently played Coachella. I’ve never been to Coachella before so it was an all-around new experience, but it was fun. Now we’re hitting the road and doing a bunch of festivals and some headline touring.

Talk about your background. You were born in Michigan but moved around a bit after that?
It was a good place to grow up. I had a lot of space. I think the space is what was so nice. There was so much room to explore. I grew up right on Lake Michigan. I have this very close tie to water. I think that’s what drew me to the coast. It was a good childhood.

Did you grow up around music?
My folks played a lot of music and I was always listening to this Motown oldies station in my area. I feel like I had a pretty broad knowledge of old ’50s, ’60s and ’70s music. At a young age I knew all the songs and those are some of my favorite songs. I was always interested in songwriting and song structure and that kind of stuff.

How’d you learn to play ukulele?
That came out of necessity, I guess. I couldn’t play guitar at the time, so I was like “Oh! This is a cute, cheeky little instrument.” It was really easy to play. It was my copout of not learning guitar, which I should have done way earlier.

Did it help you learn guitar?
I’m sure in some ways because it’s a stringed instrument, but I didn’t have a guitar. I do this thing where I just borrow instruments from people until they forget about it, which is probably not a great thing to do, but we’re all still friends. I didn’t really explore the electric guitar until I moved to L.A. and into this treetop abode. I just cranked up an amp and was playing with petals. I’ve never had that experience before, so it was fun.

At what point did you start singing?
I guess since I was pretty young. I never really thought of myself as a singer. It’s been kind of a learning process for sure. I did it because it was fun, but I never really saw myself becoming a singer.

Talk about the Candy EP. What was it like to record that first EP?
I recorded that independently with my friend Tommy English, who produced all the tracks except for “10,000 Emerald Pools”. I recorded the EP on my own before there was any record label involved. I didn’t want their influence being on a record. I just wanted to really love it because it was fun to make and not because I was trying to get a record deal. And of course I wanted to be able to play this music and tour, but I didn’t know exactly where it was going to go. It was just kind of a studio project. Then some labels showed some interest in it.

Talk about the songwriting experience.
I think I had some pretty distinct influences in the moment. I definitely wanted to write songs in an older way of writing songs, song structure and crafting melodies. Things that you saw a lot in the ’60s and ’70s like Electric Light Orchestra and the Bee Gees. I take a lot of inspiration from their song structure. I wanted to write songs that felt like they had kind of a classic, almost throwback element, but done in a contemporary way. I wanted them to sound like something that would cause you to say, “Oh, wait, I should know this!” or “How do I know this?” Like nostalgia almost, but still sounding new. That was my mentality.

I think that’s always how Tommy and I record. We want things to sound new. We definitely don’t want them to sound like we’re trying to make throwback things, but we have a lot of influences from older eras of music.

Are there others who take a similar approach? Seems like a rather unique approach.
It’s definitely something that takes a lot of care. Not to say that there aren’t songs that come out very easily. Sometimes you’re in the studio and a song will come out of nowhere. It takes ten minutes to write and it’s the best song you’ve ever written. And then sometimes you’re bleeding over a song and you can’t get it anywhere. We’re always trying to push ourselves production- and songwriting-wise. We’re never really satisfied. We’re always questioning, going with our first instinct but looking at the bigger picture.

Did you take the same approach on Dopamine?
Yeah, push it along and keep trying to top ourselves.

Your music has been described as “heartfelt electronic music.” Is that accurate?
There are electric instruments in it. I wouldn’t really call it electronic music. There’s a good amount of acoustic in it too. Some of the stuff is programmed, but a lot of it’s actually played on instruments. There are a lot of keyboards and guitars, bongos, tambourines, background vocals. The majority of it is very humanly exerted—played by humans. So, it’s not really electronic, but there are electronic elements.

I heard a stack of old Playboy magazines inspired you.
I had a stack of reading material chilling in the studio just for any weird, word association-type things that happened with recording. I love how those old magazines are laid out. They’re very clever and they’re all done very deliberately. All of the advertisements and articles are very well thought out. I love the words that they use . . . double entendres and stuff. So, that inspired some of the songs.

I think you reference the magazines in “Overnight Sensation.” Was it a particular image that inspired the song?
That right there is a perfect example of a double entendre. There was a picture of this woman. She was lying on this couch all sensually and the morning light was peeking through these curtains. Underneath [the image] it read “Overnight Sensation.” I think it was actually advertising a speaker and it was basically your mood music. That just really struck a chord with me.

I feel like the song has a Beach Boys feel to it. Is that accurate?
 Yeah. It has some Mellotron harpsichord. I think once we found that sound and put it in we were like “Oh! This is very Brian Wilson.”

I like the sparse intro to “Past Lives.” What’s the story behind that tune?
That intro started out as kind of an idea for the chorus of that song when we were writing it. It was just an idea that we recorded really quickly and then we just kind of forgot about it. Then once we were finishing the song we were like, “What if this was kind of like an intro to the song, just to kind of throw people off?” You don’t really know where it’s going and then the beat comes in. It just kind of fit perfectly.

Talk about the genesis of “American Money.”
That song started out as just a little acoustic idea that I had. It was a lot more carefree sounding when I was playing it. It almost sounded like a James Taylor song or something. I brought it in the studio and Tommy had this downtempo minimal beat going on. I sang it with that beat and it gave it a different vibe, just a little bit darker. We kind of liked that.

How do you approach playing such intricate songs live?
You have to have really good musicians play. Everyone in my band is really amazing and very talented and we practice a lot. We’ve been touring for the past year, so we’re pretty tight at this point.

Have you started thinking about the next record?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of ideas that I’ve vaulted away are coming out now.

Can you be specific about direction things are going in?
I would love to, but it’s all top secret at this point. It’s a little too early. I have too many weird ideas right now, so if I say one thing it’ll be like “Oh! You’re going to make a record of jump rope songs?”


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].