Photo by Chuck Grant
For someone less than 48 hours away from their sophomore record being released, BØRNS is surprisingly calm on the other end of the phone. If there are any nerves, you can’t detect them in his voice as he reflects on some of what influences his music. “I’m always trying to pick up new records and new books and do a lot of different kinds of research on my own,” he says. “I love getting to know Los Angeles and letting it inspire me and my art. And when it comes time to go in the studio it’s about using all of these different ideas and influences and seeing what sticks. Actually, there’s this one marionette theater I found one day and I fell in love with the show there.” He goes on to note that the show made such a lasting impression, he ended up including some of their skeleton marionettes in the music video for “Faded Heart,” the lead single of his newest record, Blue Madonna.
Garrett Borns has always been putting on a show. Where most young boys like myself were content with playing with Legos at age ten, the Michigan native, on the other hand, was already a professional magician going under the name “Garrett The Great,” and fully immersing himself in the arts. He grew up with a natural curiosity about the world around him and how we interact with it that has carried on into his music today. That clear love for the stage early on eventually morphed into music side of things, but as someone known for having no problem bending the rules of what modern alternative electro-pop can be, it’s obvious now that he’s just working magic in new ways.
He moved to Los Angeles at 21 and began working with producer Tommy English, whom he met through a mutual friend, on what would become his debut EP, Candy. This was also his introduction to the world as BØRNS; the artist we know him as today. Following the release of the Candy EP in November of 2014, the opening track “Electric Love” was included in a couple of high profile commercials which sprung the song (and the artist himself) to overnight notoriety and eventual platinum-selling status. Taylor Swift called it an “instant classic,” and Prince even praised the song in one of his final interviews, saying, “I like that you can’t tell who it’s inspired by.” Naturally, it was also included on his following full-length debut, Dopamine in October 2015, along with other Candy cuts “10,000 Emerald Pools,” and “Past Lives.”
Dopamine was met with widespread acclaim from critics and fans alike and ended up charting in the top 30 of the Billboard Hot 200 and also grabbed the number two spots on both the Billboard Alternative and Top Rock album charts. The success of both “Electric Love” and Dopamine as a whole, put him on the road for the greater part of the next year and a half, joining acts like Halsey, The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons on their tours, as well gigs at Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Coachella and his own sold-out 2016 headlining tour — all of which largely kept him too occupied to realize just how much his career was exploding around him. “Being in the flow of everything and not having a moment to stop and think about it was sort of a blessing,” he admits. “I really had the opportunity to play so many shows and break in my voice and hone my stage presence in a way. It wasn’t until I was back in LA, getting up every day watering my plants and making breakfast and having a new record to make that I was like wait…what just happened? Did any of that really happen?”
The road to his second record was always going to be an interesting one. As if following up an album as critically and commercially successful as Dopamine didn’t already seem daunting for obvious reasons, BØRNS wasn’t interested in having record number two to be anything near easy for plenty of creative reasons as well. He once again reteamed with English who went on to solely produce Blue Madonna. “At the beginning, I kind of established this creative doctrine that by end of it I wanted to feel completely exhausted, like I didn’t have any more ideas and said all I needed to say,” he says. “I had some pretty clear ideas from the start for the record that I wanted to accomplish, but I didn’t exactly know how it was going to sound and I knew it would be a journey to figure it out. Some of the things I knew from the beginning was that I wanted to have live strings on it, I wanted to incorporate some instruments I’ve never used on a record before, and I just wanted to challenge myself with the songwriting.”
BØRNS and English experimented with unorthodox instruments like the theremin and omnichord, and even incorporated sparse samples of owls, crickets and other natural sounds of the night BØRNS recorded while visiting his parents in Michigan. The brilliant result is a grand record that builds upon the indie glam rock base he and English established with Dopamine, adding new sensual, synth-heavy, psychedelic layers accompanied by his soaring signature falsetto.
A lot of Blue Madonna’s major themes revolve around our struggle to hold onto our innocence, and the connectivity we’ve lost with people due to modern technology. “This record is a snapshot of my headspace over the past year, and how I experience the world today,” he says. “It’s also a lot about how we as humans and culture have kind of distanced ourselves from nature in a way. It’s about our distractions, our fascinations with things that are glowing, and a lot about my own mortality.”
Lana Del Rey provides the album’s sole vocal collaboration on the anthemic battle cry opening track “God Save Our Young Blood,” as well as uncredited vocals on the title track. Her sister Chuck Grant also photographed the album and single covers as well. “I’ve been such a big fan of her music since Born To Die came out,” BØRNS said of Lana. “She’s such a phenomenal songwriter and has such a beautiful, nostalgic and transcendent voice, so hearing her sing my song was such a memorable moment. It was awesome and just felt like it was really meant to happen on this record.” In a lot of ways, Blue Madonna also sounds like the male counterpart to her recent Lust For Life, an unintentional sonic cohesiveness between the two records that’s eerie when you listen to them back to back.
As we come to the end of our call, it becomes clear why he’s sounded so calm the entire time: through Blue Madonna, he’s created his most honest and meaningful work to date and pushed himself far past his own boundaries — presenting a record that rightfully puts him on par with the likes of Lorde and Lana in the mainstream world. In other words, it’s not so much that he’s calm as he is confident in what he’s created. When we spoke, BØRNS was days away from embarking on the almost completely sold-out 2018 leg of his Money Man Tour, a trek which also saw him return to Coachella for the second time. With an opus the likes of Blue Madonna now under his belt, he’s sure to be on the road for at least the next two years, and you can hear an eagerness in his voice to get back out there and give these new songs life. “Touring is a lot about finding your flow,” he says. “You and the band get into this kind of rhythm that almost becomes instinctual at a certain point…I am very ready to tour this record.”