BØRNS: On blue periods, ‘Blue Madonna’ and getting interrupted at the Blue Bottle

BØRNS (Photo by Chuck Grant)
BØRNS (Photo by Chuck Grant)

What do a Renaissance painter, Taoist literature, the theremin, 1950s sci-fi digests and Lana Del Rey have in common? In some way, all have left a mark on Garrett Borns’ sophomore album, “Blue Madonna,” out Jan. 12. The Buzz Bands LA interview:

BØRNS’ debut album “Dopamine” lived up to its title — for both pop music fans and for its twentysomething creator, Garrett Borns. The 2015 release took the Grand Haven, Mich., native from zero to platinum-selling in a year, yielding wide praise and sold-out tours that seemed almost too good to be true.

As it tends to do, the dopamine wore off. And Borns found himself back in L.A., sorting through ideas and inspirations for his sophomore album. A kind of melancholy set in — not full-on depression, but an existential reckoning. As in: Wow, did all that really happen?

But Borns’ “Blue Madonna,” which arrives Jan. 12, is less about his pensive side than it is about the songwriter’s eagerness to make it all happen again — by drawing from wide musical, visual and literary influences in an effort to keep his palette fresh. As much as any contemporary pop artist, Borns has a knack for offering fleeting, but only fleeting, sonic nods to his forebears. Many artists trace and retrace; Borns’ influences appear as palimpsests.

They materialize throughout the dreamy psych-pop of “Blue Madonna” amid modern production and a marquee guest appearance or two. But enough about world-renowned theremin player Armen Ra.

This week came the release of the fourth single from the album, the lead track “God Save Our Young Blood,” which features “a certain angelic presence,” Borns says, that of Lana Del Rey. The collaboration came about very casually, he adds — the singer’s sister, Chuck Grant, did the photography for the album. “Lana heard some of what I was working on,” Borns explains. “It was a matter of, ‘Hey, I like your song and want to collaborate.’”

In a downtown Los Angeles coffee shop that looks like a pharmaceutical lab, Buzz Bands LA caught up with Borns to talk about the new album. And being cryogenically frozen.

||| Stream: “God Save Our Young Blood” (feat. Lana Del Rey)

Buzz Bands LA: Let’s start with the album’s title … “Blue Madonna?”

Garrett Borns: It’s one of songs on the record, but I wouldn’t have expected it to be the title. I was trying to figure out what the theme of the record was when I was making it. A lot of it was loss of innocence, this melancholy feeling of departure. I also like that it’s just a moment on the record. The structure of the song is a lot different than normal, so it’s just like this little blip. It seems like the centerpiece for me.

And getting into the inspiration for the title, I was looking at a lot of Renaissance paintings for inspirations for the artwork and photo shoots I was doing. I especially was drawn to the color palette they were using. There was an Italian painter Carlo Dolci who did all these portraits where the subjects were all looking out, and off into the distance. They had this glow on their faces and this fear in their eyes, and I found that interesting.

“Glow in their faces and fear in their eyes” — can I rename my 2017 playlist that?

The way things are going, you can name your 2018 playlist that.

Did you have any sophomore album blues? You’ve said elsewhere that you were pretty hung over, or spent, after you got done touring the first record. And you know the old saying that you’ve got your whole life to write your first album and three months to write the second one …

Well, I had a bigger idea early on about what I wanted to do for the second record, and I had my wish list of things I wanted to do and the influences I wanted to explore. Like having live strings on the record, and theremin.

I heard that. I thought, “Where’s Brian Wilson?”

Yes, that was a huge influence. I was going through all of the Beach Boys catalog chronologically and seeing how their sound changed over time. I was looking at how Brian Wilson wrote pop songs, and he did it in a very orchestral way, with different movements and drastic key changes. The way the melodies were woven all together made it really pleasurable to listen to.

[Borns now pauses, looks down and blushes a little.]

It’s always weird when you’re in a coffee shop and your song starts playing, you know? Makes it hard to concentrate.

Not me, I block out background music when I go most places. But nice job, Blue Bottle!

Yeah, this one’s on the house, right?

Anyway … I was looking at some of my favorite songwriters, like early Elton John records and George Harrison and Brian Wilson, trying to see where their instincts took them. There’s this Wurlitzer I play every morning, just working out chord changes and stuff before I go to the studio. The Wurlitzer played a big role because a lot of the songs are more piano-based. For the first album, it was a little bit more guitar.

I hear old-school moments in some of these songs and I suspect that you and I [editor: the interviewer is much older] are actually the same age, but when we were in high school listening to the same Midwestern AM Top 40 radio station, you were cryogenically frozen, and then unthawed 40 years later.

(Laughs) I’m still unthawing. Still a little frozen in the middle, like a microwave pastry.

I’m still unthawing. Still a little frozen in the middle, like a microwave pastry.

Are there moments, though, when you’re on to something and then think: No, that sounds too much like something else — like, too much like something Elton John would have done?

I think, in a way, whenever I feel like I’m trying to imitate someone, it’s only a very light outline of someone, an inflection they might do, or something that brings out a different palette in my singing. I like when I’m listening to music and think, ‘What, have I heard this before?’ You know, something that feels nostalgic or that strikes a chord with you but you can’t really pinpoint it. That’s the magic of music — it makes the memory flash.

You mentioned earlier that the overall vibe of the record is melancholy. But you’re not a melancholy guy, are you?

I can be, I guess, as much as anybody. But mostly I’m trying to find a hopeful spin, or find some humor in it.

You’ve said that mortality is an overriding theme too. … Mortality, really? What are you, 25?

Yeah … It’s something that’s fascinated me a bit. Being on the road a lot is like vibrating at a different frequency. You’re going with this flow and the outer world is going a different speed.

You’re not really catching people — the ones who come to your shows — in their normal lives either. You’re catching them in a moment of great escapism.

Right, it’s all kind of escapist. For a performer and for an audience. It’s what I try to bring to a performance, this kind of ascension, to forget where you are. So my thinking about mortality really happened after I got back from tour — because suddenly you’re forced to keep yourself alive, in one place. Keeping plants alive … doing cooking … and also just wondering if any of those things on the road actually happened, and whether they’ll happen again. Because it seems like a fantasy. Did people really enjoy this music? Did it really affect them? Am I going to be able to do that again?

And I was fascinated by the idea of finding immortality on the road … reading some Taoist literature about finding a creative well within you and trying to sustain that. How do you maintain your creative and sexual energy? Performing is a very sensual thing — it can really wipe you out. A lot of old literature is based on sexual energy being creative energy, and how to sustain that and enlighten yourself through that … and become, in a way, immortal.

When you’re on the road, how are you able to keep the energy in your voice? That’s your instrument, after all …

Funny, I just made an Instagram video series — but it’s all dramatization. I was going on tour again and having an existential crisis. Are people just gonna want to hear the old record again or just new stuff? Questioning myself, whether I was even worthy of an audience’s praise, and in all that stress, my voice is gone. This crow shows up at my window and lets out a demonic squawk, and it takes my voice. But once I come to terms with this darker side of myself, I get my voice back.

I don’t look at my voice as just my vocal chords. It’s all about staying limber and letting stress go … doing yoga and running. There’s a lot of movement on tour, but there’s also a lot of stagnancy, just sitting around. Your entire body is your voice. So if my ankles are feeling tight I sing a little differently. It’s just a very physical act for me.

Is it my imagination or are there more lower-register songs on this album?

Yes, I definitely figured out how to use my voice differently on this record. My voice just got stronger. Especially when I get into a good flow on the road, it just gets stronger. When I first went on tour I did lose my voice a couple times and I was really raspy after shows, but I figured out a way to sing less effortlessly. That was just a matter of playing tons of shows.

It’s interesting — listening to some of my favorite Bowie records, for instance. He was always playing and recording, and on every one of his records his voice is just a little bit different.

I read somewhere else that you mentioned running across a cache of old sci-fi digests and getting some inspiration from them? Some great authors were published in those.

It’s just the poetic language of some of those stories. They were so imaginative. And they just weren’t about technological advances in the future, they were [morality plays]. They really made you think. That might have been one of my bigger inspirations.

One song, “Supernatural,” came out of those. And another, “The Second Night of Summer,” was the title of a sci-fi story. I just loved reading those mags — the stories were so good and I think they added a celestial element to some of the songs. Overall, I love finding old stories and applying them to something new. And how they’re written, the way they speak, it’s like a treasure trove.

I wondered whether that’s where you got the idea for the theremin, or whether it was a musical idea. Because so much old science fiction has a theremin soundtrack …

It was definitely a musical inspiration, because I was making a video series that was me discovering all these different sounds around L.A. And one of them was a theremin. I actually came across it on a hiking trail. This theremin player named Armen Ra … I wrote him into this series I was filming about this sound I discovered in the woods. Then I got in the studio with him (for “Supernatural”).

I feel like he crash-landed into the album from his star. I had to summon him from the cosmos.

I did research on theremin, and Léon Theremin. There used to be theremin orchestras. When you first hear it on the record, you think, “Is that a voice?” Then it goes to a crazy high note and you think, “No Way.” … It’s amazing what one instrument can do to an entire sound.

“God Save Our Young Blood” sounds like a prayer and it’s the first song on the record. Is it an intentional tone-setter?

It’s one of the first songs I wrote for the album — I was thinking about it very orchestrally. I wanted it to have distinct movements — each section having its own motif. I wanted to push myself and make it disorienting in a way, although once you hear it, I think it will make sense.

For being the first track on the album, it’s one of the least obvious.

I don’t know that it will be. Some people have had the reaction, “Yeah, I get it.” But I did want to put everybody in a landscape, and in my headspace, for the new record.

And should we take the song title literally?

That can apply differently to everyone. In a way, it kind of speaks to this search for enlightenment and how everybody finds that in different ways. I was putting it in the context of staying up all night until you see the sun rise, and it’s just one more day that you’ve made it through. I think a lot of people push themselves physically with drugs or sex or alcohol or emotions, and it’s always a matter of them trying to find some enlightenment.

It’s almost like asking to have the consciousness to be able to save humankind, in a way. Because we’ve distanced ourselves so far from the natural. … The first thing you have to do is understand what you are and where you came from, and it’s not being separate from nature, it’s being nature. That’s where everything makes sense, where everything is pure.

||| Stream: “Sweet Dreams”

Did you approach writing this record differently?

Only because I was a different person when I wrote it. I knew that whatever I made, I was going to have to tour and live with it for a while, so I wanted music that, first, would keep my attention. And I was feeling different things.

Were you under pressure to get this album done really quickly?

No, it’s just that we were excited.

Did you adhere to any kind of regimen? Did you and Tommy (English, his producer and co-writer) change things up in any way?

It was a matter off keeping the regimen fresh. Sometimes you get up early and get your instinctual ideas down while they’re fresh. Sometimes we take a really long time. There were times when we recorded things and then went back and listened to it at night thinking, “What did we do?” There are moments on the record when I think, “When did I write that?” We’d get into a flow. The lyrics and production were happening quickly. Like “Iceberg,” that happened that way.

But it was a different feeling than during the first album, when I was new to L.A. and everything was so brand-new and I was so wide-eyed.

How long did your “holy shit” last?

Probably about a year. I was wearing sparkly clothing, driving an old Mercedes and writing music in a treehouse.

I’m surprised to see you in denim today.

It’s my day off.

||| Live: BØRNS will be performing at Coachella in April.

||| Stream: “I Don’t Want You Back” and “Faded Heart”