Sequinned jackets over a bared chest, Jim Morrison-esque locks and festival-friendly lyrics about dogs in heat - ahead of talking to Garrett Borns, I was prepared for frippery and bravado.
But a soft voice answers from the LA home of BØRNS (so-styled for his smash pop outfit), politely recounting his holiday schedule. Mere weeks from the release of his Difficult Second Album, ‘Blue Madonna’, this Michigan-born millennial exhibits neither the anxiety nor over-compensating gestures of rockstar excess. Here is a man delighted by and confidently focused on his burgeoning success. I briefly check I’ve dialled the right number.
In an odd way, the glove fits. Despite the multi-platinum sales of glam-pop hit ‘Electric Love’ from his 2015 debut album ‘Dopamine’, on its follow-up Borns doesn’t seem content with repeating that Mika-meets-Tame Impala formula. Instead, ‘Blue Madonna’ flits stylistically back and forth between MGMT-ish psychedelia and garage fuzz, baroque pop and icy ballads, synth funk and anthemic acoustica. It’s held together with immaculate, kaleidoscopic production, a generous helping of chart-friendly choruses and Borns’ enduring breathlessness. His gymnastic voice slips easily into frontman virtuoso, but somehow still maintains a wide-eyed naiveté that makes him both a sympathetic performer and likeable interviewee.
Appropriately then, the album is primarily about trying to hold onto innocence. But not, he insists, his own: “It’s not so much about losing your childhood memories or growing up per se, but how people create these days, and about advancing technologically.”
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At many points during our conversation, Borns confidently considers his work’s themes without lofty intellectualism or artistic over-indulgence. Like his era-hopping reference points, the exploration of time on the record is reflective in an accessibly broad way. “I just realised,” he explains, “that on this album I was drawing a lot of inspiration from sci-fi novels and stuff from the ’50s, where there was this innocence about the world. They’re talking about 2018 - what the world will look like. I thought it was funny to see how we actually live in that future now, how we relate to each other differently.”
But neither does Borns harbour any interest in living in the past. Asked which era he would go back to if he could, he rejects the proposition: “I feel like there’s something about not living in the times I’m inspired by - the ’70s and ’80s. They have this illusion to them, something that I’ll never really know. It’s like you almost think of the ’40s that everything was black and white.” Like the motley retromania of ‘Blue Madonna’, Borns’ own po-mo nostalgia is self-conscious and holds no allegiance to any particular moment: “I like the artefacts more than the reality itself, because they have this romantic element to them.” This is thoughtful pop, then, but Borns’ attitude to his output is also refreshingly candid. He sums up his artistic progression over the past years in practical terms of technical skill and lifestyle management, and refers to himself as a growing performer, person and “businessman”.
While this might be a humble Joe in Prince’s clothing, there’s no dishonesty to his vibrant bricolage - a fact nicely encapsulated by his approach to his own impressive wardrobe. “It’s definitely my opportunity to play a character a bit and probably jazz it up more than I normally would,” Borns explains, detailing his and his superstar-stylist Kat Typaldos’ fusion of musical and fashion concepts. “There are 12 songs on the record and 12 outfits that went with them, each featuring a different designer. It’s almost like my personality changes from song to song, like an alter ego. In order to tell a story correctly I have to get into these different head-spaces.”
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Some of these headspaces stem from unusual places. The central story of ‘I Don’t Want You Back’ revolves around the long-defunct Sparkomatic car stereo line, found by Borns in a seedy ’80s magazine ad. The lyric “You got me howlin’ like a dog in heat” on ‘Faded Heart’ was inspired not by animal lust, but the daily “car alarms” of Borns’ neighbourhood chihuahuas. And ‘Sweet Dreams’ was written from the sampled hooting of a local owl. Borns let the bird direct the recording process - “I was trying to embody my best nocturnal coo,” he explains.
Spirit animals aside, Borns seems less of a new age romantic than a stolid craftsman. The songs themselves were honed precisely and quickly, but the production is audibly painstaking. Does that make him a perfectionist?
“I think I have a different view of perfectionism on this record because I just wanted to get these songs out as soon as I could. I’m already thinking about what I wanna do next and getting back in the studio. Perfectionism for me is really encapsulating a time and place in my life.” And BØRNS may have done just that. Hats off (and sequins on) to him.
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Words: Callum McLean
Photography: Nu Xuan Hua
Fashion: Rudy Betty
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