Don't Wake Me, I'm Not Dreaming: A Conversation With BØRNS
Originally published on Slant.
Rock 'n' roll is less defined by a singular sound or aesthetic, and more by an attitude. There have been thousand of writers who have set off on Holy Grail quests searching for "true rock 'n' roll," but a finite definition or trademark essence will always remain elusive. The genre, in our sync-to-iPhone listening culture, has become so much about bedroom-demo shyness, or us-versus-the-world aggression, or try-anything innovation, that the soul of rock 'n' roll has been repackaged to a point where it's become unrecognizable.
But rock 'n' roll is much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's understanding of pornography: you know it when you see it.
There will always be bands who can imitate certain sounds or eras. Garrett Borns pays homage to rock's legacy by exuding confidence and infusing every song he writes and records with a vintage sexiness. His debut LP, Dopamine, explores the chemical components of emotion: the ecstatic, electric high of being in love; the devastating, depressant lows of longing of loss.
I talked with BØRNS ahead of SXSW about his writing process, his massive 2015, and finding inspiration in old Playboy magazines.
SD: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
GB: I grew up in Michigan on the lower peninsula right on Lake Michigan. My childhood was filled with a lot of outdoor activity. I feel like I spent most of my time climbing trees and collecting rocks and making things from my natural environment. So I was definitely an outdoors-y child. It was very peaceful, it was very nice. I think I found a sense of meditation at a young age, so that’s always stuck with me.
SD: When did you first start making music?
GB: I was pretty young. I don’t know if there was really a moment when I started making it. I think I’ve always dabbled in writing songs and learning other repertoire of albums that my parents were listening to. I’ve always been fascinated with melody and lyrics and stuff like that.
SD: What were some of your early influences?
GB: I remember I had a Beatles compilation and an Elvis compilation that I listened to over and over when I got my own CD player. So Beatles and Elvis were top of the list and quintessential to any songwriter’s listening repertoire. So, yeah, early, classic rock ’n’ roll.
SD: When did you decide to make music as BØRNS?
GB: I moved out to Los Angeles in the springtime of 2013 to continue my journey trying to figure out exactly what I was going to do with my solo project. I wanted to make a record. I didn’t really know what I wanted it to sound like, but once I heard it, I would know. It wasn’t until I moved to LA that I started writing music for that album. That’s when it really started to resonate with me.
I just started calling it BØRNS because I put some demos up on a website. BØRNS itself is a very common word, if you us just search "B-O-R-N-S" without the slashed "O." You’ll get a lot of random baby-related, infant-related search results. I noticed that if you put the slash through the "O" on an American Google search, so I liked that it would be easier to find, because it’s such a common word. I put that up on my website and that’s when I started getting calls from labels and managers saying they liked my music. And it just sort of stuck, with that slash through the "O."
It wasn’t until I toured over in Europe and played in Scandinavia that I realized that it actually changes the pronunciation of "borns" to "burns." It translates to "childrens." And I thought that was a cool band name. Children or Childrens. I like how it has a double meaning and different pronunciations.
SD: I read that you inspired by vintage 'Playboy' magazines from the ‘60s ad ‘70s while you were recording 'Dopamine.' Can you talk about what kind of influence that had on the mood of the record?
GB: Besides the obvious inspiration from old Playboy magazines that most people have (laughs), I was really inspired by the way a lot of the articles were laid out and the advertisements explained or sold, you know, a box of cigarettes or a new perfume or a pair of slacks. They really seduced you into thinking, "Once you have this pair of slacks, you will be the sexiest person you can be." I liked the tongue-in-cheek, play-on-words sexiness of the advertisements.
I wanted to make a similar feeling. Even the booklet of my album and the cover was inspired an ad in Playboy. I like how it’s all handmade and the attention to detail, because everything wasn’t digitally designed in those days. All the typography and stuff like that was handwritten for my album.
SD: What’s your writing process like?
GB: A song definitely goes through many permutations. Before it’s in it’s final form, it’s interesting seeing a song go through all those transformations. It’s always kind of a puzzle by the end. Sometimes you think you’re writing a chorus and it ends up being the verse of the song. And sometimes you’re writing too many versus and one of those verses ends up being a completely different song.
I really find songwriting fascinating in that way in that you never really know what you’re getting yourself into. Sometimes the songs have their own ideas. They want to write themselves. I’ve never written a song the same way twice. It’s always a puzzle and sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s definitely a payoff at the very end. After hours of laboring and loving and contouring and all that.
SD: The song "Electric Love" is everywhere. It’s on TV, it’s being played in sports arenas, it’s underscoring the catwalk at New York Fashion Week. What’s the weirdest place that you’ve heard your own music played?
GB: This one time, I was getting on a plane in Australia. We had just a hell of a trip. We flew from Los Angeles to Melbourne, and once we landed in Melbourne we had to immediately get all of our gear on to another flight. We barely got on to this other flight. We’re like running to the gate. We barely got all of our gear checked. We finally, somehow, like all out of breath, got on this flight right before they closed the door. And we all sat down in our seats and "Electric Love" started playing (laughs).
And it was the weirdest thing. Because I was sitting next to someone on the plane and they were like, "Wow, you really hustled to get on this flight." And I was like, "Oh yeah, I'm playing this festival and we had to get off a 17-hour flight and race to this one." And then my song started playing. And she’s like, “What’s your band called?" And I was like, "Well, this is really weird, but my song is actually playing right now." (laughs) It was a good a payoff, though. It was like, it feels like we were meant to be here.
SD: You’ve had a lot of success on Spotify. What are your thoughts about streaming services? Do you think the ultimately help artists or do you think they hurt artists?
GB: It depends on how you’re looking at it. If we’re just talking exposure, I think it definitely it helps artists in being able to share their full albums or get put on to playlists. That’s definitely a good thing. I feel like there’s so many ways of finding music these days, whether it’s YouTube or other streaming services. So I feel like if people really want your album or your music for free, they’re going to find a way to get it for free.
If people are big fans and want to support you as an artist, it’s no different than any other art form. People have their studio fees, and there’s recording time, and mixing and mastering. It costs money. So at the end of the day, if someone wants to support you, it’s probably the best to buy your album. As far as exposure, streaming services are great.
SD: What is the best part of being able to be an artist full-time? And what would you say is the most difficult part?
GB: In terms of the most difficult part, it’s the mixture of deadlines and the schedule of being on the road. All of 2015, I was pretty much on the road for most of that. So that means a lot of creative decisions have to be made on the road, which can be kind of unsettling at times because it’s hard to really center yourself and know you’re making the right decision. The road is definitely not a glamorous lifestyle and it’s a lot of choosing your naps pretty wisely (laughs). It’s pretty intense. But it’s had a lot of payoffs and I just want to keep hustling.
SD: You’ve had a huge 2015, with an album that sold really well, lots of exposure, lots of touring. It’s been a year of new things. What is 2016 have in store for BØRNS?
GB: 2016 has so far been very fruitful. We hit the ground running. I was over in Australia to ring in the new year. Between then and now, we played on James Corden and over in Europe. A lot of touring, definitely. Playing a lot of festivals that I’ve really been looking forward to playing like Coachella and South By. Touring a lot, and hopefully getting a little time in edgewise to brainstorm some new material because I have a lot of ideas swimming about.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
Cover photo: Nikko LaMere