Music is A Sweet, Sweet Drug: An Interview With Garrett Borns

Listening to the top two or three songs on [Garret] BØRNS's roster, like the insanely catchy track 10,000 Emerald Pools off his latest album Dopamine, one might get the idea that he's just another psychedelic pop balladeer making it big in the music industry. If Borns is is a pop balladeer, he's a damn good one. His work has garnered commercial and critical acclaim, he opened Coachella this year with LCD Soundsystem, and he's been touring for the last year and a half.  But listen to Borns's live cover of Leslie Gore's "It's My Party" - just him on stage with an electric guitar - and it's eerily like listening to a young Jeff Buckley, the soul in his voice, the vocal travels to the highest highs and darkest depths, and all the simple sweetness in between. We talked to the singer/musician about the soul influences on his sound, falling in love with LA, and music as a drug. 

OLIVER KUPPER: Are you playing at Louisville this weekend?

GARRETT BORNS: No, I’m in St. Louis.

KUPPER: Nice, how do you like it?

BORNS: I dig it, it’s pretty warm out there. The sun is definitely out to getcha.

KUPPER: I was just watching a live performance of you playing “It’s my Party” (by Leslie Gore). It was really good, and then I stopped watching it and was just listening to it. I started to get reminded of Jeff Buckley, not only in the voice but also his use of covers, and the way he sort of used covers of pop songs and sort of repositioned them with his voice. Like the way he did usrat Fateh Ali Khao Éth Piaf. It was really interesting­­and  was wondering what you thought of that.

BORNS: Yeah, I definitely take an influence from him. You pretty much nailed it on the head with your description of it, I just love how he can transform a song. I’m always looking toward old music to discover. I think I enjoy discovering “old new” music that I have no idea about more than discovering new music. So I try to look back through archives. I was just listening to old James Brown recordings and it’s crazy to hear the progression of his voice over time­­just how he sings and his timbre as a young singer being so much higher and almost more innocent than in his later years.

KUPPER: Yeah, it’s really interesting. And you have a great voice so it must be really fun and creative to be able to express that. Going back a little bit, how’d you get from Grand Haven, Michigan, to where you are now? Do you live in LA now?

BORNS: Yeah pass through LA. I’ve been touring for the past year in a half so I haven’t been back much or haven’t really had too much time off, but LA is my home base.

KUPPER: You probably get asked this a lot but you were into magic before, right? You were a magician? 

BORNS: Yeah, it was my first time dabbling in the performance arts, I guess.

KUPPER: And you moved from New York to LA right after vacationing in LA. What was it about LA that you liked?

BORNS: I felt like some things were kind of aligning. It was the people I was meeting and I found a really great place in the hills.

KUPPER: Were you living in a treehouse?

BORNS: Yeah, it was a guesthouse that kind of looked like a vacation home surrounded by fruit trees. I was like, “this can’t be real”. I ended up staying there for over a year even though I was supposed to be there for just a weekend. The people who owned the guest house were super lovely folks and loved music and art, and they had three young kids who played music, so it was a cool environment to be in. They’re a big influence to pretty much why I stayed in LA.

KUPPER: I feel like that’s why LA’s so magical. You find people that really get it and you have the space to sort of disappear and make your art and own music.

BORNS: Yeah there’s plenty of space to disappear into.

KUPPER: You pursued visual art before music. Did you want to go into that direction or why did music become the path you took, versus fine art?

BORNS: I think music has always been prevalent in my life. I owe it to my folks to create a wide array of genres of art growing up. My dad is a really talented artist a graphic designer, so he taught me a lot about visual arts growing up. He and I used to go to this studio every week and paint and listen to music, with this sort of Motown station that always played. That always resonates with me still today.

KUPPER: There’s something insanely magical and indescribable about that old soul music­­especially northern soul­­that’s almost indescribable. So the name of your two previous album names are “Candy” and “Dopamine”. Is there a connection between psychedelic drugs and psychedelic pop music? 

BORNS: [laughs] I guess there could be, it all depends on your taste. If the question is if I was on psychedelic drugs while making this album, then no. I was purely on the drugs my brain was supplying. But that’s not to say that you can’t enjoy music without a little aid from our psychedelic friend. 

KUPPER: And music can be a drug too.

BORNS: Absolutely.

KUPPER: Your visuals and lyrics seem really fantastical. Do you see music as way to escape from or expand reality?

BORNS: I think so. I’m always trying to make it as visual as possible. So yeah, I think it’s a way of escaping reality. It’s not like I’m searching to escape reality but I’m definitely always kind of daydreaming, so I try to put that into songs.

KUPPER: And you’ve been getting a lot of attention lately. You opened Coachella with LCD soundsystem and Taylor Swift is a big fan of your work. How are you handling with all that stuff­­or do you think about it?

BORNS: I’m extremely grateful that people have been taken to the music the way they have, and all of the fans at shows have been so gracious and giving me really nice gifts and love poems and shirts, so that’s pretty much a dream for me. I’m super thankful.

KUPPER: Are you working on an album now or is there going to be another full­ length soon?

BORNS: I’ve been pretty much non-­stop touring so not too much time to record new stuff. But once I’m done with touring in the fall I’ll be back in the studio. There’s lots of ideas.

KUPPER: And do you enjoy touring? I mean musicians sort of have to these days to make any money. But do you find it fun or engaging or creatively fulfilling?

BORNS: Yeah, it can be very taxing but also just very rewarding.

KUPPER: Any crazy tour stories?

BORNS: Every night, my friend. Every night is pretty crazy. 

Garrett Borns is currently on tour - you can find tour dates here. Click here to listen to his latest album Dopamine. Text by Keely Shinners, interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Photographs by Douglas Neill. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE