In October 2015, Garrett Borns, better known as the singular BØRNS, released his debut album Dopamine, and his career went into overdrive. The memorable start to that phase of his musical journey began in our fair city, where hours before the album came out, he found himself in DC, onstage at the Rock & Roll Hotel.
“That was a good experience,” he tells On Tap in advance of his show at The Anthem on February 13. “My first album dropped at midnight, and I played the show at Rock & Roll Hotel, packed up the van and drove straight to New York to sound check for Jimmy Fallon. I played that show, and then stayed up until it aired, and then woke up the next day like, ‘What the hell just happened?’”
He laughs. “Yeah, that was interesting.”
BØRNS grew up in Michigan before moving to New York, and eventually L.A. He first played music under his real name, performing songs on ukulele at a TEDx event in 2011, which is still available on YouTube. Eventually signing to Interscope Records, he started releasing music as BØRNS in 2014 and his star began to rise, with TV appearances and opening slots for bands like MisterWives, Charli XCX and Bleachers. He hit the road, not knowing where it would lead.
“It was a crazy progression for the first record,” he says. “I think for someone that hasn’t toured before, there’s no way to explain it. It wasn’t like I just hopped on a tour bus for two years; I was in a van for a long time. And my band definitely was incredible on the road and worked five times as hard as they needed to, and I just had really special crews. [There was] a lot of working our way up to being able to finally get a bus by the last run. It was really nice, but it definitely had its challenges. I think I learned a lot from it.”
BØRNS’s music has been described as ethereal, indie alt-rock and it certainly shows influences from the great rock bands of the 60s, 70s and 80s, with guitars, drums and synthesizers pulsing throughout. In his live show, he even does a spot-on cover of Elton John’s 1973 hit “Bennie and the Jets.” But it also has a sound that’s unmistakably his, and unmistakably new. And that’s what he’s going for.
“I’m never trying to sound throwback, or like Robert Plant or anything like that. But I’m inspired by those artists’ spirits and the way they performed and their confidence or their boldness or their sensitivity. So that’s kind of how I use influences. Because at the end of the day, it’s my music and it comes from a place inside of me.”
When he set out to write songs for his new album Blue Madonna, released on January 12, BØRNS had the benefit of knowing that he would be performing these songs in front of a lot of people – and for awhile, too. And that made it a very different experience from the first time around. He says that he specifically had his live show in mind when he wrote these songs, and was thinking about what would make the best experience for an audience. He also wanted to challenge himself in the process.
“I did a lot more experimenting with songwriting, and with my voice as an instrument,” he says. “And I just really wanted to make something that I knew I was going to be going on the road with for awhile, because I didn’t realize I was going to be playing the first album for so long. It was like, ‘Alright, I might need to make something with a little more sustenance maybe.’”
Beyond his music, BØRNS’s fashion sense is also something that has caused people to take notice. After he wore some Gucci clothes for his auspicious Jimmy Fallon debut, people from Gucci noticed, got in touch and BØRNS was flown to Milan for their fall menswear show. He continues to push himself to try new looks and styles.
“It keeps me entertained,” he says. “I love wearing different things to see what it does to my performance or my personality, and it’s an artistic expression. I’m always inspired by fashion.”
As he ventures out on tour again this month, BØRNS says it takes some time to get into the swing of things when heading out on the road. But when things get rolling, audiences might expect the sublime.
“Once you get into it, once you get into the flow, I feel like pretty magical things can happen.”
The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; 202-888-0020; www.theanthemdc.com