Music

BØRNS’ Blue Madonna Is a Celebration of Innocence Lost

The artist discusses his sophomore album, working with Lana Del Rey, and how he feels about being labeled as “gender-bending.” Photography Robin Harper Styling Kat Typaldos
Reading time 9 minutes

An air of melancholy permeates BØRNS’s artful sophomore album, Blue Madonna. The 26-year-old, rural Michigan-born singer-songwriter and musician — née Garrett Borns — isn’t necessarily somber, but a particular sadness wafts between each smoky synth and sparkly glam rock riff, conjuring the pensive drama of Carlo Dolci (the album is titled after the painter’s 17th century portrait of the Virgin Mary) or perhaps Pablo Picasso’s iconic Blue Period.

Across the record, themes of heartbreak and existential longing anchor funky Prince- and Bowie-esque grooves, bringing the celestial sonics back down to earth, but Blue Madonna—the follow-up to 2015’s Dopamine—mostly finds the eccentric artist in repose, reflecting on innocence lost.

 

[Photo: BØRNS wears Top Cherry Vintage, Pants Gucci, Earrings Necklace BØRNS's own]

Since making his debut in 2014, BØRNS has become somewhat of an enigma in the landscape of pop, creating music forged more in the fires of ‘70s folk-rock versus the moody R&B-steeped pop of his peers.

The result, an unexpected collection of psychedelic, Baroque sex-pop, is pure BØRNS from start to finish: off-kilter, undeniably groovy, and most likely from another dimension.

Below, the artist opens up about labels like “gender-bending” and working with pop’s resident Sad Girl and L’Officiel USA cover star, Lana Del Rey.

ERICA RUSSELL When we last spoke, you were living in the trees. Are you still living in a treehouse?

 

BØRNS I’m not anymore. You know, the elements pushed me out of the tree. I’m in a little more stable living situation now. It was nice to live in the treehouse for a bit. It was kind of a childhood fantasy come true.

 

ER On Blue Madonna, you utilize a lot of really unique instruments, like the omnichord and the theremin. Do you keep a running list of instruments or musical styles that you want to experiment with?

 

B Since I was pretty young, I was always collecting interesting instruments. I love acquiring new instruments and fitting them into songs. They bring new personality to the songs. I feel like every instrument has a few songs waiting to come out of it, so you have to jostle it around and mess with it until the song falls out. The theremin was on my bucket list for a long time. I love the sound of it. The Beach Boys used it and it’s just a beautiful, otherworldly instrument.

 

ER Are you a big Beach Boys fan?

 

B Yeah, I’m really fascinated by how Brian Wilson puts songs together. Because, on paper, they make no sense at all, but the key changes... when you listen to them, they make perfect sense. They’re beautiful pop songs. I’ve always been fascinated by his writing.

 

ER Who are some other musicians whose methods inspire you?

 

B Nina Simone. [I love her] voice and she’s an incredible piano player. Piano is my main instrument, and I feel like she gets such style out of a piano. Her voice is so unique to her, it's produced from her soul. Also, Brian Eno and David Bowie. I just love their songwriting process. They always tried new things and all their records sound completely different.

 

ER Speaking of Bowie, a lot of folks have described your style as “gender-bending.” How do you feel about that label?

 

B The things I wear, I’m always thinking about the character that they bring out. To me, clothes never really have a gender. They’re just clothes. I like wearing different things to bring out a different personality and a different character that’s inside of me...It’s fun to wear things that are a bit different and push the boundaries. I guess I never really look at clothes like they have gender. You just wear them.

When I was growing up, my mom owned a thrift shop for a while so I would try on stuff because I liked being a different character when I was younger, too. Honestly, performing now is living out what I was doing as a kid. Being able to be on stage and perform and wear whatever I want… Even if I wasn’t performing, I’d still be wearing things that I like. I guess people probably call me “gender-bending” because I usually wear something that was made for a girl. [Laughs] If you feel confident in it, you should just wear it.

 

ER Would you say BØRNS is a specific character? Where does the line blur between Garrett and your stage name? Do you have multiple egos you bring on stage?

 

B A kaleidoscope of egos, yes! [Laughs] I really don’t know until I walk on stage. And that’s what performing is for: leaving everything in your personal life behind. That’s why I think people go to shows. They want to be immersed in a world that has nothing to do with the outside of that theater or wherever. That’s why I go to the movies and that’s why I make music in the first place because you can be completely body-less. Music is one of those really interesting artistic mediums because you can’t see it—you can only feel it.

 

ER Are you a cinephile?

 

B Well, I also have a projector so I’ll just watch interesting films at home and I’ll play music to it. I think putting an image to music is inspiring. If a song’s recorded, you can then put the visuals to it, but if the visuals come first, then the music can narrate that. It’s kind of like narrating your own silent film.

 

ER Going back to Blue Madonna, in what way was the record inspired by the works of Carlo Dolci?

 

B Well, the title was. I was looking at a lot of old paintings for inspiration for photography for the album cover because I like the compositions and the way the lighting is in a lot of Carlo Dolci’s work. Many of them are very religious. There’s this one called “Blue Madonna.” I wrote that title down because it really stuck with me. In the neighborhood I was living in, every time I would drive to the studio, I would see the Virgin Mary painted on the side of buildings. The image of the Virgin Mary just kept coming up when I was making the album. I think once you have a title in your head that’s showing up in other places, you kind of have to surrender to it. It’s trying to tell you something.

 

ER Another publication described this album as your Blue Period. Would you agree?

 

B I guess, in a way. I just did so much traveling and played so many shows the past few years, but I learned a lot about myself and the world around me. A lot more than I knew first going into it. I was very, very sweetly naive about the whole thing, and I realized that I could never go back and be that performer again. There’s something to be said about performing on a stage and having it be the first time—the first time at a festival, the first time in a country. There are all these really amazing moments that I had on tour for the first time that I’ll never be able to experience again. In a way, that was my loss of innocence. But that’s not a bad thing.

 

ER It’s actually a beautiful thing. It’s the human experience. Finally, what was it like working with Lana Del Rey?

 

B I was really excited to get into the studio with her. I’ve always admired her songwriting. I feel like she’s one artist that can make an entire body of work and it’s just her own universe, from start to finish. You can tell every single atom of it is her idea, her thoughts, her voice, her sensuality. It was great to be in the studio to see how she works and get her feedback on some of my songs. I hadn’t put anything out at that point and I was able to show her some tracks, which was awesome.

 

ER She seems like a loving, creative soul.

 

B She’s a really incredible writer and very, very down to earth and sweet. I always want collaborations to happen organically and naturally. Honestly, it was just us texting each other for months, being like, “Hey, are you in town? We’re finally in town together? Let’s get in the studio!” I only wanted it to happen when it was supposed to happen, and it did.

Makeup Melissa Murdick (Opus Beauty) using Make Up For Ever

Hair Iggy Rosales (Opus Beauty) using Kevin Murphy

Photo Assistants Carl Duquette and Alexandre Jaras

Stylist Assistants Kindall Almond, Shari Bisnaught, Olivia Typaldos

Location and Equipment Smashbox Studio

Catering City Kitchen

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