Michigan-native Garrett Borns’s success feels uncontainable. More commonly known as BØRNS, a persona he differentiates from himself offstage, the singer-songwriter’s popularity exploded in 2015 after his music—a concoction of '70s nostalgia, theatrical falsetto, and glam pop instrumentation—made its way into a Chrysler commercial. He quickly caught the fashion world’s attention after sporting Gucci’s Tomato red tie-neck blouse (Fall ’15) during a performance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, inspiring the brand to approach him for an official partnership. The virality of singles like “Electric Love” and “10,000 Emerald Pools,” tent poles of his debut studio album Dopamine, skyrocketed after receiving endorsements from the likes of Taylor Swift and the late Prince. And, as virility goes, BØRNS’s talent, bolstered by an androgynous sex appeal, has made him a bit of an international phenomenon, taking him far beyond his rural American roots.
While navigating his newfound success and dedicated following, BØRNS has been working on his sophomore effort, a yet-to- be-named LP due out in January, 2018. He’s also been navigating the globe on tour, which has taken him from L.A. to Russia and beyond. At a time when America’s international reputation seems shakier than ever, BØRNS’s artistry and charisma give hope to the country’s history of cultural gravitas. We spoke with the pop world’s favorite emerging star about conquering the new album, as well as new frontiers.
MATHIAS ROSENZWEIG You’ve already released two singles from the new album. How do you go about choosing tracks to set the tone for an upcoming LP?
BØRNS Those two songs were finished pretty early in the record making process. I had shown my label those ones and they really liked them. They thought it would be a good reintroduction and bridge into the next album. It just made sense to put those ones out. Chronologically, they tell the story of the next album. So it wasn’t a crazy big decision. Those were just the natural songs to put out.
MR So then the new album does tell one cohesive story?
B Yeah, there’s definitely a story with a lot of interweaving narratives. I think all in all, there is a theme that is…kind of like a supernatural phenomenon, and the quest for immortality. That’s the super heavy theme for the album, but it breaks down into different parts.
MR Where did the obsession with immortality come from?
B Well, I think it came from being on the road so much and having this sense of feeling powerful on stage…performing, feeling almost superhuman in a way. Then there’s sort of this flipside which is feeling completely human and run-down, and mortal on the road. It’s very draining. It was such a head-trip traveling and performing that much because you get both sides of the coin.
MR I’ve heard artists talk about that deafening silence after a big show before.
B Yeah, definitely. It’s the craziest silence after a show when you’re trying to sleep. It doesn’t make any sense.
MR When you’ve put out new material, what do those next few days look like?
B I feel like I’m always curious about the initial reaction, but even deeper than that, I like hearing people’s reactions in person or at shows. That’s the big truth-teller when you’re performing the song and people are singing along and excited to hear it. That’s when you know that the song has a life of its own. The internet can be so convoluted. It’s just a black hole, I don’t want to get sucked into it. I want to spend my time making more stuff.
MR Do you have a preference between your time in the studio and your time on the road?
B I need both. You can’t really have one without the other and you’ve got to put in the time both in the studio and on-stage. There’s only one way to get better at your craft, and they fuel each other. The way that I perform in the beginning of the tour versus the end of the tour is so different. Then, when I go into the studio, I sing differently, record different music, and then get on the road again. It’s a constant cycle where they both fuel each other.
MR As a performer who writes his own lyrics, do you ever feel vulnerable sharing facets of your personal life through music?
B The songs take on new meaning more and more. I don’t know if I ever feel self-conscious about bringing people into my life story, because it’s always a different context where people will be associating it with themselves. That’s kind of the point of music and storytelling. It’s almost like we’re sharing an intimate experience, and people take from my songs their own stories. It’s intimate on both sides.
MR Beyond sales or charts, how do you define success as an artist?
B I think putting out something that is different from everything else that’s out. Not following a formula or anything, and seeing how people react to that—I always find it very interesting. I guess my weird thoughts and imagination that I think are funny, that resonate with me musically or sensually…when people pick up on that, that’s a great feeling. I always want to do things that are new, and I like when people go away from it thinking, “That’s so you. Only you could get away with that.”
MR With the amount of music coming out now, it’s truly hard to stay “different.”
B There’s always going to be one person who does something different, and then a thousand copycats. That becomes a trendy thing. It’s hard to break out of that, or not be influenced by that, but the more you can do your own thing or just your own version of the thing everyone else is doing, that’s what’s hot.
MR I know you can’t say who yet, but you’ve worked with a lot of collaborators on this new album. Do you prefer working like that or alone?
B I think as long as I’ve been making things, since I was a young lad [laughs], I preferred my artistic solitude or working with one other person. That’s how I like making records, having an intimate space where it’s just you and another person one-on- one vibing. I made my whole new album with Tommy English, who produced my first album. We’re best friends, so we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even have to talk, we can just make a song. Just by playing stuff and doing our thing.
MR Your touring has been pretty extensive in terms of your reach, where you’ve performed internationally. Was there any place that tripped you out in terms of them knowing your music or the general feeling of being there?
B Yeah, Eastern Europe was definitely a trip. I played Romania last year and Moscow, which was crazy, to have people singing my songs there. I’m going back to Russia [this month]. We’re going to Istanbul which is pretty cool. Even though the Internet exists, it’s pretty cool to be able to go to a club and people show up. To have a connection with those countries, it’s crazy.
MR Do you feel a big difference in the audience based on where you are? Does a show in Moscow feel different than a show in New York?
B Yeah, it definitely does. Every place has their own demeanor. Some places are more closed off than others. The show in Moscow was one of my favorite shows. There was so much love and curiosity in the room. We’re from such different worlds, and it was just such an inspiring show. When you’re super close to something, it’s not as valuable. You don’t feel like you can act on your instincts or show that you’re enjoying something.
MR I feel like artists get really nervous about performing in New York, for some reason.
B Yeah, I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s that you relate to them, you relate to people in the audience more as in you know them and they know you. It’s always like breaking into your performing mode. It’s hard to do that with people who know you.
MR Do you have any sort of ritual for getting into the mode before shows?
B Well, I don’t like too much time to sit around and think. I’m usually pretty busy with press and stuff like that. I kind of have my work cut out for me, but I like that. I like to just shake out all of the stagnant energy in my body and feel like I’m free once I step out on stage, I’m not tense or anything. Physically shake it out, morning and night.