With a new album, an appearance on “The Tonight Show” and a string of sold-out concerts, West Michigan native Garrett Borns may be on the verge of becoming a bona fide pop phenomenon.
When you’re redefining pop music, anything is possible.
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That means an unassuming but wildly talented kid from a small town along Lake Michigan can find himself smack dab in the middle of the Los Angeles music maelstrom and emerge as one of his generation’s most distinctive and – perhaps – most promising pop stars.
Anyone doubting that wasn’t at Brooklyn’s sold-out Music Hall of Williamsburg last weekend when Grand Haven native Garrett Borns, simply known as Borns these days, captivated several hundred euphoric 20-something fans who cheered, screamed and sang along to almost every word from his very-young catalog of music.
This was a hipster audience completely smitten with a 23-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist who oozes the sort of charisma that’s part Prince, part Michael Jackson, part Donovan and part Jack White while delivering songs dripping with glammy and brilliantly catchy, psychedelic pop flair, propelled by his high-pitched vocals.
“He’s great. It’s his performance, everything,” one 20-something female fan gushed during the standing-room-only concert.
Some fans lined up on the sidewalk outside the Brooklyn venue hours before the Saturday show, part of New York’s annual CMJ Music Marathon, then squealed in rhapsodic delight at his every utterance and the opening notes of every song.
“The moments that feel real for me are what I’m seeing in person. The Internet to me is so not a real place,” Borns says, adding that touring has been “a great way to connect with people across the country. Seeing the people coming to the shows and knowing the songs, that’s when it hits me.”
INSTANT SENSATION: NEW ALBUM AND A ‘NERVOUS, FUN’ APPEARANCE ON ‘FALLON’
That pivotal New York show came a day after official release of his impressive full-length Interscope Records album, “Dopamine.”
It also came the night after his national TV appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” where he uncorked his melodically addictive single, “Electric Love” – the kind of song that fuses with one’s brain cells and doesn’t let go. (That could be why it soared into the Top 20 of Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart and why Taylor Swift earlier this year dubbed it an “instant classic”).
Indeed, National Public Radio gushed this week that Borns “became an instant sensation” when the song went viral earlier this year.
From every corner it seems, fans and critics alike have been hailing this pop music with substance, delivered by an unusual artist who’s just as likely to squeeze a cover of a Led Zeppelin tune (“Four Sticks”) into his sets as an oldie from Lesley Gore (“It’s My Party”).
There’s little portending that sort of exuberant audience response while chatting with the softspoken, ever gentle Borns in his dressing room a few hours before the Brooklyn show, the long-haired singer-songwriter clad in a simple hoodie with “Rock and Roll” emblazoned on the back.
He still seems every bit the thoughtful and mellow Midwestern boy who graduated five years ago from Grand Haven High School where he sang in the choir and started to turn heads with his music.
“My heart’s definitely in Michigan,” he insists, then adds, “but a piece of my heart is in Southern California, too.”
Clearly, Southern California – and Los Angeles, in particular – has shaped and transformed this lithe West Michigan native into a buzz-generating Universal Music Group artist, providing perhaps the perfect environment for him to channel his singularly groovy pop music.
‘TRUSTING YOUR GUT,’ ASSEMBLING A TEAM, BUILDING A FAN BASE
After briefly testing the waters of New York upon leaving Grand Haven, Borns settled comfortably into the L.A.-area landscape in 2013, more specifically, in the meditative hills outside the city where he says he had time to let his thoughts “resonate.” He concedes he was mostly on his own.
“It was a lot of like figuring out who I was,” he recalls.
Musically, however, he was “very inspired by moving to L.A. pretty immediately.” He soon started working with producer and writer Jack Kennedy (with whom he collaborated on his first single, “10,000 Emerald Pools” in 2014) and later, producer Tommy English (with whom he wrapped up “Dopamine”). He calls both of them “kindred spirits.”
Indeed, he’s surrounded himself with what he views as a caring and supportive crew.
“It was a lot of just really trusting your gut. If it doesn’t totally feel right, it’s probably not right,” he says of negotiating the labyrinth of the Los Angeles music scene. “It feels right, right now. It’s nice to have that team out there and everyone on my team feels like they’re really really close.”
That team has helped elevate Borns’ game as he builds his audience, from playing this fall’s Austin City Limits Music Festival in front of giant crowds that extended “as far as the eye can see” to a booking on “The Tonight Show,” an experience that left the young singer a little starry-eyed himself.
“Fallon was awesome,” Borns says, noting the TV appearance came during “a crazy 24 hours” that also boasted a sold-out show in Washington D.C.
“Playing on that show I was so nervous. First off, you have The Roots right there and they’re like the best musicians in the world. Questlove is just like staring at you. It’s ‘The Tonight Show,’ I mean ‘THE Tonight Show,’ and I definitely had major butterflies all day. But it was a lot of fun. It was really cool.”
It’s the sort of experience that suggests Borns is still figuring things out, still honing his on-stage presence and feeling his way through sometimes-awkward audience banter, still getting comfortable in his new pop-star skin.
“Every show, I’m learning about communicating with an audience,” says Borns, recalling his first big arena show in Denver earlier this fall.
“It’s so interesting playing places like that because of the lights … you can only see three rows in front of you. It’s a huge cavernous room and all of these people and all of this energy, but I can only see pretty much three rows in front of me, so you almost have to treat every concert like that: Communicate with the audience like you’re communicating with this small audience.”
(Borns returns to his home state later this year, playing The Shelter in Detroit on Dec. 16, and concedes he’d love to roll out a real homecoming show in the Grand Rapids area at some point.)
In reality, those audiences are growing. More New York fans turned out for another sold-out show this week at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom, a few days before Borns and his band were to jet overseas for concerts in France, the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Belgium, European countries where one might guess the pop singer would also make a hefty splash, fueled partly by the success of “Electric Love.”
The singer’s intoxicating music and charismatic demeanor come together radiantly in that explosive, rock-guitar-driven hit single which fawns over a lover who’s “lightning in a bottle.”
Lightning in a bottle.
With sold-out concerts and 2 million-plus views for his “Electric Love” video alone, Borns seems to have found just that with his shimmery pop.
PHOTO GALLERY: Borns @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
Photos by Paul Sinkevics
Click on photo to enlarge gallery
VIDEO: Borns, “Electric Love”
Copyright 2015, Spins on Music LLC