Sarah Borges – Not fado way
In a recent interview with the hosts of the National Public Radio quiz show “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”, Linda Ronstadt spoke of how freeing her transition from rock chick to standards diva was. Snarling songs like “You’re No Good” back when women in rock were still something of a novelty, she had to project a toughness she didn’t really feel. But chirping Gershwin and Berlin with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, she was more in her element (if not, this standards buff feels compelled to say, more convincing).
All these years later, female rockers may well come in more shades of tough than male: postpunk, retro-soul, blues-bashing, redneck. Upon first hearing young roots artist Sarah Borges stomp and swing with such easy authority on her auspicious 2005 debut album Silver City (issued by Houston’s Blue Corn label), one had to assume this was her element from the start. And she seems even more at home with everything from honky-tonk to electric boogie on her new album, Diamonds In The Dark (released June 12 by Sugar Hill Records).
It’s a bit of a surprise, then, to hear Borges, a native of the industrial town of Taunton, Massachusetts, talk about being a kind of Ronstadt in reverse. She started out doing musical theater in high school. Before she ever picked up a guitar or had her head turned by X (“probably my favorite band of all time”); before she entered the wide, welcoming circle of Boston barroom legends Dennis Brennan and Jimmy Ryan; before she absorbed the hard-nosed country styles of Wanda Jackson and Hank Williams — she was gluing on fake hair for Cats, trying on accents as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and delivering dastardliness as Miss Hannigan in Annie.
“I was a drama geek,” says Borges, a dark-haired beauty who would have been ripe for ingenue roles had she stayed legit. “I was one of those kids with blue hair who didn’t care they were being made fun of. It didn’t matter whether I was making an ass of myself. Being onstage was what I wanted to do.”
Theater may well be in her blood. Borges (no relation to Jorge Luis) is of Portuguese descent, meaning she’s a few degrees removed from fado, the dramatic, sorrowful song style popularized in Portugal by the legendary Amalia Rodrigues and revived in recent times by the mono-named likes of Mariza and Misia. Taunton, about 30 miles south of Boston, has a sizable Portuguese population — Borges, pronounced BORGE-ess, is a common name there — and though she has only a passing familiarity with fado, connecting with its feelings of isolation and rejection is no stretch.
The only kid of divorced parents, lacking friends, she spent much of her time alone in her room, “making up stories about people I didn’t know.” Like the blue-collar girls in the early Julia Roberts movie Mystic Pizza, set in a Portuguese fishing town in Connecticut, she paid a price for her ethnic otherness and working-class status, though she downplays the prejudice to which she was subjected: “It’s not like I felt I was a victim of racism. It was more along the lines of understanding that I would definitely have more dates with the blond basketball players if I didn’t have such dark hair and if my parents gave me fluffernutters instead of Portuguese sweet bread in my lunch.”
For some high school kids, participating in theater is a popular mainstream activity. For Borges, it was an act of rebellion. It gave her an excuse to wear crazy clothes, dye her hair outlandish colors, and act “as alternative as I could.” It also was a statement of independence allowing her to assert tastes and interests that ran counter to her family’s. Her father, a mailman who was drafted into the Army and injured in Vietnam, favored classic rock: Skynyrd, Zeppelin, Pure Prairie League. Her mother was a big Dylan fan.
Borges traces the start of her direct involvement with pop music to a vacation during which a friend of her mother taught her some chords on guitar (his song, “All This Weight”, would become the lead track on Silver City). It was only a matter of time before, armed with “teenage girl angst” and having discovered the coolness of playing guitar, she started down the road that has led her from there to here.
It was a journey that required Borges to reinvent herself vocally. “Singing a pretty soprano over guitar and drums just doesn’t work,” she says. “I had to learn to re-sing, change my register, take a different approach.” How different can different get? “On every song, I have my one Beyonce moment,” she says, laughing. “I allow myself one little trill.”
When she escaped Taunton’s small-town clutches to attend Emerson College in Boston, the world was an oyster for self-starting young rock artists. The indie-rock movement was in full flourish. “It seemed like everyone on the street corner was getting a record deal,” she recalls. “We would read about them in Rolling Stone and then see them up close, which was very exciting.”
The national success of local bands such as Morphine and Throwing Muses encouraged aspiring artists such as Borges to follow with their own DIY approach. “It was liberating to write songs that were my own even if I didn’t know how,” she says. Borges began playing with musician friends in regular, informal get-togethers before ever thinking of playing out in public.
A funny thing happened on her way to indie-rock stardom. By the time she turned 21 and was legally able to hit Boston’s bars and clubs, “suddenly all that action went dead.” Bands stopped getting signed. Labels grew less interested in scrappy and more interested in slick. But the disappointment didn’t last long: “That’s when I discovered the music that was there the whole time,” she says.
Borges began attending shows by Jimmy Ryan, a ripping mandolin player whose late-’80s/early-’90s band Blood Oranges were early alt-country heroes. She also became a regular at clubs featuring Dennis Brennan, whose gutsy pub-rock sound and passionate soul-searching gave Beantown an Irish-American cross between Graham Parker and Elvis Costello.
“Seeing Dennis Brennan perform was like attending rock school,” says Borges. “He did two sets every night, and would do the same set a different way every time. It was magical to watch. He showed you how you learned by doing, by flying by the seat of your pants, how that gave things this amazing immediacy.
“None of my records at home sounded anything like what I was hearing at these places. I started borrowing albums and playing those songs on my own. I never thought the songs I was writing were any good, not in the beginning. But the great thing about roots music, what really drew me into it, was that you didn’t have to couch your thoughts and feelings in metaphors. You could state things plainly.”
You wonder, surveying the vast field of female pop and roots artists now making a mark, whether Borges’ lack of a strong marketable image will keep her from breaking through commercially. She’s not a ballsy, self-congratulating survivor like Gretchen Wilson or Miranda Lambert. She’s not a mood-mongerer like Cat Power or Feist. She’s not sensitive-tough in the Lucinda Williams mold or into self-drama like Shelby Lynne.
What Borges is, though, is a bright, unaffected, fully charged artist with a knack for casting upbeat light even on the “sad or a little pissed off” songs she says she is most comfortable doing. When she tears into gospel great Thomas Dorsey’s “I’m Going To Live The Life I Sing About In My Song”, she’s aspiring to contentment, not complication.
“It’s become something of a running joke that I don’t like to watch anything upsetting, that I’m all about kittens and ice cream,” she says. “That’s what I’ve chosen to focus on. I wish everything in the world was sweet. My attitude is no matter how bad things seem, everything is gonna work out.”
It certainly did with the elusive guy portrayed in one of her most infectious tunes, “Daniel Lee”, on whom she developed a crush running into him all the time but who “left her so hard up.” That young man, she willingly confesses, was Jake Brennan, Dennis’ son, with whom Borges has formed a lasting romantic and professional relationship. She duets with him on his 2004 album Love & Bombs on a song they wrote together. Two members of his band, the Confidence Men, bassist Binky and drummer Paul Dulaney, are now in her group, the Broken Singles, which also features electric guitar/pedal steel player Mike Castellana. (Jake, she says, currently has no need for a band, having embarked on a phase as a Woody Guthrie-inspired solo-acoustic act.)
Both of Borges’ records were produced by Paul Q. Kolderie, whose clients have ranged from Uncle Tupelo to Radiohead. Her albums thrive on a big guitar and drum sound. Notwithstanding keyboard and production effects by Kolderie and outside contributions, Diamonds In The Dark is a bit leaner than Silver City (which, in featuring guest contributors such as Jimmy Ryan, was less of a band effort).
Diamonds is also more varied, boasting an intriguing Boston-goes-L.A. segue from X’s languid meditation “Come Back To Me” to “Stop And Think It Over”, which may not be a Go-Go’s song — it’s by Greg Cartwright of Memphis pop band the Reigning Sound — but certainly has that bouncy pop pedigree.
Other highlights on the new album include Borges’ “Belle Of The Bar”, the enjoyment of which is enhanced by having seen her jump onto a bar counter during a performance; a blistering, party-mode rendering of “Open Up Your Back Door”, inspired by Hank Ballard’s blues-dipped recording from the mid-’50s; and “False Eyelashes”, a honky-tonking Dolly Parton vehicle.
Early advance copies of the album also included Charley Pride’s “Just Between You And Me”, which Borges has been performing for some time. Alas, the decision was made to drop it — the thinking was that it covered the same ground that the Parton tune did — and include it as the flip side of a promotional 45 featuring the first single off the album, Borges’ boisterous “The Day We Met”. Like other Borges originals, that song was written quickly and performed, in the Brennanian manner, on the fly. Clocking in at 2:25, it epitomizes her ability to cut to the chase.
Borges sees Diamonds In The Dark as a continuation of Silver City in offering “another page from a book by the same girl.” Having defied the hoary rule that album two is never as good as the first because the artist has a lot less time to prepare for it than the debut — not to mention that the songwriting initially done in the comfort of home now has to be done on tour buses and in motel rooms — she is poised to rise to the next level. Kittens may be on her mind, but Cats is in the distant past.