Hello weekend warriors: As promised, here’s the second installment of this weekend’s edition of “RPM,” which showcases, and takes a look back at, two of Boston’s finest musical exports of the past decade, Sarah Borges and Girls Guns and Glory (see my previous post for the first feature on this superb band I wrote for The Boston Globe back when GGG were starting to fire on all cylinders in 2007). Both artists are celebrating the release of brand new albums with a dual CD-release show, Feb. 7 at The Sinclair (52 Church Street, Cambridge; www.sinclaircambridge.com). And both artists offer plentiful proof that rootsy, country-tinged rock & roll — along with just about every other type of music genre — has always resided in these parts.
It’s hard to believe, but Taunton, MA. native and singer-songwriter Sarah Borges has been making music for well over a decade now; first as a teenage frontwoman for Kipper Tin, a raucous indie-pop outfit that played in and around Boston for six years, and for the past decade as a decidedly more down-home, roots-oriented performer with her excellent (and now former) backing band, The Broken Singles. Although it’s been almost nine years since I sat down with Sarah to talk for the first time (I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and chatted with this charming, smart and savvy musician several times since), my memory of our first conversation — and just about every one after that initial interview, actually — remains as fresh in my mind as her music.
With thousands of miles toured, and countless stages played, Borges has built a solid and loyal following over the years. So much so that “Radio Sweetheart” is her first solely fan-funded independent effort — and well worth checking out (go to www.sarahborges.com for tons of good stuff). Despite the changes that life brings to a person between the ages of 25 and 35, to my ears, and in some core ways, both Sarah and her music remain fundamentally unchanged (and I mean that in the best way possible).
Both she, and her art, remain grounded and authentic: sincere, sparkling, something and someone you can’t help but want to listen to. In revisiting this piece I wrote on her for The Boston Phoenix’s long-running “Cellars By Starlight” column back in April 2005, you can understand why. Back then she talked about her growth as an artist (although she never used that word) and development from indie-rock noisemaker to a young woman who had developed a soft spot for steel guitars and lamp-lit ruminations. To me, her reflections offer a glimpse into what, and who, she would become. I have little doubt that in the years to come, Sarah will have much more to say, and that before all is said and done, there will also be much more said and written about her.
Before she had even unpacked her bags upon arriving in Boston, aspiring singer-songwriter Sarah Borges took the T to Somerville, bound for the legendary Fort Apache Studios on Camp Street. She didn’t know where it was, exactly, but was determined to find it. Despite being told, somewhat unhelpfully, by a traffic cop that there was no Camp Street in the vicinity, an undeterred Borges eventually ferreted out the site. She stood outside and listened. “I could hear somebody playing in there, like drums going,” Borges recalled. “And I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna make a damn record there.’ And years later, I made the record. Ask and ye shall receive.”
Despite the fact that she got lost that day – and that one of this city’s most promising twang-and-torch singers began her musical life as a teenage indie-rocker – one gets the impression that Borges always knew what, and where, she wanted to be, and how to get there. Silver City (Blue Corn Music), recorded at the old Fort Apache building now called Camp Street Studio, signals that arrival. Borges’s genial homespun charm on stage – recently on display for her sold-out CD-release party at the Lizard Lounge – and her breezily exuberant manner off it indicate both a seasoned performer and a fresh talent who’s just beginning to hit her stride.
“I feel like I’m so new to this even though I’ve been playing in Boston for 10 years,” says Borges over a beer at the Middle East bakery. “Everything is happening in such a different way than it has in other bands I’ve played in. But I’ve never made a record before and I have no idea what’s supposed to happen.”
What’s been happening is that Silver City, a sassy, brassy slab of heartthrob Country and Western swing, soul, and sulk, has in one bold stroke all but cemented the 26-year-old Taunton native’s place in greater Boston’s thriving roots-music scene. The album’s gleaming linchpin is Borges’ crystalline voice (placed front-and-center in Camp Street engineer Paul Q. Kolderie’s warmly burnished mix), which – much like her hometown’s main industry (hence the album’s title) – is the aural equivalent of silver, with slivered streaks of amber and gold that snake and seep through ballads such as the drinker’s lament, “Ring in the Shape of a Heart”, and the regal pedal-steel-and-mandolin weeper, “Pious Proud”. That instrumentation comes courtesy of mandolin master Jimmy Ryan (whose own EP-release party Borges opens tonight at T.T. the Bear’s Place) and pedal steel specialist Steve Malone, who also performs with Borges’s boyfriend Jake Brennan’s band, the Confidence Men. The outfit is, for all intents and purposes, Borges’s backing band (lead guitarist Russell Chudnofsky is a Confidence Men member, as are her core rhythm section of single-monikered bassist Binky and drummer Rob Dulaney).
The band, and the circumstances, suited Borges well. “We had the luxury of not having anyone to make it for. There was no label at the beginning. Paul just said, ‘let’s just do some demos and see how it goes’. And we did five, and he said ‘let’s do three more’, and we did those and he said ‘now we almost have a record so let’s finish it up.’” It was only after a mutual acquaintance told Texas-based Blue Corn Music label head Denby Auble about the Northern singer with the Southern sound that he flew from Houston to Boston last summer for a private showcase. Within a day, Borges had a record deal.
The sound of Silver City marks a dramatic shift from the six years Borges spent fronting the noisy indie-pop outfit Kipper Tin. It’s a metamorphosis not dissimilar to Brennan’s own transformation from leading his punk-rock outfit Cast Iron Hike to his recasting as a roots-rocker, or to Binky’s previous incarnation playing bass with local garage rockers the Banjo Spiders (whose guitarist, Eric Barlow, is also a member of Brennan’s Confidence Men).
“I had never heard the Flying Burrito Brothers,” says Borges, who dueted with Brennan on a cover of the Burritos’ “Sin City” at her CD-release bash. “And one day I was over at Binky’s and we were smoking some pot and lying down on the floor listening close to the speakers and it was like nothing I had ever heard. Binky’s from the South and so really loves that music, and Jake’s dad (local roots musician Dennis) taught him a lot about music and made him mix tapes when he was growing up. It wasn’t much of a transition for them as it might appear on the surface.
“Not that I make a habit of reading gossipy crap,” Borges continues. “But someone wrote something about me, how I was just doing this because I could make more money by appealing to this audience instead of playing indie-rock. But I feel like (this rootsier side) was always there. It’s just that, at different points in your life, you (emphasize) different parts of yourself.”
Still, she misses stomping on a distortion pedal and cranking her electric guitar full blast. “Hell yeah –but I think one of my biggest selling points is my voice and I feel like I’m a much stronger singer than I am a guitar player. But it’s hard to sing well over a wall of guitars and drums – not that I don’t enjoy it, but it’s hard to write the songs you really want to when you have to think about how you’re going to compete with that (wall). So I started writing with a couple of the guys I play with now and found it was so much more appealing. The response has mirrored that – I’ve gotten so much more positive feedback doing this.”
Borges penned nine of the disc’s 12 tracks – rough-hewn stories about ordinary people caught up in a struggle to hold on: to love, to faith, to hope, to dreams. Her eclectic choice of covers include a gospel number written by Tommy Dorsey (covered by Mahalia Jackson); a pop gem by Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake; even a tune written by her mother’s boyfriend, Ken Camadeco, who stepped on stage to blow harmonica at Borges’s’ CD-release show. Chudnofsky’s robust lead guitar work shines like a bright Bakersfield sun throughout; Local pedal steel wizard Mike Castellana (Laurie Geltman/Rich Gilbert) lends boogie-party precision to “Miss Mary” and old-time elegance to Borges’s take on Dorsey’s “I’m Going To Live The Life I Sing About In My Song”. Jake Brennan also returns a favor (Borges co-wrote “Two of a Kind” and dueted with Brennan on his 2004 Yep Roc debut, Love & Bombs ), taking an acoustic guitar turn on a sweetly understated reading of the Fanclub’s “Mellow Doubt”.
Borges considers her own material as part of a continuum with the music she grew up hearing in her parents’ house: Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers. “That music is a lot more heartfelt and open. You think about love and dying and God as you get older,” she says. “This (approach) is more like writing a novel and indie-rock’s more like quirky poetry. I feel like it is the same creative space. I’m just a different person.”