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Born again

Duncan MacLean • Jan 30, 2018 at 10:00 AM

Chasing childhood dreams is a noble pursuit, one few people have a real opportunity to take on. Fulfilling fantasies of fame and fortune is a tall task. Achieving them takes stamina, dedication and drive — and, as one local artist has found, reconciling with achievement sometimes takes reinvention.

Grand Haven native Garrett Borns has completed the first seven shows of his second international tour, tasked with performing his sophomore studio album “Blue Madonna.” After his early days performing magic on the Lakeshore as Garrett the Great, a stint in a cover band called Brown Chicken Brown Trout, and performing as the Garrett Borns Trio and Garret Borns, Børns has emerged as the nation’s favorite rising alternative pop star.

A wildly successful tour of his debut album “Dopamine” in 2015-16 introduced the world to Børns as they fell in love with his falsetto riffs, unique instrumentation and eclectic style. But, while his audiences’ hearts throbbed, his faded.

Upon completion of the tour, Borns had shifted away from his debut music and was ready to reconcile with living out his dream as an artist. Full of invaluable experience from two years on the road and immeasurable growth as a musician, Borns released his emotional and introspective album “Blue Madonna” on Jan. 12, kicking off the next phase of his journey through stardom.

The album serves as a culmination of his experiences since moving to Los Angeles in 2014, the release of “The Candy EP,” his first studio album “Dopamine,” and its subsequent tour and re-evaluation.

A sold-out show Sunday at 20 Monroe Live in Grand Rapids gave Borns a chance to reflect on his journey from winning the Grand Haven High School talent show to selling out venues in Moscow, Russia. While he caught the rest of the world by surprise, Garrett has been planning stardom for a long time.

“He probably would have said, ‘Yeah, sounds about right,’” Borns said of Garrett the Great’s likely reaction to a 2018 world tour. “I always wanted to have my traveling show. I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen, but it has always been the end goal. I just wanted to be able to travel and make art.”

Borns began to realize his dream journey in 2014 with the release of “Candy.” After a stint in New York following graduation from Grand Haven High School, Borns moved to Los Angeles and wrote his first two major hits, “10,000 Emerald Pools” and “Electric Love,” earning him national recognition. “Candy” quickly became the soundtrack to Børns’ entrance into public consciousness as he performed as a supporting artist on MisterWives’ Our Own House Tour and accompanied Charlie XCX and Bleachers on their Charli and Jack Do America Tour. He appeared at Lollapalooza, the Life is Beautiful Festival and the Austin City Limits Music Festival as his music gained notoriety.

As his popularity grew, so did his skill in performing and his love for his craft.

“There was a lot of introducing myself to audiences,” Borns said of his early days, “especially as the supporting act on tours. Most of the time you don’t really get a soundcheck, you are playing for an entire group of people who don’t know who you are, and there is a little pressure to leave an impression on them. They might not react to the music, or applaud or anything, but I really liked that. If, in the end, you do win some people over, that is so fun.

“When I was first performing, I had one way to sing every song,” he continued. “Now, I know there are so many ways to sing every song. There are hidden features in your voice you don’t know are there. You learn so much every time you go out on stage. Sometimes I was sick and had to figure out how to sing while I was sick, or how to sing with a lot of nerves, or how to connect with an audience. It is definitely a pressure situation in a way, but I feel like I have always been able to use those nerves to really dig in.”

Now an established rising star, Borns continued to craft his body of work in between tours and appearances. In October 2015, “Dopamine” was released, launching Børns from opener to headliner, and forcing the young artist to reconcile with his dreams coming true.

“The day the album came out, I played on ‘The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon’ and then started the tour,” he said. “It didn’t end for two years. We just kept moving from tour to tour. The music kept getting more and more popular as we kept touring, and we kept selling out bigger and bigger places. I was doing a headline tour and selling out, and I couldn’t believe it. Even in Moscow, people knew all the words to my songs. It was pretty crazy. Hearing people sing your music from on stage is a surreal feeling.”

After nearly two years of life on the road, evolving the songs that swept him to fame, the Børns Dopamine Tour came to an end, bringing a largely changed artist home to Los Angeles feeling simultaneously fatigued and inspired.

“There is this momentum on the road,” Borns said. “Once you get into that momentum, you are in a completely different headspace. It is just a completely different universe. I got back to LA and I had lost contact with everyone. I had just been in my own world. I also got to a point where I hadn’t expected to play one album for so long. I just wanted to play new music. It was nice to have a second to chill and find some new inspiration and work on some things I had day-dreamed on tour and start to figure out what the next album was.

“I was really excited to get into it, because I was thinking so much differently than when I first moved out to LA. I’m a different person, so I wanted to make a time capsule of music for this time of my life.

“’Dopamine’ was about being so enamored by living in LA and this lust for being on my own and achieving my dreams,” he continued. “I had never toured for that long and I learned so much about performing and traveling and people. It was eye opening. In a way, it was like a sweet innocence. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Afterwards, I thought, I’ll never be able to perform that way again.”

The loss of innocence motivated a change in Borns’ style. The happy-to-be-here vibe of “Dopamine” gave way to brooding emotional tones in his second album, reflecting what Borns learned on the road and in the first years of living out his dream.

“‘Blue Madonna’ is more of a sweet sadness,” he said. “I was thinking, if I go back on the road, is anyone even going to come to a show? Will they care about the next album? So there is a lot of that. There are some deeper emotions going through the new songs. I think they are more complex.

“I wanted to write songs that reminded me of my favorite songwriters like Brian Wilson, George Harrison and David Bowie — not necessarily sounding like them, but getting into their headspace. I love how they look at music and write things that sound like their personalities. I wanted to write something carved just for me.”

Following the instant success of singles “Faded Heart,” “Sweet Dreams,” “I Don’t Want You Back” and “God Save our Young Blood” featuring Lana Del Rey, “Blue Madonna” kicked off another unbelievable stretch for Borns.

Sunday’s Grand Rapids show was just the seventh stop of the Blue Madonna Tour, but already boasted a tremendous presence. Deeper emotion on stage gave way to total euphoria from the West Michigan crowd. Complete with two dynamite supporting acts from Mikky Ekko and Charlotte Cardin, the tour is off to a roaring start. Looking forward, Borns is focused on developing his new music and the show with experience.

“This is the first time we have played the new music, so we are still just getting into the flow of it,” he said. “We are still working to find the sweet spots. We are just going to try and make every show better.

“I’ve been working a lot with Matthew Peacock, a good friend and choreographer,” Borns continued. “He has such an interesting perspective on movement and stillness that I have never thought about before. It has been nice to work with someone in that headspace. He looks at a room or stage like I look at recording a song, so building that aspect of the show will be interesting.”

With “Blue Madonna” already climbing the charts — peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Top Alternative Album chart, No. 6 on the Billboard Rock Album chart and No. 49 on the Billboard Hot 200 — Børns’ most recent enterprise is sure to continue his trajectory to stardom.

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