Boston-based Americana musician Sarah Borges has an album coming out tomorrow: Love’s Middle Name (Blue Corn Music), produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel. The album features Borges on guitar and vocals; Ambel on guitar, backing vocals and keys; Binky on bass; and Phil Cimino on drums with Ed Arnold also on drum duties. Americana Highways had a chance to preview the album and talk to Sarah Borges about it and a few other interesting and provocative things that came up along the way; things like deeply struggling characters, painful life experiences, working on an album while balancing real life, too much news, oh yeah, and celebratory rock ‘n roll music too.
AH: For Love’s Middle Name you are marketing the album with a cute smirking picture on a red background, and yet your middle finger is across your lip with the word LOVE written on it – is the middle finger the clue to what love’s middle name might be?
SB: (laughs) There are a lot of different kinds of love.
I dreamed the title of the album and I have no idea what love’s middle name is, but I certainly know that love can give you a lot of problems, so that was my tongue-in-cheek way of expressing that, my “flipping off” love.
AH: You write (or select songs to cover) about characters who show frailty, or fragility, and yet they are set against the backdrop of powerful, energetic rock music. One person needs lucky rocks in her pocket and to consult a witch for a love spell, another one is processing a breakup: people have tendencies to do things they know are not good for themselves, sleeping with the wrong people, taking pills, keeping a girlie book but not really connecting with anyone. Where do all these struggling characters come from?
SB: I write songs about imagined characters but there is some truth behind all of them that I’ve experienced. In a way, they are all some version of me. So while I may put forward a tough exterior — that’s my stage persona, and that’s my outward life persona too — I feel all these things I write about.
I’m a single mom of a 7 year old boy, I just turned 40, I’ve had to work hard to get where I am, in terms of getting divorced and getting sober and all of these things.
AH: A lot of musicians craft sad music to accompany their sad lyrics. Your sad lyrics accompany powerful, exciting music. Is this a special way to deliver or process sorrow and hardship, through a degree of bravada? And is it your intention to disarm the audience with the music while the lyrics trigger the release of something more profound?
SB: I love rock and roll, but I think that even though a song may be fun and you can dance to it, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a deep emotion in it too. It’s scary to write what you feel, because then you put it out there for analysis by people like you. People are listening. I like to have that cushion of rock music buffering the vulnerability, because it’s hard to be confessional. Songs that sound sad tend to be immediately interpreted as more of a confessional kind of thing. My confessions are hidden.
AH: Do you have rescuer tendencies? Because your songs may be providing therapy for these character types!
SB: (laughs) I often need the rescuing. But it’s funny you said that because my son and I have been going through a lot, we’ve been moving, and that has meant that I haven’t been able to tour recently, or work as much, so I think you can imagine the affect that has on my bank account, but also on my psyche. My son is going into second grade, he’s growing up, and he has struggles with his social things too. And there’ve been times when I’ve felt really down, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I put on my own damn record! Because for me I feel like, hey, at least I can do this, and I have said this and put it out in the world and created this album. So it’s helped motivate me, and in that way it’s literally been therapeutic. And I hope it can help motivate others who listen to it as well.
AH: In part, you have to put that brave face on for him too, because you are his mom, and that’s a big responsibility.
SB: Yeah, there’s nothing worse than being caught when you’re crying, by your son.
AH: But you are also modeling ways to cope with stress, by thinking about your own accomplishments instead.
SB: Yes. And also, there’s this juxtaposition of the fact that when I’m doing what keeps me soulful and alive, it keeps me away from him. So I have to reconcile that. Going on tour I try hard to strike the balance and I’m not always successful. If I go away too much, then he feels the pain of that. But then on the other hand there are times like right now where I haven’t played much at all and I haven’t gone on tour enough. As a result, I don’t feel quite like myself, and that makes me not as good a person, or as good a parent, as I could be. So I aim for that sweet spot in the middle. And that also models for him, how to balance things for himself in life.
AH: What was the catalyst for your song “Oh Victoria,” with its lines “we are all sad souls just trying to get out”?
SB: There was a person that I loved, and he had a loved one commit suicide, and he never could get past that. So I wrote this letter to the person who had died and had that impact on him in this song. I felt like I wanted to empathize with her, and where she must have been at.
As humans our impulse is always to shy away from painful subjects, and when we hear about painful things happening to someone we try to get away from that and not talk about it. But I wanted to come at it from a different perspective and empathize instead of just wishing it away, or sweeping it under the rug.
AH: You address human struggles directly, and maybe it’s actually a very good thing to address them instead of bottling them up!
SB: I think we’re all working on ourselves as best as we can, and my version of that is to work on addressing things more directly than I used to. Like I said, I just turned 40, and I don’t want to leave anything unsaid, because you never know what will happen. And maybe the thing you say is just the right thing for somebody to hear.
AH: You released a video for the opening track on the album “House on a Hill,” and it’s very relatable. Who did the video?
SB: That was done by Scott Lancer. Some time ago we had worked on a different video up in Rochester, New York and he had filmed a few theatrical things before. I’m not sure whether he has worked on music videos before, but we went and did it, just me, him, and a camera man up in the fields in upstate New York. And it came out really well.
AH: Your song “Grow Wings” was co-written with Sean Staples, a folk musician from the Boston area. This is a vulnerable song. How did you come to write this together and what motivated it?
SB: I wrote the lyrics and the verses, and he wrote the bridge for that song. We’ve known each other locally for a long time, and Sean had written a song that folk artist Ruthie Foster covered. He has specialized in folk/gospel type of songwriting.
But this song was a reaction to the 2016 election. We had gone together to the women’s march and we were of the same mind doing that. Even though it may come across as a more relationship-based song, it is profoundly political, and asks the questions: “What are we doing? What can we do?” There are lines like “you said you’d take the tired but what about the poor?” and things that hearken back to the political. We went to that march and it was incredibly uplifting, and also incredibly frustrating because — what else can we do?
I’ve had to take several hiatuses from the news just to get away from the daily onslaught of incredibly bad information. And as for my son, we don’t watch the news at home because I feel like it’s not constructive for him. But we listen to NPR and he’s aware of what’s going on when bad things are happening. But I do get fatigued and I don’t want him to experience that. So I have turned to song writing to acknowledge that.
AH: What’s the Boston/Cambridge music community like?
SB: There’s a great music community here and it’s growing. It’s the kind of place where you can go out any night of the week and see a really good band, and a lot of times it’s free. It’s also about 5 or 6 hours from the next closest music community, so we have to rely on it to be sustaining.
AH: Your song “Headed Down” has something sinister afoot. Is that one political too?
SB: This song is about women taking their power back, this was written before the “#MeToo” movement, but it turned out to be good timing. You hear so many murder ballads where men casually kill their wives for fun, or no reason, and I thought, I’ll just kill somebody off in this song. (laughs)
AH: Who did the cover art for Love’s Middle Name?
SB: Tony Fitzpatrick did that, and he did my last album cover too. He’s done record covers for Steve Earle and the artwork for the upcoming “Lantern” tour that Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle are doing. He’s a friend of mine and he’s a fan and he had offered. He’s got something hanging in MoMA, and he’s very political and he’s an actor, he’s very cool. He was very generous and I am very grateful to him for that cover.
AH: “Let Me Try It” is a song with double meanings – initially it comes across as a fun song, calling out “Let’s Try It!” but also at times the protagonist is saying “as long as it’s good for you, let’s try it,” implying the character in the song is in an imbalanced situation. Is this song about a relationship imbalance and struggle?
SB: Desired effect achieved! (laughs) Yes. I’ve done so many things that I’m not proud of in my life, and part of getting sober was having to reconcile with myself that I have those tendencies. Self-abasement is something that is not uncommon at all.
Every song is really about some negative emotion, or lost love, but this particular song is about lost love for yourself. It’s about a person with a total lack of self esteem out there acting with complete confidence.
But then Roscoe helped me make it into a song that’s more like a Rolling Stones song. [Eric “Roscoe” Ambel co-wrote the music on this one.]
AH: What was it like working with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel in the studio?
SB: Roscoe gives me a lot of confidence, and he’s a really good guy. He’s a big believer in not perfecting things too much. I can hear mistakes that we left in there on purpose because they make it sound human and natural. He’s done this for long enough that he knows what connects with people, whether it be loud guitars, or vulnerability in the singer’s vocals. So, for example, when I hear my voice cracking on a track, he’ll say just leave it alone.
He’s supportive in the live setting, too. He’s lent me a guitar and an amp. We’re doing a tour with the rhythm section from the Bottle Rockets and opening for them. Roscoe is their long time producer and he introduced me to them. He opens opportunities like that for me, and then all I have to do is not f-ck them up. (laughs)
We wish Sarah Borges the best of good fortune on her album launch and her tour(s). More information is available here and her tour dates are further below.
Order your copy of the album here: https://www.sarahborges.com/
Eric Ambel is here: http://ericambel.com/
Tony Fitzpatrick is here: https://tonyfitzpatrick.co/pages/about
We couldn’t locate Sean Staples or Scott Lancer web pages, contact us and we’ll edit.
See our Americana Festival top picks here (Borges was among them): Top Picks: Editor’s Pick, 10 Highlights from Americana Fest 2018
Read a previous show write-up here: Show Review: Eric Ambel & Sarah Borges Provide Unmistakable Rock ‘n Roll Smackdown at Hill Country Barbecue in DC