In creating his sophomore album Blue Madonna, BØRNS found his curiosity sparked by sonic phenomena of all kinds: impromptu recordings of nocturnal creatures near his parents’ house in Michigan, early-’60s AM pop, Brian Wilson’s teenage symphonies to God, the mariachi music constantly echoing through his former L.A. neighborhood. As on his debut album Dopamine—a 2015 release featuring the platinum-selling breakthrough single “Electric Love”—singer/songwriter Garrett Borns transforms his fascinations into dreamlike pop music that bears a classic sensibility but ultimately feels like some glorious future.
Lavishly textured and stylistically unpredictable, drenched in sublime melody and shimmying grooves, Blue Madonna again reveals BØRNS’s limitless originality (a gift once recognized by Prince, who praised “Electric Love” in one of his final interviews, stating “I like that you can’t tell what it’s inspired by”). In bringing the album to life, BØRNS reunited with Dopamine producer Tommy English (K.Flay, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness) and sculpted a more expansive, ornately arranged sound than he’d ever attempted before.
“For this record I really wanted to push myself with the songwriting and production, and avoid that thing of trying to nail the songs into a certain structure,” says BØRNS. “I wanted to write a little more orchestrally, with different movements and key changes, kind of like the Beach Boys did.”
On the album-opening “God Save Our Young Blood,” Blue Madonna brings that symphonic grandeur to a delicately sprawling anthem driven by BØRNS’s ethereal vocal work. With its plush beats and sunlit harmonies, the track unfolds in lyrics both enchanted and unnerving (“Baptized in blue skies/Roll the window down, reach out/Feel around for new life”). “I’d been looking at these different translations of the story of the Garden of Eden,” says BØRNS, “and I was thinking about the idea of how we kind of kicked ourselves out of paradise, and how that relates to the current state of humanity and the earth. The song is like a plea to nature or to love: the thing that’s going to bring us together, but also eventually destroy us.”
An album built on brilliant contrast, Blue Madonna takes its title from a stripped-back, sensually charged slow jam whose lyrics betray a childlike sweetness (“She glides in a swan dive/Cooler than a strawberry shake”). “To me the idea of Blue Madonna represents innocence and purity and virginity, but there’s also an element of sadness,” says BØRNS. “I think that’s a main theme of the album: trying to hold onto that innocence.”
With its effusive rhythms and soaring vocals, “Man” embodies another theme central to Blue Madonna. “‘Man’ is about feeling almost immortal but also really vulnerable—the idea that even if you have everything in the world and you feel like you’re on top of some mountain, you’re still going to get your best night’s sleep in the lowlands with someone you adore,” says BØRNS. “The concept of immortality is something that I thought a lot about while touring,” he adds. “Sometimes on the road you feel almost godlike, and other times you just feel completely worn out and beat down.”
Throughout Blue Madonna, BØRNS shows his supreme ability to take his infatuations in exhilarating directions. Equally influenced by glam rock, doo-wop, and Detroit proto-punk, lead single “Faded Heart” matches its massive hooks and throbbing tempo with flashes of dreamy sleaze (“You and the suede backseat is all I’ll ever need”). On “I Don’t Want You Back,” BØRNS conjures a hazy synth-pop luster with the help of a vintage Omnichord, and again proves the agility of his imagination. “A while back I found some sexy magazines from the ’80s, and the advertisements were so hilarious and amazing,” he says. “There was one thing that stuck out to me, a sound system for your car called the Sparkomatic, so I decided to write a Prince-esque song around that. It ended up becoming a breakup song where I figure out that my lover’s sneaking around after hearing the other guy’s Sparkomatic through the walls at 4 a.m.—that’s how good that sound system is.”
At turns triumphant and heart-crushing, the synth-heavy “Sweet Dreams” had more earthly origins. “The foundation of that song was something I’d recorded on my phone in Michigan, a sample of an owl and all these crickets outside at night,” says BØRNS. “The sample was sort of haunting and it put the song in a particular atmosphere, so ‘Sweet Dreams’ came out of that.” And on “We Don’t Care,” with its post-disco strut and snarling guitar riffs, BØRNS turns in a divinely inspired vocal performance. “I wanted to write a song where I was doing my best to channel Roy Orbison,” he says. “He had this cool technique where he’d start out singing very low and somberly, and then by the end of the song he’s hitting this top note and it’s just so intense.”
Despite his restless inventiveness, BØRNS’s clarity of vision and sophisticated musicality lend Blue Madonna a cohesive grace. Growing up in coastal Michigan, he first discovered his talent for music by figuring out Elton John and Three Dog Night melodies on his family’s piano. “There’s chords I remember discovering in middle school that I still integrate into my music now,” he points out. “I guess there’s some sort of innate melodic thing that I’ve always tapped into—in a way, I feel like I’m always writing the same song over and over. But to me there’s no escaping that: your instincts are always going to be the same since you were very small.”
Soon after moving to L.A. at age 21, BØRNS connected with Tommy English through a mutual friend and started working on his 2014 debut EP, Candy. Following the smash success of “Electric Love” (included on both Candy and Dopamine, and hailed as an “instant classic” by Taylor Swift), BØRNS has performed at major festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo, in addition to headlining a sold-out theater tour in 2016.
In beginning Blue Madonna, BØRNS had few set intentions beyond an urge to experiment with unorthodox instruments (such as the theremin) and to work with composer Steve Weisberg in adding string arrangements to the mix. “The way that Tommy and I tend to work is we just create as we go along,” he says. “We try out different things and puzzle-piece different ideas together, and then just see what happens from there.” This time around, the two collaborators tested out various approaches to pushing their creativity, including “getting up really early and working before our brains were awake, to find out what naturally comes out of you when you’re not totally thinking straight,” as BØRNS explains. The result of that experiment: “Iceberg,” an intensely hypnotic track that merges its jagged guitar tones with a looped piano riff to beautifully eerie effect.
Looking back on the making of Blue Madonna, BØRNS notes another objective that closely guided the creative process. “When we first started working on the record I said to myself, ‘I wanna feel completely exhausted by the end of this,’” he says. Many months later, BØRNS realized he’d fulfilled that mission upon heading to San Francisco with English for one final round of recording. “Every day for a week we’d wake up and jump into the ocean and then go record all day long; we just lived in the studio,” he says. “I remember sitting at this little oyster bar at the end of that week and drinking tequila and just being blissfully exhausted, and feeling like, ‘Okay, there we go—that’s all we had.’ I really don’t think we could have put any more of ourselves into this music.”