Five Questions With… John Borra
The veteran TO roots troubadour releases a new album, Blue Wine, today. Here he reflects on the record, its tribute to actress Tracy Wright, his multiple musical lives, and a surreal on the road story.
By Jason Schneider
Blue Wine, John Borra’s first solo album since 2002, after three albums with his band Rattlesnake Choir, finds him at the peak of his writing and performing powers. On one hand, it’s exactly the kind of album you’d expect from one of the most influential figures within Toronto’s roots-rock scene – raw, melodic, and bursting with heart and soul. On the other hand, Blue Wine displays maturity and lyrical sophistication only an artist as experienced as Borra could convey.
In that spirit, Borra put together a top-notch band for Blue Wine anchored around Blue Rodeo keyboardist Mike Boguski, longtime collaborator Sam Ferrara and drummers Glenn Milchem, Cleave Anderson, Dani Nash and Tim Timlek. As well, Borra collaborated with award-winning poet Eva H.D. on three songs: Machu Picchu, The Wars and Hambre And Dolores, while tipping his hat to Nash, a Toronto indie scene mainstay, by covering her song Way Back Home. He also revisits his own musical roots with a version of the Velvet Underground’s Foggy Notion that features special guest Kevin Hearn of Barenaked Ladies, who also served as musical director of Lou Reed’s band.
With genre labels becoming increasingly irrelevant, the diversity inherent to Borra’s brand of folk and country hardly seems out of the ordinary. Instead, Blue Wine underscores how far ahead of the curve he has always been in terms of making country music with an inner-city edge.
John Borra’s Blue Wine comes out Jan. 31 on all digital platforms, with the album release party taking place Wednesday, Feb. 5 in Toronto at The Supermarket. Go to johnborra.com for more info.
What makes Blue Wine stand apart from your previous work?
Blue Wine feels like a culmination of everything that’s led up to where I am today. My relationships with everyone involved spans my whole career. One of the drummers, Tim Timleck, and I last played in a band in 1982-83, and the cover artist Robyn Holly Taylor-Neu and Eva HD are people I’ve only known for a couple of years. It also feels like a first record in certain ways
What song on the record are you proudest of?
I’d say Trace In The Wind. It was inspired by the passing of my friend [actress] Tracy Wright, but it could easily be about the many others who’ve left us before their time. My own father died 40 years ago this past October. It also speaks to her artistic integrity. We both came up in the post-punk world of the 1980s. Artists of different disciplines intermingled and no one was creating anything designed for mass commercial appeal. Being committed and true to what you were doing was one of the most important tenets and she exemplified that in spades.
How would describe your artistic evolution to this point?
I’ve been actively pursuing a life in music for over 35 years now. As a bass player, a singer/songwriter and as an audio engineer, sometimes I feel like I’ve lived a few musical lives in that time. I probably would have been better off focusing on one thing but I’ve always been drawn to and intrigued by all the different aspects of making and playing music. This record brings a lot of those things together for the first time.
What’s been the biggest change in your life over the past year?
Going from being part of a group with Rattlesnake Choir for 12 years to being back under my own name has been a change. I never stopped playing with my John Borra Band through most of those years so, I basically had two different bands I was playing my songs with. Some of the songs crossed over between the two acts and some didn’t. I’m still playing with a lot of the same people but we’re doing it under one banner now and all the material is up for grabs. It feels much better.
What’s your best touring story?
I don’t know if there is a “best” tour story but here’s one of the more surreal ones for me:
In 1995 Change of Heart did a cross-Canada arena tour with The Tragically Hip and the Odds for the Hip’s Day For Night record. At the time there were already a few Tragically Hip tribute acts and one of them was doing their own tour that was shadowing ours. Of the five buses owned by the company we were renting from, our tour had four and the [tribute band] had the fifth.
The two tours converged one night in Kamloops, B.C. when the tribute band was playing a bar right across the street from the venue we were at. After the Odds set about half a dozen of us went over to check it out. They had all the tunes down pat, but the weird thing was, they were moving and acting just like the Hip to the point that the singer was even doing the off-the-cuff riffing Gord would do during and in-between songs. He also seemed to be referencing things right out of Gord’s life, like being a goalie. It was all very strange and it got progressively weirder. Kamloops was the third last show of a 20-show tour so we’d all seen the Hip probably 17 times in less than three weeks. To sit and watch some other band moving and sounding just like them was just too bizarre and I eventually had to leave. I remember buzzing back into the arena feeling like I was having a full-blown acid flashback and somebody asking if I was okay.