ARTIST: Sarah Borges
SONG: "Tendency to Riot"
WRITERS: Sarah Borges
ALBUM: Good and Dirty on Dry Lightning Records
SITE: Sarah Borges
BUY: Good and Dirty
Sarah Borges is someone I consider a friend, even though we've now met only once in person (last week, before she answered these questions). Our lives and careers have connected several times over the past decade, and now my brother is playing drums in her live band. I admire her work, and I admire who she is. This interview stemmed from that admiration, and I'm so glad to be adding her to the series—especially on this important day for her. Today is her sobriety anniversary.
BA: Sarah B! Thank you for joining the series! I feel like I know you, but I totally don't. The interwebs are funny like that.
SB: I know! We have so many mutual friends and acquaintances, we could probably throw a party and everyone there would know each other!
BA: Congratulations on the release of your EP, Good and Dirty, earlier this year! I'm so happy to be able to ask you some questions about "Tendency to Riot." I think I read somewhere that the EP was written "on demand." Was this song born in one fell swoop, as they say, or did it take shape over a few sittings?
SB: “Tendency” was the only pre-existing song I had before I started work on the EP. For a brief time after my son was born I played in a just-for-fun band with some Boston musician friends who were also parents, kind of an excuse to get out of the house on a Wednesday night. This song was one that I brought to the table for that, and it stayed stuck in my head, so I felt like it deserved to see the light of day. I tend to write a song in one sitting, maybe a few edits later on, but the framework, chords, form and rough lyrics are usually done in the first pass.
BA: I'm just going to dive right in with the big stuff; small talk bores me. The lyrics to "Tendency to Riot" are strikingly honest, and cover some difficult ground. There's no question that the theme of drinking is a through-line. I'm interested in hearing about your decision to be transparent about something that most people hide. If I haven't said it yet, I love this about the song. A lot.
SB: You're right, small talk is pretty dumb usually. Ha! At the time I wrote “Tendency to Riot” I was drinking pretty heavily, and it was occupying my mind a majority of the time; should I stop, when can I get drunk again, why do I feel so shitty about my life, etc. I was in the middle of a marriage that I knew was ending, and drinking was the third party in that partnership. I think writing this song was my way of doing the dance even if I couldn't hear the music, as the saying goes. I knew I needed to get sober and acknowledge the problem, but I couldn't do it openly yet, so I hid it in the lyrics. It's only in hindsight that I can recognize that, at the time it just seemed like a chronicle of my daily life.
BA: You're sober now, which you've shared with me (and given me permission to ask about here), but if my timeline is correct, you likely weren't yet sober when you wrote the song. Am I right? When you hear it and play it now, how does it feel?
SB: I am sober now. I'm coming up on my one year anniversary of sobriety. I wasn't sober when I wrote this, you're correct. When I hear this song I want to hug my then-self. So much of my battle with alcohol has been about being sad and afraid, and not feeling brave enough to deal with those feelings sober. I've started to do that in the past year, and yes, it is terrifying, but it's manageable. I wish I could have told my drunk self that I'm stronger than I thought I was.
BA: There are so many lines to love in this writing, but I think my favorites are:
I got a Christmas card from my friend down in Maine,
all bright and shiny faces like they was feeling no pain
It's amazing what a little nip before the photo flash can do
First, shout-out to the New England phenomenon of referring to regions North of where you are as "down." A true regional singularity that I enjoy. But, on a more serious note: I relate to these words about looking at a photo of someone else's reality and assessing it as pain-free. Please tell me more about that, and about the last line of the three.
SB: I'm glad you caught the New England colloquialism there! This part of the song is kind of a take on the phenomenon that's probably always existed, but has been exacerbated by social media, of feeling that everyone else's life is great, and that if yours isn't you're doing it wrong. It has been such a revelation to me in my sobriety to learn that everyone is scared sometimes, everyone is sad sometimes. I thought for so long that by feeling these things I was somehow failing at life. Now I recognize that it merely puts me in company with the majority of humans.
The last line is me thinking of what I'd do (or now used to do) when asked to take a family photo or do something else even remotely uncomfortable; take a quick swig of my drink. You can feign any emotion when you're intoxicated.
BA: You mention your mom in this song, in the line:
My mom says I better figure out someone to adore in the absence of knowing who it is I really am
Does she like the song? How does she feel about being in the lyrics, especially in such a heavy line?
SB: I don't think my mom and I have really talked about the song. I briefly mentioned that it was fiction, and that she shouldn't be offended, but I know that she's ok with it, mainly because that's the type of thing she would NEVER say. She's always encouraged me to learn about myself before becoming a part of a relationship (not that I've always heeded her words). In hindsight, I think the lyric is something that I subconsciously told myself, as in, "Don't want to do the necessary soul-searching to get healthy, emotionally and spiritually? That's cool, just get a new boyfriend." It's a pattern I will always be trying not to repeat.
BA: One of the things I really appreciate about this song and its presentation, is how you juxtapose the big, raucous music with the intimate, vulnerable lyrics. I love a good bait-and-switch. One could perceive this as a good time song, but if you really listen, there's pain, grief, and stark self-awareness. Did you hear it as a rocker, when you first wrote it?
SB: I didn't. I wrote it on an acoustic, and kind of thought it would end up as a confessional-type song. Maybe because it's only got a few chords, or possibly because of the vibe I was putting out when I brought it to the band, it morphed into a big rock song. Now I'm proud of that combo. There are big feelings in the song, so it makes a kind of sense that they would be expressed in a big way.
BA: Tell me about working with producer/musician/artist Eric Ambel on this track. Did he bring anything to the recording that you might not have done otherwise?
SB: Eric's biggest contribution was the gift of confidence. I stepped outside of my comfort zone with some of the guitar tricks, mostly because he reminded me that I am a good guitar player. I tend to think of myself as a singer first. He also kept me from prettying the song up too much, too many vocal harmonies, etc. Some of the records I've made in the past have been guilty of that I think, going for slick rather than honest.
BA: I also read that you worked with his rhythm section on the EP; that you met them the day you went into the studio. This work of yours is so personal that I'd like to hear about how it was to track this with them, both personally and musically.
SB: Eric and I had done some pre-production work, so I had learned to trust him with the care of my songs, and also to start to not feel self-conscious around him. I figured he would pick guys for his band that shared his same mentality, so I was able to make that leap of faith. And the guys were great players, a good hang, and just really positive people.
BA: What do you think you were listening to back when you wrote this song? Sometimes I feel like my own writing exists in the context of what I was taking in, if that makes sense. Do any artists or bands stand out in your memory?
SB: I was listening to a lot of Nada Surf at the time. They're such an underrated band, victims of having one hit that is so not indicative of the caliber of their catalog. Matthew Caws, the front man, writes the kind of lyrics that I often think were meant just for me, and the actual music of the songs is really smart and really rock.
BA: Now, for the real question: how's my brother doing, playing this song live? Just kidding. But, has the song changed shape at all since you've been playing it for a while on stage?
SB: Haha! The song has changed shape incredibly. Even though I recorded a rock version, I still thought of it as a quiet meditative song prior to playing it live. But of course musicians learning the song are going to use the recording as a reference, rather than what exists in my secret brain. Now the song live is all about giving me a straight tempo kind of machine to spout the whole lyrical story over. And your brother is a straight tempo machine kind of guy!
BA: What's your favorite song right this minute?
SB: "Afraid of Nothing" by Sharon Van Etten. A friend introduced me to her recently, and at first blush the music is more gentle than I usually like, but the lyrics are creepy and subversive, so I'm enjoying delving deeper.
BA: Thank you for your honesty and for sharing your work! Huge, loving congratulations on achieving your first year of sobriety. I celebrate that victory with you! And, I do hope we get to meet in real life one of these days.
SB: Thank you so much! And as of this writing, we have met in person, when I watched you play an incredibly powerful and awesome set with your band, Friendship Commanders, this week. Here's to powerful women doing what they love!