Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles + Nora Jane Struthers
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As rock phenoms go, Sarah Borges has never been easy to pin down. Since bursting onto the national scene in 2005 as the lead singer of the Broken Singles, she hasn’t allowed a speck of dust to settle on her sound or her story. Instead, the Massachusetts native has just kept on moving and shaking.
She’s gone from frontwoman to solo act, to frontwoman again. She’s deftly navigated the weird road that winds from emerging artist to veteran performer. She’s made seven records and racked up countless touring miles. She’s collected shiny things, including an Americana Music Award nomination, multiple Boston Music Awards, and song credits on TV shows Sons of Anarchy and The Night Shift. Bands like Los Strait Jackets and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys have brought her out on the road with them. Cowboy laureates Steve Berlin and Dave Alvin have lined up to collaborate with her.
As if all that wasn't fodder enough for a compelling rock ’n’ roll narrative, in the last few years Sarah has been married and divorced, become a mother, and gotten sober. It’s a whole lot of moving and shaking for someone who just turned 40, but don’t expect to find her pumping the brakes anytime soon.
“I’m not slowing down,” Borges says. “I’m gonna keep on seeking the next sound, the next song, the next chapter of who I am.”
Headlining that next chapter is a new album titled Love’s Middle Name, due out October 12, 2018 on Blue Corn Music.
There’s never been much daylight between Sarah and re-invention. Even as she’s weathered the inevitable ups and downs in an industry that’s perpetually imploding, she’s stayed the course, creating an impressive body of work one album at a time, personal plot twists and genres be damned.
“Critics have always loved Sarah, but that doesn’t mean they’ve figured out what to do with her,” says Binky, her longtime bassist and best friend of 15 years.
He has a point. Conduct even a quick Google search, and you’ll find that she’s been dubbed everything — from an Americana darling to a roots rocker to a cowpunk to the next Sheryl Crow — by tastemakers as diverse as The New York Times and SiriusXM Outlaw Country Radio.
You could forgive folks for being stumped as to what to call her brand of music. In an era when algorithms and critics alike are hard-pressed to find the quickest way to complete the phrase “sounds like___,” an artist such as Borges raises questions. Does she walk a fine line between punk and country, or does she kick the tar out of it? Is she rock, roots, or Americana? And while we’re at it, what the heck is Americana, anyway?
Sarah’s many things. She’s a driven artist who cranks out finely crafted, character-driven songs with the dexterity of a prolific novelist. She’s a busy single mom who doesn’t have time for your bullshit. She’s an unapologetic stage belcher. And as her bandmates are quick to point out, she’s an incurable road dog who lives for gigs and relishes the long-haul drives in vans full of stinky dudes that said gigs require. Which is all to say that Sarah and her music contain multitudes. Grit, grace, and everything in between.
“I don’t know what to call it most days,” she says, “Lately I just call it ‘rock ’n’ roll.’ Can we just call it that for crying out loud?”
But if you’re looking for a common denominator threading through all of Sarah’s multitudes, or something approximating a label that she might not fight you on, joy fits the bill. Yes, you read that right. Joy isn’t the first thing most fans associate with barroom rock songs about heartbreak, sticking it to bad men, or lusty midnight romps. But for Sarah it’s a palpable force running through everything she does.
"It won’t sound very punk of me to say this, but I feel joy now in a way I've never felt before about doing what I do”, she says. "It's been a long journey, but I’m lucky as hell to be in the driver's seat for this life I’ve been given of playing, writing, motherhood, and sobriety.”
Borges’s unbridled joy at making music two decades into a storied career comes through loud and clear in her latest long player, aptly titled Love’s Middle Name. Her third studio record with the Broken Singles, it’s a muscular 10-song cycle that pulses with gritty, unfettered emotion. As the kids like to say, this record has all the feels.
On “House on a Hill,” Sarah pines for a blue-eyed ex and the home they once shared. But instead of being maudlin affair, the album’s centerpiece track grabs you with raw vocals and a wring-out-your-heart chorus over a no-nonsense drumbeat and driving guitars. On the headshaking “Lucky Rocks,” she bewitches the object of her desire with love spells and sweet somethings, like “Lay here down with me for a while/Tell me a story or a secret/Tell me a lie.” On the hard-charging “Headed Down Tonight,” she’s more than a little bit dangerous, summoning her hookup to follow her off the beaten path into the woods even as she coos, “Watch your step, you know I wouldn’t want you to get hurt” over a thumping train beat. And on the rolling, wistful “Grow Wings,” she asks: “This world is too big for small voices, someone like me singing into the wind what difference can I be?”
For this latest record, Sarah and the gang pointed the Broken Singles van toward the Brooklyn studio of Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, a widely respected performer and producer whose credits include the Bottle Rockets and Steve Earle & the Dukes, and was the founding guitarist for none other than Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. Recorded in four sessions with Ambel in the producer’s chair providing banshee-like lead guitar, Love’s Middle Name dispenses with any fussiness. “Roscoe has zero interest in fancy. He likes to capture the beast in its tracks,” Borges says, “That suits me just fine. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal, so let’s get on with it and melt some faces already.” She may be channeling world-weary characters, but it still sounds like she and her band are having a lot of fun laying it all down.
A feeling of optimism and warmth resonates through Nora Jane Struthers’ new album Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words which finds the artist looking back on a year of big changes. Recorded when Struthers was eight months pregnant with her first child, she worried if she would have the lung capacity to sing this set of soulful ballads and upbeat anthems. (“I had a lot of other stuff going on in my body,” she laughs.) But with her band the Party Line behind her — and her husband, musician Joe Overton, singing backup — Struthers breezed through some of the most inspired and inspiring songs of her career.
Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words finds the poetry in the everyday — and in life’s little miracles. In the song “Nice to Be Back Home,” Struthers describes the simple domestic pleasures of waking up in her own bed, looking out the window at her own grass and “eating breakfast with my own spoon.”
“I wrote the song about balancing life on the road and life at home but I think most people can relate,” Struthers says, “Even at the end of the most wonderful vacation, it’s nice to come back home. Hopefully the everyday is the actual dream.”
Longtime fans know the struggles Struthers and Overton have gone through, trying to have a child. Her 2017 album Champion confronted the subject head-on, describing how infertility helped strengthen the couple. And yet some of the most hopeful songs on the new LP were written before Struthers knew she’d be giving birth to a daughter, Annabell Jane Overton, at the end of 2018.
The gentle shuffle “I Want It All,” for example, was conceived before Annabell, at a time when Struthers and Overton were using a combination of alternative medicine and cutting-edge technology to get pregnant. The lyrics to the song give Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words its title, and show the singer in a mood at once confident and forward-thinking — not so anxious about whether she’d ever have a baby, but instead more worried about whether realizing her dream of being a mother would “supersede my dream to play music.” It is a declaration of intent, from a new mom who plans to keep singing her songs and telling her stories.
Struthers’ music rarely avoids what she’s going through personally. The mood of the album is very open, reflecting how she was feeling after coming through some dark times. The year before she started writing the new album was one of her worst. In 2017 her infertility treatments “sunk me into a chemical dullness,” she says. And right before she was about to release Champion, “Some music business plans I had made totally crumbled. It was just a hard year. Thank goodness I have my husband, Joe, who is unfailingly supportive.”
As soon as the calendar turned to 2018, Struthers saw the new year as a clean slate. “We Made It” and “I Feel Like My Old Self” are two songs written within days of each other at the start of the year; both set the tone for the LP. One’s a surging rocker and the other’s a moving anthem that describes the process of reengaging with the world, but they each relate with disarming candor how Struthers emerged from those tough times. “I don’t like to mince words,” she explains. “I embrace the poetic but I also like to be direct. It’s very much who am as a human.”
Only one song on Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words isn’t about Struthers’ life. About five years ago, she wrote “Cold and Lonely Dark” as a gift for a fan, who told her his life story, which involved abandonment and addiction — and eventually redemption. Maybe it’s because she’s trying to do justice to someone else’s tale of woe, but “Cold and Lonely Dark” features the album’s most soulful vocal performance.
“A Good Thing” had been in Struthers’ set before she and the Party Line headed into the studio. She recalls, “This was the song that people would come up to me at the end of the show and say, ‘Where can I buy that?’ Just knowing it was resonating with people was one thing that made me want to make another version of it. Another thing was just that I just love singing with Joe.”
Struthers wrote “A Good Thing” just after she made it through her first trimester of pregnancy, but also right around the time she found out the band’s longtime guitarist Josh Vana was going to be leaving to focus more on his environmental activism. Right when she felt like she was living her dream of motherhood, she worried that her dream of making music with people she loves might slip away.
The group quickly recorded the new album before Vana moved on. “What makes the band so unique is the sum of all of our shared experiences,” Struthers insists. “I really wanted to capture that before Josh departed for the next chapter of his life.”
All of these songs on Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words tell a larger story, about how our daily struggles make our successes all the more precious. Mostly, this is a record about overcoming sorrow and embracing life’s simple joys. Finding a way to piece the story together was more of a challenge.
“Choosing which song goes first can totally change the way the record feels,” Struthers says. Ultimately, the one she chose is simple, sweet, and it’s a statement of purpose. “‘Nice to Be Back Home’ is the feeling I want to be associated with,” she says. “When people come to my shows, I hope they leave with that feeling of being uplifted, connected, happy. And when they turn on my record, I want them to get that Nora Jane fix right away.”
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