We caught up with the ex-Razorlight frontman at Portsmouth’s Wedgewood Rooms, prior to a gig in support of his recently released – and commercially uber-unsuccessful – debut solo album Borrell 1.
How does playing this venue compare to playing a Razorlight show?
We definitely played here with Razorlight. It’s very similar because that was about ten years ago and back then you’d get some nights with a really packed club and other nights there would about 40 people stood at the back of the club. Its exactly like that, which is great because with this project I wanted to start again, and I’ve got that uncertainty again.
Did you want to get rid of the expectations that came with the Razorlight brand?
I think it goes back a bit further. With the second Razorlight record I tried to make a pop record and what surprised me was how much it worked. From that point the only sane thing to do would to be start to treat your band as a business, but I went to Scotland for four months instead. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make music again. I made the pop record so I would know what it feels like, and I didn’t feel very comfortable with it. For me, the time in Scotland marked a divergence between what I was doing and what England expected me to do.
So did that lead to your solo record?
What I’ve been doing since then is focusing on making music and ignoring everything else. Razorlight 1, was my band, Razorlight 2, was interesting and in Razorlight 3 I felt compromised. The record label weren’t interested in a fourth album unless I played them. We made a demo, it had a track like “Before I Fall To Pieces” on it, which I could write in ten seconds; it’s not a problem. I was like, ‘hang on, we’re career artists and we’ve bought you in 70 million quid’ and I finally got the whole Prince and George Michael thing. So I went to France and made a record on a cassette four track without the label and I’m really glad that I can start the process again.
Are you enjoying playing the new songs more than the Razorlight tracks?
It’s hard to compare, but being able to go around the world with a bunch of people who are as talented, positive, and full of energy as the people I’ve got now is the best experience of my life. That is happiness to me. I would play this record to ten people a night, it makes no difference to me. I love people’s reaction to this music because there is nothing fake about it. It’s proper music. It started when we had a party one night, and the party ended up lasting two months.
It’s interesting you refer to all your albums by numbers…
I guess I have a very linear mind. When I started this I had written eleven songs and it was the first time i thought, ‘I might have a solo record’ and I always thought I’d call it ‘Borrell 1’ because that’s not pretentious, its not anything…
Well some would argue that is pretentious in itself…
[laughs]I was sitting there with my mates who have achieved good things in art and stuff and they were all like, ‘yeah [Borrell 1] is brilliant, it’s not pretentious’ so I did it, its just a number, its like a contact sheet.
Your whole career is marked by the media…
I’m fully aware of crimes as far as England is concerned. I have to accept it, I think it’s an English thing.
What do think of the critical reaction to this record?
I don’t know because I don’t judge things until five years after they are done. So it’s probably about the moment to look at ‘Slipway Fires’ again. It’s the only way to do it and I’ve always done it that way. Right at the start I did a gig at Brixton Academy and one review called me ‘the lanky frontman’ while the other one called me ‘the diminutive singer’ – I literally can’t be tall and short at the same time. So from that I just thought I’d leave it five years.
Is there not a contradiction between you judging it in five years and the record label wanting a new record?
Of course, I’m completely in conflict with the record label at the moment. In their defense it is harder and harder for record labels to exist. They are far more conservative than they were ten years ago; nowadays you only get one shot. They are less inclined to make records with artistic merit over commercial merit.
The record label have made a joke out of the record; did you ever try and sell it?
I wouldn’t know how to sell a record [laughs].
So it doesn’t bother you that the record company mocked it?
To me, I had to fight to get this record out, literally. I feel like making this record was the most enjoyable thing I have ever done and my writing is the best I’ve ever done. You could have asked the same question to David Bowie two months after he released Hunky Dory…
The instrumentation of the album reminded me a bit of Hunky Dory…
The weird thing was that I’d written the songs before we got together. Initially they sounded more Gilbert and Sullivan than Bowie – they were really out there. In the house we all played together and this raunchy sound came out. I like to make this atmosphere where musicians aren’t scared of their own judgment, and it worked well here.
Guitar pop seems to have died in recent years. Will you keep going with the times or would you like to see a resurgence?
To me, there’s real music and fake music. Just because you have a guitar and a distortion pedal doesn’t mean you’re making real music. There’s a difference between The Jam and Good Charlotte. Now, Borrell 1 is real music, but, Razorlight always was as well, I’ve always recorded live. You listen to ‘America’, my guitar is shit, there’s holes all over the place, but no one notices. I would say that two things could happen, either English music is cyclical and guitars come back and everyone’s into it again, or it could be that music is getting worse and worse.
What a positive note to end on!
Johnny Borrell’s solo debut, Borrell 1, is out now.