'Humbled' Johnny Borrell hopes to regain golden touch as Razorlight return
PUBLISHED: 14:18 06 May 2014
©Thomas Oxley Photography
The first time I try to contact Johnny Borrell, it doesn’t work. The reason, I soon discover, is because he’s been waiting for my call in a Southern Basque region of France, in a village so remote it only has one working telephone, which is manned in a restaurant by staff who can’t speak English.
"All these people into new music were now thinking, ‘oh Christ, I’m not going to listen to you because you’re that c*** who’s on the telly all the time’, which was, I suppose, fair enough"
The outspoken songwriter, in my imagination at least, must have cut himself off from Britain to live out a fantastical Rimbaud-esque existence; one all too in line with the pretentious, oblivious projections most journalists have previously thrust upon him.
Such an image isn’t without merit, of course. In his heyday fronting indie band Razorlight, Borrell fell out with celebrity girlfriend Kirsten Dunst because he rode a Triumph motorcycle through their London house. About the same time, he quite infamously also became responsible for the quote: “If Dylan’s making the chips, I’m drinking the champagne.”
If you give the media that sort of pompous ammunition, you have to expect the fallout, surely?
“But what… what does that line mean?” he stutters a week after my initial attempt, when I finally pin him down in London.
I don’t know Johnny, but you said it, right?
“Well yeah, I did, but what’s the meaning of it? I always get people saying ‘you called yourself a better songwriter than Bob Dylan’, but I’ve never, ever compared my work to his songs. In that quote, he’s making something, I’m doing something. We’re doing different things!”
It becomes evident, as Borrell admits himself, that he still doesn’t really understand what he was trying to say. Throughout his career, perhaps that has been the problem. Even now, during a very engrossing conversation, his mouth often moves before his mind and you can understand why so many before have come away with David Brent-esque comedy gold.
In many ways, however, this is a shame. For beneath the undoubted bravado and tiresome justification, the man’s genuine passion for music shines through.
His most recent solo venture, Johnny Borrell and Zazou – an ambitious blues and tango ensemble – is certainly evidence of a wide musical appreciation that was both built and realised during his upbringing in Muswell Hill.
“One of the best things that ever happened to me was here in 2005 when, sitting at home with a terrible hangover, the phone rang. ‘Hello Johnny, it’s Ray Davies, I’m down in our studio at the moment in Konk’.
“I thought ‘f*** off’ and put the phone down. He phoned me back straight away, saying, ‘Hi Johnny, no, it really is Ray. I’m here with Elvis Costello and we’re re-recording some of our old songs if you want to come down and play guitar’. The car had already started before I put the phone down; I mean Ray is just a huge, huge hero… I can’t express how happy I was.”
Famously, the early years of the 34-year-old’s musical career saw him starting out as a member of fellow indie royalty, The Libertines, before he left to form Razorlight. Hanging out with the former was just a way for all of them to spend carefree days drinking, laughing and listening to music.
“I always have this flashback to the Peabody Estate in Tottenham where we all used to live about 1998. There’d be five people in the room – Peter [Doherty], Carlos [Barat], myself, Mairead [Nash] and Scarborough Steve – and when you ran out of red wine it’d be the next person’s turn to nip down to the shop, whether you had money or not, while the rest listened to Exile On Main St.
“This was a time before the internet was anything – mobile phones just about – so we just played and played and played. I always think if there was some ghost of Christmas future who could have come in saying, ‘you’re going to be a punk rock legend, you’re going to sell loads of records, you’re [referring to Mairead] going to manage Florence and the Machine’… we just wouldn’t have believed it.”
Beyond anything, though, this grounding just gave Borrell a space to be himself. “We were very much a group of people, and I always say this to bands now – we did not give a f*** about the media, contemporary culture, radio or magazines. We had friends and acquaintances, but we were just who we were.
“What’s very important is that with a band, you form it as a collective of people who allow you to live how you want to live. If you’re lucky, the world will stand up and take notice, but you should never have to go to the people.”
With Razorlight, for a while he appeared to have found that collective. The band’s first two records, 2004’s Up All Night and 2006’s Razorlight, proved hugely popular and even opened the door to a headline slot at Reading Festival.
After a poorly received third album, Borrell’s rocky relationship with the media started to unravel – and any feelings were apparently mutual.
“There was lots of stuff going on. The band had been very ‘cool’; people would say, ‘oh, Johnny look, you’re number four on the NME Cool List’ and I just thought ‘this is disgusting, I don’t want anything to do with this’.
“I felt very uncomfortable with it, It wasn’t about any genuine reaction to music, just posturing and cyclical affections. I wasn’t unhappy, but suddenly it put me in a position where it was very difficult to do anything musically in England because there’d be a label demanding it was a smash hit.
“Plus there was the fact that all these people into new music were now thinking, ‘Oh Christ, I’m not going to listen to you because you’re that c*** who’s on the telly all the time’, which was, I suppose, fair enough.”
Describing Borrell as reformed might be a bit of a stretch – “I just don’t see why riding my Triumph through my own home is so outrageous” – but the last few years have certainly brought him down to earth. His solo debut – last year’s awkwardly-titled Borrell 1 – only shifted 594 copies in its first week and led to his record label, Stiff Records, releasing a parodying statement which conveyed the figure as “0.00015 per cent sales of Adele’s 21”.
The rock star is nonetheless content. Johnny Borrell and Zazou released a new EP, The Artificial Night, on Monday and a Razorlight return is in the pipeline for summer. “I couldn’t care less about the charts,” he says. “I think you’ve got to be making music because if you weren’t making that music, you’d practically be dead.
“I’ve never stopped Razorlight; I’ve never broken them up or anything like that. So I said to everyone, let’s do a gig this year, let’s do a festival and see what happens. People still like the songs, particularly the ones off the first record. I hear those arrangements and love playing them; I don’t think I could write them today.
“For the last 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of being able to play something like Golden Touch, for example, to rooms which are uber-hip, where I’m sure Razorlight means f*** all to the audience. Yet there they still are, singing along.
“It’s a very humbling thing, you know?”
The Artificial Night EP is out now. For more information about Johnny Borrell’s upcoming shows with Zazou, visit johnnyborrell.com