Photo by Al Pereira
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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 Awards nomination, multiple Boston Music Awards, and song credits on TV shows Sons of Anarchy and The Night Shift. Bands like Los Straitjackets 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 a 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.