Some artists’ Jazz Fest debuts are triumphs, some are disasters, and some are life-changing experiences. It was all the above for Mia Borders, who played her first Fest in 2010 just after graduating from Loyola. But mostly it was life-changing, even though she injured her voice mid-set and thought at the time that she’d just sunk her own career.
“I was so green and over-enthusiastic and worked myself so hard at Jazz Fest season,” she recalls. “I woke up really hoarse that morning and could barely speak. I just pushed it too hard and wound up tearing my vocal cord, right in the middle of ‘She Don’t Know.’ I felt absolutely horrible, I cried before the set and I cried after it. When it was done the EMT looked at my vocal cords and all he could see down there was blood, so I was convinced I’d done myself irreparable damage. He told me I had to go stone silent for six weeks—so I had to walk around with a little note around my neck—and not to drink any alcohol, which at the time was much harder.” But to her shock, the set was a hit. “They streamed it on ’OZ and people started buying the CD, asking for autographs. That was a peak moment for me, to know that people were connecting with the music even in those conditions. I figure we must have been doing something right.”
Her Jazz Fest in 2017 turned out to be less momentous: She got rained out on the first Sunday, cancelling a set for which she’d put together an expanded seven-piece band (she will unveil that set for Wednesday at the Square). Though she was still feeling the disappointment when we talked the next day, Borders has come a long way, both personally and musically, since that trial by fire in 2010. She committed to music full-time shortly afterward and delivered her most accomplished CD, Fever Dreams, at the end of last year. “I had to fight with myself tooth-and-nail to be able to do this, and I’m glad I did. I didn’t want to be a depressed alcoholic lawyer, and that’s the path that I was on.”
Though still a young artist, Mia Borders has now been recording for more than a decade, first with two releases by a band known (for the members’ initials) as MNSKP, then making her official solo debut (with most of the same players) on 2009’s Southern Fried Soul. And from the start her music was always more individual than that title would suggest, acoustically based and having more to do with voice and lyrics than with pure groove. (Her band has revolved over time, but drummer Rob Lee, guitarist Takeshi Shimmura and bassist Jesse Morrow have become the core.) Her sound is steeped in old-school R&B with some modern hip-hop influences; her voice is brassy and warm, with just a few traces of vulnerability. The old-school roots allowed her to fit comfortably into Essence along with Jazz Fest, but she was also telling a lot of her life story between the lines.
What she draws from musically is an even mix of what she grew up with and what she’s discovered from earlier eras. “I feel like I’m still catching up when it comes to Motown and Stax and the old soul stuff, but that’s what keeps me going and I could listen to it 24/7. When I start to write it’s probably an unconscious amalgam of whatever I’ve been listening to lately, so I do get nervous whenever I write anything good—‘Did I just steal this?’ There are a lot of albums I go back to, but mainly it keeps coming back to [Simon & Garfunkel’s] Bridge Over Troubled Water and [Maroon 5’s] Songs About Jane—I feel I’m less invested in this day and age of screaming music. Lately I’m getting back into hip-hop, listening to a lot of Tupac. And there’s always Bill Withers and Gladys Knight, but for whatever reason I don’t listen to a lot of female singers. I seem to set a high standard for the ones I listen to.”
If you’ve seen her perform, the idea of her having self-confidence issues may seem a little farfetched. The swagger seems to come naturally; this is a woman who (on Fever Dreams’ “Find Another Lover”) makes a statement of purpose out of “You won’t find another motherfucker like me.” The persona she projects onstage is sometimes tough, sometimes romantic but always very much in control—and that, she says, is a long way from who she is in real life.
“There are a lot of instances where people imagine that they know something about me because of my stage persona,” she says. “But that’s what it is, a persona. It’s something I cultivated over the last 11 years, because I literally got sick before every show. So in order to deal with my stage fright I started putting on a role—each song has an attitude and I could create a character by approaching every song in that way. You have to get to know me to realize what a silly person I really am—really, once you get past a certain point with me, it’s all ridiculous.”
Born in New Orleans and raised Uptown, Mia Borders (which is her real name) grew up with the usual local music experiences—hearing music in parades and getting dragged to Jazz Fest by her parents (“There is a photo of me as a child with my parents and the Neville Brothers behind us onstage,” she notes). Her first actual concert was the Indigo Girls at UNO, just because some friends won tickets; the first show she remembers buying her own ticket for was ’N Sync. Performing also came halfway by accident; she did a few school pageants before realizing she was any good at it. “My first memory of that is from elementary school, just a Christmas pageant where we were singing carols. And I guess it was somebody’s parents who came up to me and said ‘You’re really talented.’ And I thought, ‘What, really? We were all singing the same stuff, so how did I stand out?’” Her first serious stabs at performing happened while attending a Connecticut prep school (Taft, for which she won a scholarship); she joined a female a cappella group as a sophomore and wound up directing it as a junior. “That was another bit of validation, and from that I got into arranging for 12 voices. That’s stayed with me; whenever we go into the studio now I have some pretty substantial vocal arrangements worked out. But I was focused more on film then; film school was always my goal.”
After that it was law, and Borders made a serious stab at that profession around the same time she got serious about music, working locally as a paralegal. “My dad in particular wanted me to get my master’s and my JD and to have the most successful backup plan I could—I understand any parent not wanting their kid to be a full-time musician. And I did enjoy working as a paralegal—yeah, it was stressful, and yeah, I hit happy hour too hard. It was still rewarding, just not as rewarding as I knew music could be.” Currently she puts some of the legal training to use by running her own Blaxican label—“something I set up mainly to protect myself, though I would eventually like to find other artists and release material besides my own.”
The struggles with stage fright also came out at an early age, and made her that much more determined to keep playing. “I was very outgoing when I was young, that was something my mom always encouraged. She died when I was six, and after that I started turning inward. So I didn’t have a lot of friends in elementary school, it was easier to just disappear inside myself. When I started doing music it was the discovery of something that could help me cope with the anxiety and connect with other people. At the same time I thought that performing in front of other people was the most terrifying thing imaginable.” It’s only more recently that she’s gotten close to conquering it. “Anytime I feel anxiety about music or about a social situation, I take that as a task. If I get freaked out over something, then it must be important to me in some way. So if I get nervous before a show, that just means I understand that the show is a big deal. I can be proud of myself for facing that fear, and diving into what was terrifyingly unknown.”
To hear how she draws from all this in her songwriting, check one of her early signature numbers, “Mama Told Me” (from her 2012 album Wherever There Is). The personal revelations are all there, the self-doubt (“It’s been a long time and I’m still trying to win this fight”) as well as the determination (“Whenever it’s uphill, I get a thrill when I reach the top”)—along with a chorus (“Mama told me, girl you better dance”) that turns it into something funky and uplifting, the kind of transformation that soulful music is all about.
And in recent years she does feel closer to the character she projects onstage—not least because she made a decision to stop drinking four years ago and stuck to it, going cold turkey without joining any programs. “I can feel confident and in control when I’m onstage now, that was something I lacked in my adolescence. The drinking just stopped one day after somebody told me a story about something I’d done the night before; it was mildly inappropriate and I didn’t remember any of it—to me that was not okay. I didn’t necessarily notice any change at first; it was very gradual and then fans starting talking to me, saying things like ‘You were really good before and now you’re on another level.’ And I’d think, really? I didn’t know there was a turning point. I still have my bouts with anxiety and depression but for the most part, I am genuinely happier now. I feel lighter, and I know how weird and cliché that sounds.” She quit smoking around the same time and generally stuck with that as well, though she does admit to going through a bunch of cigarettes on the night Trump was elected.
“Even at the worst moments—like my first show in 2006, when I threw up the entire day—it was always about getting onstage and starting the first song. Once I’m there a switch in my brain just flips and it’s like, ‘Yeah, this is fine, what are you talking about?’ I’m better with that now, and I’ve probably gotten better at accepting compliments—I was notoriously bad at that when I started out, it just seemed strange that people would applaud something you wrote. I’ve sung at weddings, and when you do that it means your song stays with people for the rest of their lives—so I might be important to someone in the same way that Bill Withers or Marc Broussard is to me—and since I still have that young kid without many friends inside my brain, that’s a hard one to wrap my head around.”
Her musical path has been fairly consistent since the early days, the only real departure being the 2013 album Quarter-Life Crisis—still a soul record at the core, but with a tougher rock sound encouraged by producer Anders Osborne. At the time, she says, she was processing a romantic breakup and starting to get sober, so a louder album was called for. “There was a lot to talk about, with everything coming to a head at once, so what I wrote was really aggressive. This time around with Fever Dreams, I was nervous that people would find this too much of a departure from the last one. We did a lot of experimenting with the programming on top of the actual instrumentation—a lot of my favorite albums were that way, but this is the first time we’ve actually done it. I set out to write a really happy album because the last one was so angry. But of course I wound up writing ‘Leave Me Alone’ first, which isn’t happy at all.”
And as she points out, the autobiographical slant of her songs only goes so far. If it were sequenced differently, Fever Dreams would play like an arc-of-a-relationship album: There are kiss-off songs to exes and hopeful ones to new partners, along with “Love You,” which seems to celebrate parenthood (and includes some kiddie vocals in the chorus). As it turns out, she hasn’t been through any of that, at least not lately. While she’s talked in earlier interviews about wanting to adopt, she’s put that on hold for a while; the kids on the record are her nieces. And she wrote her latest round of intense relationship songs while not being in a relationship at all.
“I’ve been single pretty much since I quit drinking—I think there’s a lot of stuff I need to work on before I get someone else involved in this nonsense. But I’ll always remember what it feels like to fall in love, and how it feels when it ends.” Likewise the song that dismisses a particularly nasty ex by name (“Sara”) isn’t about one of hers. “Sara is me. I get a lot of the same responses from exes, and that’s another reason why I’ve been single for a long time. Apparently I wasn’t very good at being with people for a while, apparently I broke a bunch of hearts, and that’s what ‘Sara’ is about. Sexuality is one of those things that I’ve always been an open book about; for me it’s a spectrum. And right now I am super into dudes. I went to a party by myself recently and said that to somebody and she took offense, but there you are—I wouldn’t mean it in an offensive way.”
And having come this far, we can’t ignore one of the elephants in the room: The fact that the (unrelated) artist M.I.A. had a hit called “Borders” last year, still probably the first thing you’ll get if you Google Mia Borders. “Oh, man—I have a Google alert set up whenever somebody is talking about me, and that isn’t going away. It was pretty cool for about a week.”