It shouldn’t be hard to recognize Mia Borders at this year’s Essence Festival: She’ll be the performer with the Che Guevara quote (which translates as “Better to die standing than to live on your knees”) tattooed on her arms. She’ll also be one of the few artists there playing rock & roll. And in all likelihood, she’ll be the only one using “You emotionally fucked me” as a song’s opening line.
“I go to Essence every year, but not to see musicians like me,” she notes. “It’s nice to see that they’re broadening their horizons when it comes to genre. It doesn’t need to be just R&B and soul, even though that’s my jam. If I could be an R&B and funk singer I would. But for some reason I just keep writing rock songs.”
The just-released Quarter Life Crisis (title courtesy of her therapist) brings out the spikier side of the singer-songwriter’s personality—starting with the music, which breaks her out of the sensitive acoustic mold with producer Anders Osborne adding his rock and roll know-how. “He helped bring it out, but I was definitely in that headspace. Musically, we were very much on the same page. He wanted to do something different from what he normally does with other people, and I wanted to do something different from what I normally do with myself. [This sound] was going to happen eventually and I’m glad it happened with Anders, because he knows how to navigate rock and roll better than I do.”
As the title promises, the singer found herself with plenty to write about, starting with a romantic breakup. “The weird part is that it happened two years ago, and I just started writing about it without realizing what I was doing. Then I’d listen back and say, ‘Wow, so that’s what it was about’.” The guitar-slinging, revenge-themed “Shooter” would be her most obvious single to date, were it not for the above-quoted opening line. “I knew people were going to like that song, and I knew they couldn’t play it on ‘OZ if I said that. But I chose to leave it because I knew it would resonate with a lot of people. Being destroyed is definitely a universal feeling—people suck.”
Songs like those tend to pour right out without much need for tweaking. “It doesn’t take more than 20 minutes to write a song; if it does then I get frustrated and walk away. Because I’ve had relationships with both men and women, someone pointed out to me that I don’t use gender-specific pronouns anymore, when I used to say ‘he’ and ‘she’ more in the lyrics. I didn’t even notice that, but I guess that’s something of a trick—women can think I’m singing about a woman, and guys can assume it’s about a guy. I personally don’t think [the sexuality issue] matters a whole lot, but I know it means a lot to certain fans of mine. I don’t have any issues with it. If people need that to matter to them then by all means, take it and make it something you can stake everything on. But at least in terms of my professional life it doesn’t mean that much to me.”
Borders’ love life wasn’t the only shakeup: She also quit drinking, which changed her whole approach to performing. “I got an early start, so it’s been a long time coming. I used to have really bad stage fright and alcohol was something that always helped—but then I would have too much and put on a terrible show. It’s a delicate balance and I am not good at toeing the line, so I had to cut myself off. And the more I drank the more I smoked, which didn’t help either. So it’s non-alcoholic beer and fake cigarettes—That’s what I’ve come to at 25.” Not to mention a heartier work ethic than before. “I work every day—I write every morning, mix old demos, work on non-fiction and screenplays. Though I’ll admit that Netflix can be a slippery slope, you can fall into that deep pit of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I can lose an entire day between that and embroidering.”
Performing without alcohol also took a re-think. “Thanks to the stage fright I used to throw up before every show, but I don’t anymore. It’s more about adrenaline and realizing that you get nervous because something’s important—my therapist helped a lot on that one. One of my biggest goals is to adopt a child, so that’s been a big part of getting my shit together. I’m putting money aside and learning to be responsible.”
Which begs the question of what kind of album she’ll make once she’s a happy mom with a new relationship. “I don’t even know if I’d want to hear it—like I don’t want to hear Adele make a boring happy album now that she has a baby. I’ll stay angry for a while so I can get more good tunes out of it.”