One way or another, Sarah Borges connects with casual mastery. Whether it’s with the comrades she’s collaborated with over nearly 20 sparkling years of music-making, or the vivid portraits of people’s lives – and occasionally her own – she’s sketched in scores of emotionally resonant songs. But most of all, Borges has built a loyal following by connecting, through her own charismatic, down-to-earth spirit, with her audience – whether they’re longtime fans from back when she broke through with her terrific “Silver City” debut in 2004, or newcomers just now joining the party.
Fast forward to the early months of 2020, when the life-altering global pandemic hit populations hard. Closer to home, the crisis not only suddenly, jarringly halted performers touring or playing shows large or small, but also quashed the creative chemistry that comes from musicians getting together and jamming in the same room. As an artist whose lifeblood flowed from these real-life exchanges of camaraderie and community, the Boston-based Borges was faced with perhaps the most daunting question of her professional career: How to connect and continue as a vital and viable working artist amid a frightfully uncertain future fraught with unknowns.
That’s where the aptly named brand new album, “Together Alone,” comes in. In a true-life twist on the old saying, “when life gives you lemons …”, a homebound Borges did the one thing she knew how to do better than almost anything else. She picked up her guitar and started writing songs such as “Wasting My Time,” which serves as a thematic linchpin of sorts for the new album. Set to a measured, ruminative gait and carried on dark currents of electric guitar and Hammond organ, the lyrics feel like a gathering storm. “It’s been awhile now since I’ve seen my friends / Don’t know when I’m gonna see ‘em again,” Borges sings with the kind of pensive ache her twang and torch-lit voice was born for. “Without them around / It’s harder to pretend that I know where I’m going.” With the new normal being an isolating life in lockdown limbo, the song seems to wonder whether time, in this context, is actually wasting us, rather than the other way around.
It was, for Borges, a scary proposition. But the solitary confinement that necessitated writing alone also felt liberating. “I think my self-editing tool is always fierce, and it’s what prevents me from being more prolific,” Sarah says. “I feel like I’m always writing in blood, like I have to stick to what I wrote the first time. But when you’re home alone, and it’s a pandemic, and you don’t know if anyone will ever even hear the songs, all bets are off. You can write what you want and feel free to cross it out as many times as you want.” Even the job Borges took as an airport courier during the pandemic to keep the bills paid and home hearth burning proved creatively useful. The temporary gig translated into a boisterous new track, namely the lighthearted rave-up, “She’s A Trucker,” based on the multi-Boston Music Award winner’s four-wheeling across state lines, carrying occasionally strange cargo. Recently, “I drove to Albany to deliver an airplane engine piece, and another day it was ocular tissue – totally weird, random stuff,” she says with a laugh. “But all that time, I was thinking about my music. With anything you love to do, you always have to find a way forward if you can.” Besides, she adds, “there aren’t many lady truck driver songs, so I thought I’d try my hand at one.”
Speaking of hands, Sarah received a huge one in the person of her longtime mentor Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, the venerable producer and guitarist who’s played with everyone from Joan Jett & The Blackhearts to Steve Earle and The Dukes. More recently, Ambel’s been Sarah’s band mate and co-conspirator in addition to his usual job running his Cowboy Technical Services Recording Rig studio in Brooklyn, NY. “Sarah and I had just come back from an incredible musical experience on the ‘Outlaw Country Cruise,’ in February , ” recalls Ambel of the traveling multi-artist, fan-filled getaway. But as the pandemic permeated life and gigs were canceled, the water-bound jaunt started to feel like it was the last good time anybody was going to have for a very long time. To get a sense of just how good a time was had, check out the rollicking new tribute to the cruise, “You Got Me On The Boat,” a sunny slice of hedonistic escapism co-written with Sarah’s boyfriend, Bottle Rockets bassist Keith Voegele, who contributes bass and vocals across several of the album’s tracks.
That all changed when the state’s powers-that-be locked down the studio. With the pandemic scuttling any chance of working live at CTS, the two were forced to brainstorm what Ambel amusingly refers to as the “MacGyver Method” of recording songs, referencing the hit ‘80s TV series. Except that the idea involved a hell of a lot more than a rubber band, stick of gum, and strategically employed paper clip to escape the clutches of the villainous COVID-19. Here’s how it worked: One by one, Borges would send along her home-recorded guitar and vocal demos – with Sarah singing into her iPhone, and utilizing her clothes closet as a vocal isolation booth – to Ambel’s home recording setup. He’d listen carefully to the rudimentary tracks, and then sort out who in his musical Rolodex might play what, where, when, and how. The tricky part, Ambel says, was that “I had to think of not only great players, but great players that could do a very good job recording themselves at home.”
Among those ready, willing, and able was Voegele, residing in Springfield, Illinois. Another was Keith Christopher, Ambel’s longtime Yayhoos band mate currently playing bass with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and living in upstate New York. A talented trio of drummers scattered from New York to Nashville also sent in dispatches. To ensure a rapport between far-flung musicians that felt organic, “I got songs to them in a very specific building order. Basically, we all went back to the ‘70s in recording style, working on one song at a time until it was complete. Time and geography didn’t really matter,” says Ambel. “It was exciting to be on the virtual receiving end of all these great songs and performances.” One unforseen benefit to recording remotely? “I’ve gotten a lot more confident playing solo through writing this record,” says Borges. “Because I wrote on acoustic guitar, the songs had to be able to stand on their own enough to make a demo. Plus, my callouses have gotten much better!”
Given the circumstances, it’s all the more remarkable that roughed-up romps like “Lucky Day” (a metaphorical love song about how the search for true romance can prove as elusive as a winning lottery ticket), have the bracing, flesh-and-blood feel of like-minded musicians in sync. The chemistry doesn’t sound remote at all. Paramount to the entire enterprise, of course, were the fresh ideas Borges put to paper and the spirited music she envisioned in the first place. “Sarah’s a fearless writer and performer,” says Ambel, “and she’s a very good musician.” “It feels like me,” says Borges, who calls making the record nothing short of “a lifeline.” “The record feels really comfortable, like a second skin already. It’s a good representation of who I am, both musically and personally.”
In fact, contemplative tracks such as “Something To Do” and “13th Floor” are candid reflections that cut to the marrow of who she was, and who she’s always becoming. “On ‘13th Floor,’ I was thinking about risk,” says Borges, “I’m still trying to sort out what six years alcohol-free means to me, and I still draw on some of those feelings from ‘drunk-town’ for songs. And ‘Something To Do’ – recorded almost entirely during lockdown – harkens back to those days when calling a random number on a bar wall might have seemed like a good idea.” Ironically, to find inspiration for the album’s final song, “Together Alone,” that had no lyrics or music attached to its title, Borges and her band hit the road for a few select, socially distanced dates in the Midwest this autumn. The shows, her first in over a year, proved challenging amid varying statewide vaccine or mask mandates (or lack thereof). But she didn’t return home empty-handed.
“Together Alone,” written across, and about, dividing distances on the road, is a bittersweet lament of loss, memory, and separation rendered in waltz time. “It’s the little things I’m missing / Now that they’re gone,” Borges muses over a mournful melody. “Lines across faces, and photos from places / Our shadows growing long.” But as anyone familiar with Sarah’s songs knows, genuinely soulful music that connects with us — and connects us to each other — can simultaneously steal, and heal, hearts. Ultimately, if “Together Alone” carries any message or lesson, it’s about finding the courage to face the hard times head on and not give in or up. And it’s about caring enough to bring the things that you miss, and that matter, back to life. –Jonathan Perry