It’s fair to say that John Borra has seen and done it all within the Toronto alternative music scene, from witnessing the first stirrings of punk as a kid in the late 1970s, to joining his first bands at the dawn of the alt-rock movement in the 1980s, and forging a solo career during the roots music renaissance that followed.
His new album, Cassettes In Common, pays tribute to virtually all of those eras by presenting Borra’s new interpretations of 10 songs by fellow singer/songwriters who helped build the scene, such as Ron Sexsmith, Kyp Harness, Bob Snider, Sam Larkin and Frank Nevada. Assisting Borra in the studio was another group of Toronto underground legends including Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies, Blue Rodeo keyboardist Mike Boguski, original Blue Rodeo drummer Cleave Anderson, Doughboys/Rusty guitarist Scott McCullough, fiddler extraordinaire Miranda Mulholland, Handsome Ned guitarist Steve Koch, and Borra’s longtime friends and collaborators Sam Ferrara and Johnny MacLeod.
“These are songs by people I know or have known, which gives it an extra specialness for me,” Borra says. “Some of them have never had a commercial release and some others are pretty obscure—or at least not in the popular consciousness. I think all of the songs and artists here are top notch and deserve recognition. It’s also how we keep songs alive. By doing them. It’s part of the folk tradition.”
Moreoever, the first focus track from Cassettes In Common pays tribute to Vancouver legend Art
Bergmann. “Sleep,” from Bergmann’s acclaimed 1990 album Sexual Roulette is, like much of
Bergmann’s work, a pull-no-punches observation of a dysfunctional relationship, which Borra treats with heartbreaking empathy. “Sleep” sets a high bar for the rest of the album, but the personal connection Borra has with all of these songs is its greatest strength. “I suppose the song with deepest personal connection is ‘October Night’ by Frank Nevada,” he says. “In 1991, Frank and I went to Europe to try our hands at playing music on the streets and hopefully have a fun summer in a far off land. We’d heard that Europeans had a greater respect for street musicians and you could make decent money playing music for the public at large. This turned out to be true and we had a wonderful adventure that lasted six months for me and turned into four years for Frank. At some point we acquired a benefactor/patron of the arts who bought us each a little cassette recorder. After I got home there was a period where we would send each other audio letters we’d record on our little cassette players. Frank sent me a recording of this song he’d written after I’d left and I’ve always loved it. It addresses our time together, the seasons changing, and expresses a loneliness of being on his own with an uncertain future ahead. Or at least that’s my take on it. He’s never recorded it and I’m glad that I was
finally able to.”
As well, Borra is paying tribute to his own past in a way by simultaneously giving his first solo
release, the 1997 self-titled John Borra cassette, its first CD/digital reissue. Featuring his longtime live staples, “Last Sexy City On Earth,” “Who’s Pickin’ On You” and “In The Afternoon,” it’s a collection that still holds up as prime example of Canadian alt-country.
Both new releases follow Borra’s last solo album, 2020’s Blue Wine, which Exclaim! called, “A fine collection of songs from an artist meriting more attention,” and UK blogger The Rocking Magpie described as, “equal parts poetic Honky Tonk and revved up Punkish barn burners.”
Blending those two sounds has been Borra’s mission for the past several decades, and now with Cassettes In Common, he’s pulled back the curtain in a sense on what’s helped him achieve that
“I’m inspired by every one of the artists on this record,” he says. “That’s why I’ve wanted to do a
record like this for a long time now. When I first started playing in bands, my heroes were the likes of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and MC5. All of those artists put out music they believed in and stuck to their guns despite a lack of commercial success at the time. I’ve always tried to use that approach as my barometer and it’s served me well over the years. I have very few regrets from a lifetime of doing this and I see no reason to change at this point.”