John Borra - Blue Wine
At age 16, John Borra played his first gig at the legendary Toronto punk bar The Turning Point, and since then he has been a part of nearly every significant musical movement in the city. These days he’s best known as a troubadour, albeit one with a rebellious storytelling streak that can be traced back to Hank Williams and other pioneering voices of folk and country music.
Blue Wine is Borra’s first solo album since 2002, after three albums with his band Rattlesnake Choir, and it finds him at the peak of his writing and performing powers. On one hand, it’s exactly the kind of album you’d expect from one of the most influential figures within Toronto’s roots rock scene –raw, melodic, and bursting with heart and soul. On the other hand, Blue Wine displays maturity and lyrical sophistication only an artist as experienced as Borra could convey.
“The writing process for this one felt much like a first record –many sources and many years in the making,” Borra says. “When I started out in the early 1980s in post-punk bands, the goal was to try do something new and artistically important. That’s what everyone was going for at that time and I’ve tried to maintain that aesthetic through everything I’ve done since.”
In that spirit, Borra put together a top-notch band for Blue Wine anchored around Blue Rodeo keyboardist Mike Boguski, longtime collaborator Sam Ferrara and drummers Glenn Milchem, Cleave Anderson, Dani Nash and Tim Timlek. As well, Borra collaborated with award-winning poet Eva H.D. on three songs: “Machu Picchu,” “The Wars” and “Hambre And Dolores.” While these were the most recently written songs on Blue Wine, they perfectly complement Borra’s own standout compositions, such as “Seven Days,” “Trace In The Wind” and “Tonight.”
“Writing with Eva was a great pleasure and very interesting because it forced me to interpret the meaning behind her words,” he says. “I’m still unpacking those songs every time I sing them. The other songs I can explain more directly: ‘Seven Days’ is the oldest song on the album and it’s about raising my stepdaughter; ‘Trace In The Wind’ is a tribute to the late actress Tracy Wright who was a great supporter of my work; and ‘Tonight’ was written for a friend’s film that I ended up rejigging after it didn’t make the final cut.”
Borra also tips his hat to Dani Nash, a Toronto indie scene mainstay, by covering her song “Way Back Home,” while also revisiting his own musical roots with a version of the Velvet Underground’s “Foggy Notion.” The latter features a special guest appearance by Kevin Hearn of Barenaked Ladies, who was a member and musical director of Lou Reed’s band.
With genre labels becoming increasingly irrelevant, the diversity inherent to Borra’s brand of folk and country hardly seems out of the ordinary. Instead, it underscores how far ahead of the curve he has always been in terms of making country music with an inner city edge.
“Coming up in the post-punk era, a large part of what I do has been informed by the Velvets, Stooges, Patti Smith, Ramones and others from that time,” he says. “I owe a great debt to all of those bands and that music resonates very deep in me. I’d intended to record Dani’s song for a Rattlesnake Choir record that we didn’t end up making, but I just loved it and figured I’d be a fool not to put it on Blue Wine.”
Having played a substantial role in many albums that have become part of the Canadian indie rock canon, collaboration has always come naturally for Borra. It all began in earnest in 1984 when he co-founded the notorious A Neon Rome, whose sole classic album, New Heroin, was released on France’s New Rose Records. They went on to inspire Bruce McDonald’s landmark 1989 film Roadkill, but by then Borra was already following the lead of Toronto’s late country-punk visionary, Handsome Ned.
Before launching his solo career in the mid-1990s, Borra played bass in many other bands at the core of Toronto’s indie scene, including Groovy Religion, Scott B Sympathy, and most significantly Change Of Heart, appearing on their major-label debut album Tummysuckle, which was supported by a cross-Canada tour with The Tragically Hip.
As he became more involved in the alt-country world, Borra played and recorded with Ron Sexsmith, Serena Ryder, Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor and many others, while simultaneously forming the John Borra Band with Handsome Ned guitarist Steve Koch and Cleave Anderson, Blue Rodeo’s founding drummer. Later, he led Rattlesnake Choir with Sam Ferrara of first-wave Toronto punks The Viletones and The Ugly, along with a rotating cast of luminaries. It’s worth noting that December 2019 will mark 15 years that Borra and Ferrara have performed as a duo every Sunday afternoon at Toronto bar The Communist’s Daughter.
Now with Blue Wine, John Borra is ready to step out on his own again with a powerful collection that touches on all aspects of his personal and musical journey.
As country music continues to evolve, a great song will always be a great song. John Borra’s Blue Wine is proof of that from start to finish.