Photo | Katie Sikora
New Orleans singer-songwriter Mia Borders abandoned academic pursuits after Hurricane Katrina to focus on her music career. Today, she is one of the Big Easy’s most original acts.
Band: An Intimate Evening with Mia Borders
Date: Friday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m.
Venue: The Listening Room of Mobile, 78 St. Francis St.,
Tickets: $20 artist donation (for reservations call 251-367-4599)
With all the funky brass sounds reverberating from New Orleans, Big Easy musicians such as Mia Borders are refreshing. Since childhood, Borders has embraced the magic of a guitar. After returning to a post-Katrina New Orleans, she began dedicating her life to becoming a musician, and her career path since then has taken her from such Crescent City festivals as Essence Fest and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to venues across the nation.
With its mix of rhythm and blues (R&B), jazz, blues and Latin combined with her impressive guitar work, her most recent album, “Fever Dreams,” is her most diverse to date. Lagniappe caught up with Borders to talk about her career and the life of an original musician in the current New Orleans scene.
Stephen Centanni: You got your first guitar when you were pretty young. What was it about the guitar that fascinated you at such an early age?
Mia Borders: That’s a good question. I don’t really remember. It was just always the instrument that I was draw to the most. I was really into Lenny Kravitz and Aerosmith and Bill Withers, and they all had guitars. It always seemed like a guy’s instrument. It intrigued me in a “buck the system” sort of way.
Centanni: What was your first experience with writing songs?
Borders: I was writing songs when I was a toddler and in preschool, and they didn’t make sense, obviously. It was just another way to express myself. Then, I started to get serious about it when I started taking lessons in sixth grade.
Centanni: After you moved back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, you decided to take that next step to performing onstage. What made you want to take that leap?
Borders: It was not easy. I finished high school and went to boarding school in Connecticut. I was going to come back to New Orleans and go to film school, either in New Orleans or Savannah. I was going to take a year off anyway, then Katrina happened. I started up a band with my brother’s friends. They agreed to back me when I sang a couple of songs as an opening act for their band. Then, it just snowballed from there. It wasn’t really a conscious decision.
So, I was about to graduate college and working as a paralegal. It was that thing of, “Do I want to go to law school and continue down this professional track where I’m not really happy and doing the 8:30-5:30 thing and drinking super hard after work, or do I want to try to make it in music?” So, that was when I made that decision.
Centanni: What was it like getting started in the New Orleans scene and making your way through it?
Borders: It can definitely be cutthroat. After the storm, there weren’t a whole lot of bars open, nor were there a whole lot of musicians back in town just yet. When we first started playing, we had a regular gig at a bar uptown. We got really comfortable there. Then, we all felt the need to branch out a little bit, and we started playing other clubs. It just continued to develop, and we got a manager a couple of years later. Then, we started to tour a little bit.
So, it was just another one of those things where there was momentum building up. We definitely hit a few walls, and we still hit a few walls. It’s where I’m trying to play new markets, and everybody wants to know what your numbers are in that market, and I’m trying to break in. It’s tough. I try not to see this competition. I think that venues like to pit musicians against each other to cover their own overhead. I’m trying to get out of that headspace and focus on what I’m doing and playing to different crowds and just try to be happy and not be too stressed out playing music. It’s not supposed to be a stressful job, but sometimes it is.
Centanni: I was in New Orleans a few weekends ago, and it’s been more packed than I’ve seen it in a while. To me, it’s like it’s back to normal, with big pre-Katrina crowds. As far as the music scene now, do you think things are back to normal?
Borders: That’s tough to say. Unfortunately, I think we’re moving away from original music. That’s something I’m hearing more and more from original musicians. We’re losing gigs to cover bands and the niche bands like brass bands. It’s easier for tourists to get on board with that. If you ask somebody from out of town to come see original music, then they’re really making an investment. It’s becoming more difficult to encourage that. That’s why a lot of us are trying to tour as much as possible and not saturate the local market.
There’s always going to be music in New Orleans. It’s one of the bedrocks of our city. I’m happy that it’s a big part of it, and I’m happy to be a part of that community, but it’s tougher to be an original musician than it was before.
Centanni: For someone like me who’s familiar with the “niche music” you’re talking about, listening to your latest album “Fever Dreams” is refreshing. I tend to really like the stuff coming out of New Orleans that doesn’t fall into the whole brass/funk scene. That album is such a great, diverse collection of music. You’ve got everything from Latin to swamp pop, with your guitar leading the way. What was it like choosing songs from your repertoire to go on this album?
Borders: I really just wanted to make an album that I would like to listen to. That hasn’t always been the case with my records. Some were for emotional reasons. I’m not in that headspace anymore. So, I don’t want to listen to an angry breakup record. Others were for technical reasons. I didn’t like the mix, so I don’t want to listen to that record anymore.
This was one that I took control of from start to finish. I did all the pre-production and demo recording. I’m pretty particular in the studio because studio time isn’t cheap. Fortunately, I have some world-class musicians who just play the crap out of the stuff I write and make me look really good. I mixed and mastered it myself. I wanted to have that cohesive thread of urban contemporary mixed with other stuff that I listen to.
I listen to a lot of R&B and the Bill Withers stuff with the acoustic guitar in everything he does. For some reason, I’ve never really recorded with my acoustic unless it was a ballad. I was mostly experimenting with sounds and finding a cohesive sound with mood.
Centanni: When can we expect the next album?
Borders: I think I’m going to put out an EP at the first of next year.
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