Heaven, Earth & Rock n’ Roll: Sarah Borges

Together Alone is an unapologetic pandemic record chronicling the emotional feats of strength performed by a single parent and artist in recovery– and if you don’t think that’s rock n’ roll, then you don’t know Sarah Borges.

In 2020, the longtime leader of the Broken Singles arrived home after a tour at sea to find the music industry in free fall, the bottom suddenly appearing and marooning bands that depended on steady gigs to survive. The Massachusetts-based Borges took to writing, engaging an unfiltered candor that felt supernatural, and with zero prospects of a return to the stage, Sarah also found a coping mechanism and employment as a courier.

With songs reflecting her new occupation, the heartbreak of separation, and the will to transcend both, Borges, with the help of producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (The Yayhoos, Steve Earle, Mojo Nixon) developed a remote recording process that animated each track on Together Alone with the assistance of an all-star band including Keith Christopher (Georgia Satellites, The Yayhoos, Lynyrd Skynyrd), John Perrin (NRBQ), and her partner Keith Voegele (The Bottle Rockets). The result is more than a reflection, it’s a tribute to a way of life driven to the fringe and a promise to wrest every last note from each new day.

AI- You just got back from, what was this– the sixth voyage of the Outlaw Country Cruise?

SB- Yes! It was! It was postponed because of the pandemic, so we missed a year, but you’re right– seventh year, but sixth actual cruise!

You were just comin’ back from that in 2020 when COVID wrecked everything. So two years later, gettin’ back on the boat– was that daunting in any way?

Of course! Because there’s still a pandemic somewhat, and there’s a lot of people in close quarters and you hear these horror stories… But the allure of going far outweighed my concern because I’ve been on this cruise before and know that it is like heaven on earth! It is so much fun! You get to play a ton, you get to see all your friends– it’s really great!

And you wrote a song about this for Together Alone“You Got Me On The Boat”. Was that wishful thinking or did you know that you were gonna be able to get back to that moment?

Originally when the first round of announcements for the lineup came out, I wasn’t on it! And I was willin’ to just take it! It’s a privilege to be on the thing, but they have this Facebook group that’s really active and it’s all the “cruisers”, and so they started this campaign to get me back on the boat! They made memes and they posted and tagged, but they just were so kind on this whole Facebook group– and that’s how I ended up on it because of their help! That’s what led me to write this song because I just felt this gratitude to them. And then Eric Ambel, who had produced the record, he’s the one who came up with the original idea, he was like, “I think you owe these people a thank you. Why don’t you put it into a song?” I was like, “Heck, yeah, alright!”

Well, since you’ve brought up Eric Ambel– Roscoe– you have worked with him for a little while now. The way that you had to put this album together– he has some wonderful liner notes in the CD jacket– it’s a very 21st Century take on the do-it-yourself remote recording process that everyone has had to take advantage of over the last couple of years. You did your vocals on your cell phone, in a closet at home– is that right?

Yep! Some of the songs that’s absolutely right. Roscoe is what I call Eric Ambel, that’s his nickname, he sorta schooled me on how to do it and that there needed to be a lot of clothes in the closet to make the sound a little bit better and helped me pick out the microphone that was appropriate. We did almost 75% of the record at home, I’d say, so it was everything from doing what we just talked about to having my boyfriend come over with his Pro Tools rig and we’d spend a weekend trying to get some bass and guitars done. So it was a very piecemeal process, but Eric’s so good at what he does that he was able to make it sound all of a piece!

What did you think when you got those first mixes back?

Well, it’s an expletive that I can’t say on the radio!

(Laughs) Well, we’re not live so…

I went down to Brooklyn where Roscoe’s studio is, and I started to hear the mixes and I almost wanted to cry because it was such a hard time for not just me, but for everybody! And the fact that we persevered, made somethin’ beautiful, I just felt so hopeful and so good. It really almost brought me to tears!

You brought up your boyfriend, Keith Voegele… You have a wonderful band whether you were all in the room or not! The whole time I was readin’ about everything that was going on, I developed this band name for you– you can call it the NRB-Yay-Q-Rocket Band. I love every single person that you have appearing on this album and all of their respective outfits. I don’t know that I could have handpicked a better group myself. Tell me about writing with Eric and with Keith.

Well, [Keith] was in the Bottle Rockets for almost 15 years, so he’s been around this track a bunch of times, this whole Americana thing that we do. He’s a really good sounding board for me. I’ve never felt comfortable with a person before… When you write a song, it comes out all messy at first! It’s never this beautiful structured thing, and you have to whittle it down. And he helped me do that. So it’s really the first time in my life that I’ve had a continuous partnership like that with someone that I feel so comfortable with. And it is so collaborative!

You had mentioned something in that vein about your inner self-editing tool, and about how when you had first started composing these songs, you didn’t necessarily conceive it as an album and you weren’t even sure that these songs were ever gonna get heard.

It’s true. I think when I first started playing music or in a public way twenty-somethin’ years ago, I was so self-conscious because you are when you’re young. But then I kind of lived my life and bigger things happen than my fragile little ego. This time around, I just felt like, “Well, I’ll just say what I’m gonna say. Maybe no one will hear it. I can always rip it up,” but then I kept it and no one’s made fun of me yet! So I think I’m gonna keep doin’ this from now on ’cause it’s way less painful and way less time-consuming too!

You open the album with “Wasting My Time”, and you’ve called that particular song, “unusually autobiographical.” I still have friends and family even that I have not seen in two years because of the pandemic. Some of that is vaccine, politically related, and some of it is just we haven’t been able to do it where we felt like it was safe. That’s one of the hardest things, the time part of downtime and how do you make the most of relationships during that time?

It’s true. I was thinking when I wrote this song of a couple of things, one is my grandma, she’s 97 and it wasn’t safe to see her because she’s older and there weren’t vaccines available yet. I think about her, and then I was thinkin’ about this man, Tim Easton, who’s a songwriter that I really admire, and during the beginning of the pandemic, he had put out a song called. “When I See You Again”. There was this beautiful video of all these people holding up pictures of their loved ones who they can’t be with, and you could see the family resemblance between them and just this collective feeling of what you’re talking about, where we need to be with our people– and we couldn’t! That was the feeling I had goin’ in and writing that one.

You embraced the streaming show, that aspect of performing, fairly early on, and there have been varying degrees of people doing that and enjoying it, doing it and not enjoying it and just choosing not to be involved with it at all for whatever reason. And then you and your son having story time on [social media] as well! I wanna talk about the children’s book here shortly as well, but what did you get out of doing the streaming shows? How did you feel about connecting with fans that way versus the live, sweaty, in-a-club experience?

Oh yeah, at first, I missed everybody! I wanted to say I was okay and somehow communicate with them. And what I didn’t anticipate is it’s a live chat, usually running when you’re playing from home and you almost need to have an assistant because it’s so hard not to read the chat while you’re playing. It just became this outpouring of all these people I know from all over the world saying hello or saying they were okay! And then the other part of it is that people could give money and to be blunt, that was something that was in real short supply when all the live show work got cut off at the beginning of the pandemic and we were freaked out! The generosity of people over the pandemic during those livestreams was staggering! It’s what kept us going. I didn’t expect that. I can’t even begin to think about how grateful I am for it. So I did a few of ’em and it wasn’t that it didn’t compare to the live experience, it was just very, very different.

Photo by Liz Linder

You bring up the financial part of it. You got a job as a courier. You reinvented the band van as a means to work as a courier from the airport, taking various objects, products, or whatever from point A to point B. How did you come across that gig?

Craigslist (laughs)! I got desperate because I needed a job that was both flexible should live shows or tour come up, and also, my son had school. But I needed money quick! [Couriering], that’s easy to do– you just need a driver’s license and a pretty clean record! And then I really started to develop an affinity for it! I drove around, I listened to music– so much music– and it became if I couldn’t be on tour, I could at least drive like I’m on tour. It was some vestige of that life that I could hold onto. I still do it– a little bit less now that we’re back to playing a bunch, but I probably will always hold onto it because I like it a lot!

I don’t wanna call it a fallback, but having that option should the proverbial fit hit the shan again, I was gonna save this question for a little bit later, but what else are you keeping from this pandemic experience? What else have you learned or experienced that you’re gonna take and use in the future?

Well, it’s a little bit to me, the feeling like I used to have… I’m an alcoholic who is in recovery and I missed a decade of shows and experiences and tour because I was drinking. And then when I got sober and went out and did that all over again, I really started to think about all the little experiences and how much gratitude I feel about them because it’s something that I will always remember. And that’s not even including the musical experiences, you know? So I feel like coming out of the worst part of the pandemic, now, when I go and play shows, I almost wish I had a photographic memory so I could keep every part of the experience because I just treasure it so much more now than I did three years ago!

Do you think that there’s a– and I don’t know if there is, and I think probably there should be, and I’m not really sure how you would do it– but some sort of repository for these quarantine streaming concerts that people did? A sonic document of this particular era? Were you able to save any of yours?

I was not! But I think you’re absolutely right! It’s a time capsule and I think our children… My son, he’s ten, and he was just turning eight when this started, so this is a huge chunk of his life! It’s a fifth of his life, you know? So for those generations to look back and see what we were feeling like, and what got talked about on the livestream or what kind of music was being made, I think would be vastly important. But I don’t know if it exists.

Talking about being a parent, we’ve discussed the artist part of it. I have a five-year-old daughter, and a significant portion of her life has been spent under the threat of COVID-19, as a matter of fact, I’m not even positive she fully remembers what life was like when we just went out and did things! Tell me about that, about being a mother and an artist during the pandemic.

We did remote school in our town, in Massachusetts where we live, that was an option that we started at the beginning of last year. And then we sort of had to opt-in and couldn’t opt-out. I gained, certainly, a newfound respect for teachers because I was not cut out for that job. And I knew it! But we made it through! I think I learned to see the experience of what we all went through, through my son’s eyes– what he lost, what he missed, but also his lack of understanding of why people don’t do the necessary things to get us through this as quickly as possible. It was very interesting to watch him experience this, but I think in terms of playing music and going back to it now, it’s always a fine line. I need to be home for him as much as possible, but I also need to go and play shows. I think I’m a better mother if I do play because it makes me feel more complete as a person.

Talkin’ about the children’s book earlier, What Can I Do When I Miss You. I have to guess that originally sprung from being a parent and an artist working out on the road. But I am guessing that it also took on a completely different perspective under the pandemic.

Yeah, it did. I wrote the book with my friend Joyce Raskin, who had been in a band up here in New England that I really admired called Scarce back in the ’90s– so to get to work with her was just wonderful! She also is a mum and she helped me articulate some of the feelings I had about having to leave my son to go play music. But once the pandemic started, it started to be a tool that everyone can use for missing people. It’s everything from eating chocolate chip pancakes to saying your feelings, you know, just creature comforts to bearing your soul! I feel like starting early with kids, talking about that stuff is pretty important. It’s something I wish I had done for myself.

Like many, many artists, you were vocal on social media about being vaccinated, and about the band being vaccinated to be able to get back out and perform. I have seen other artists face some serious heat and pushback from just making a statement of, “Hey, we’re vaccinated, and we’re trying to get back on the road! Let’s all do this together!” Did you experience any harsh reality from that?

Oh yeah! I really respect people like Jason Isbell– he was at the forefront of that in terms of saying, “You don’t put out a vax mandate, we can’t come play for you.” But there was this sort of gray area when we started to get back on the road, like last August where not all the clubs took on vaccine proof only. There weren’t always mask mandates in place, and we had to make some tough decisions, whether it was like, “If you can’t put this policy in place for our show, I guess we can’t play.” And these are people we’ve known 20 years in some cases! So it was more that there was no standard in the touring music industry and in a lot of the small clubs. And I know they’re getting hurt so bad with their bar and their livelihood! It’s such a tough situation, but finally, I just couldn’t take it anymore and had to just actively start saying, “If you’re not vaccinated, you can’t come to the show. I’m so sorry.”

You suffered a bout a COVID-19 yourself last spring., Have you fully recovered? Do you still feel any after-effects of it?

No, I feel great! I’m so thankful! But mine was very unusual– it inflamed the lining of my brain, and I had a really horrible headache for about three and a half weeks. The MRI showed that there was just some strange inflammation and it was COVID-related. You never wanna mess around with your brain, and I think that’s just an example of how it affects everybody differently, and it can be really dangerous.

You close out the album with the title track, “Together Alone”, which is just a beautiful coda on the whole record. Looking to put a name to that feeling, that collective feeling of loss and fear and confusion and horror, and you call it heartbreak, which as you say in the song, I can’t think of a better word for it. How are you gonna handle things going forward? Whether they get better or worse, as an artist, what do you want to see happen?

I just wish that there was more kindness in the world and I’m trying to live that way as much as I can, whether that be putting out a record that I feel is the best I can do, the most honest I can be, to just the interactions that I have when I’m out there in the world or on tour. We meet so many different people each with their own experiences that if we can take anything from this collective experience, we just need to be better to each other.

Together Alone is available now on all your favorite digital platforms and directly from the artist! Like & Follow Sarah Borges for news and LIVE performance updates!