Johnny Borrell interview: Razorlight's motormouth goes back to the day job

After a mixed reception for his solo album, Johnny Borrell has reformed Razorlight – minus several members – to fund his new band

From out of its case, Johnny Borrell lifts, with exaggerated care, a banjo recently gifted him by a friend, and begins to show me how to play it. I had not requested a tutorial, but a tutorial is what he offers, showing me how to make it sing, fingers curled into a half fist, the back of each nail ready to pluck at individual strings. This he does now, producing from it a gorgeously honeyed melody.

“It’s completely unlike any other instrument, right?” he says, blue eyes sparkling through his tumbledown kiss-curls. “It’s the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever played.”

He notes how under-appreciated the banjo is, and I remind him of Mumford & Sons’ efforts, the majority of whose songs revolve around it. It is not strictly possible for the individual features of a face to shape themselves into a question mark, but Borrell gives it a good go now.

“Mumford & Sons? I’ve never heard any of their songs. Do they use the banjo a lot, then?”

He’s never heard anything from one of the most successful bands of the last few years? Has he been living in a bubble?

He laughs. “Oh, I’ve always sort of existed outside culture. Thankfully.”

Despite a tiredness that has rendered the slight bags under his eyes pink and tender (he played a show in Plymouth last night, and got little sleep afterwards), the 34-year-old seems in good spirits today. It’s a Bank Holiday Monday, the rain reliably pouring. We’re comfortable in the living room of his manager’s North London house, Borrell looking every inch the bohemian in an old Sigmund Freud What’s on a Man’s Mind T-shirt, vintage suit, tennis shoes. Complementing his shaggy mop is a wispy beard that suddenly grows lustrous around the moustache, whiskers the colour of tobacco.

His good spirits come as a relief, frankly, because Borrell, always a brilliant interview, has long since stopped enjoying offering the bon mots he so readily proffered during his Razorlight heyday.

He’s been burned too often by them, he says, too often misunderstood and pilloried, the British media now convinced that because he sells a fraction of the records he once did – his 2013 debut solo album Borrell 1 sold 594 copies in its first week of release, and failed to dent the Top 100 - he is now a spent force, tail humble between his legs. His argument is that, for someone who resides outside of culture, sales have nothing to do with anything.

Nevertheless, his trajectory has been a compelling one. Ten years ago, he was the largely self-appointed great white hope of British rock, the new Bono (“but better looking,” argued New Woman magazine), all cheekbones and snake hips, and so wonderfully sure of himself. “If Dylan’s making the chips,” he once said, “I’m drinking champagne.” He dated a movie star (Kirsten Dunst), and pouted from the cover of Vogue magazine, half naked. When Dunst consciously uncoupled from him, it was by all accounts because he had ridden his motorcycle through her house, trailing oil, petrol stink and arrogance in his wake.

“Couldn’t understand the fuss,” he says now, shrugging. Razorlight, meanwhile, couldn’t cope with their spiralling success, Borrell reportedly becoming increasingly diva-ish. They split amid bitter acrimony.

“I’d entered into that celebrity world to an extent voluntarily,” he says, “but it never appealed. Yes, I’d made the shiny pop records, but I knew that my creativity had to go somewhere else next.” Where it ultimately went was onto Borrell 1, which, poor sales notwithstanding, was fun and joyful, and certainly never dull, improbable saxophone solos all over the place. Lots of great albums, he suggests, get overlooked at the time. Hindsight may yet prove kind to his.

“I don’t think [Scott Walker’s 1969 cult classic] Scott 4 is a bad record, you know? The Velvet Underground and Nico wasn’t a bad record, and I would hardly suggest, say, The Magic Flute by Mozart was at all ropey, would you?” He hasn’t quite abandoned the bon mots just yet, then.

“See, music is its own language,” he continues, “and we are lucky, as musicians, to speak a language that exists in its own right. By playing music, you are tapping into something that is intrinsically human. Rhythm was around before language, after all.” He sighs, as if exasperated by his own monologue.

“What I’m trying to say is, there is music and there is the music business. For me, there is no connection between the two."

Johnny Borrell sings with Razorlight back in 2009 Johnny Borrell sings with Razorlight back in 2009

Next month, Borrell will resuscitate Razorlight for series of summer shows. He has agreed to do this, albeit without original members Andy Burrows, Carl Dalemo and Bjorn Agren (wounds remain raw), for two reasons: firstly to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the band’s debut album Up All Night, and also because it will help to  fund the record label he has set up to release records for his new outfit Zazou, a 10-piece ensemble he says is prone to “total creative freedom”, ie, jazzy interludes.

He is wildly enthusiastic about Zazou, which, he insists, is everything to do with music and nothing to do with the pursuit of fame.

“Up until about 2006, I just wanted to look behind every door that had previously been closed to me. Fame is a drug that combines really well with a lot of other bad drugs, but I’m allergic to cocaine. Don’t get me wrong. I had some amazing times, but at the peak of it all, my reaction to celebrity was to go off and live on a remote Scottish island for four months.”

He now divides his time between London, Paris and a village in France’s Basque region. Nobody there knows him as a former preening rock star, and this comes clearly as a relief. He’s happy these days, he says, at peace. I ask if he is in a relationship. He chuckles. “Yes, yep, maybe, early stages, hope so.” He picks up the banjo now, and leads me, Pied Piper style, into the garden, plucking as he goes.

“I feel like I’m just warming up, you know?” he says. “My musical potential is increasing and increasing. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything. It feels like the beginning.”

He grins through his whiskers. The rain still falls, which is not good for the banjo. We head back inside.

Johnny Borrell and Zazou play London’s Jazz Cafe on 31 May. Razorlight tour the UK throughout the summer

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game