New Orleans’ Mia Borders is among a handful of local acts picked to join the roster of international stars at the 19th annual Essence Festival.
Borders, a veteran of two of the city’s other big festivals, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and French Quarter Festival, attended past Essence Festivals but this year will be the 25-year-old singer-songwriter’s first Essence performance.
“I usually go as a fan,” she said. “So to be performing on what people are calling ‘Beyoncé Sunday’ is pretty exciting.”
Borders will boost the musical power in her band by adding keyboard player Joe Shirley, who usually joins her at festivals, to her Essence set. She’ll rehearse for her Essence show at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, of course, and tweak some arrangements, but other than that it’ll be her usual show.
“They booked us because of the way we sound, so I don’t want to change anything drastically,” Borders said.
There’s no reason to make a drastic change. Borders is a gifted, versatile singer-songwriter. Her growing artistry is chronicled on her eighth recording, Quarter-Life Crisis. Released in April, the peak of Louisiana’s spring festival season, the 10-song album seamlessly encompasses soul, rock and funk and some rootsy country.
The album’s Quarter-Life Crisis title reflects thoughts and feelings Borders experienced in her mid-20s.
“Yeah, I didn’t know where I was, in my professional career or my personal life,” she said.
Such a state of mind in one’s 20s, Borders learned, is commonly known as a quarter-life crisis.
“As soon I heard that label, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “So rather than shy away from it, I decided to own it. I called the album that.”
Writing songs for the album proved therapeutic.
“Once I sat down with all the demos and listened through from beginning to end, I realized that I had a pretty heavy breakup album on my hands,” Borders said. “It definitely went along with the theme of quarter-life crisis.”
The album includes a Memphis-, Stax Records-style soul ballad, “Say A Prayer,” the Bill Withers-like “Keep Crying,” soulful love song “Tomorrow,” the Latin-flavored rock of “Try” and a searing expression of pain and loneliness, “You Loved Me Once.”
Just as Borders’ quarter-life crisis reflection is heard in her songs, it can be seen in her dramatic hairstyle change. She went from a mass of curls that obscured her face to a short cut that left her with no place to hide.
“It mostly had something to do with wanting a change, but also the disgusting heat down here,” she said. “Summer started pretty quickly and it’s always gross to have a huge mop of sweaty curls after a show. I don’t want to drench everybody whenever I shake my head.”
Anders Osborne, a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Sweden who found his musical home in New Orleans in 1985, guided the recording sessions for Borders’ new album at Dockside Studio in Maurice. She loves Osborne’s Scandinavia-meets-New Orleans accent.
The Osborne-Borders collaboration began after he contacted her management team, the New Orleans-based Hypersoul. Osborne said he wanted to produce someone’s next masterpiece. Borders’ name came up and Osborne, after attending a few of her shows, decided he’d produce her next album.
“I guess he liked what he heard and, obviously, I’m his fan,” she said. “To even talk with him about my next project was pretty awesome. To work with him was super great.”
In addition to producing, Osborne played guitar, piano and accordion for the record.
“He has so much going on his head,” Borders said. “And he can express it so easily when he picks up a guitar. So I wasn’t gonna say, ‘No, I’ll play that.’ He can do whatever he wants. I’ll just enjoy it.”
Borders loves to perform but she especially loves hearing great musicians apply their expertise to music she’s written.
“I’m a decent enough drummer and bassist that I can pull off recording my demos, but when I hear those guys play the stuff that I wrote, that’s my favorite part of it.”
Prior to her Sunday appearance at the Essence Festival, Borders and her band played a short East Coast tour that included Michael Arnone’s annual Crawfish Festival in Augusta , N.J., and The Bayou in New York City. Last weekend she played dates in Houston and Lake Charles.
“Summer is the time that we usually do most of our traveling, because the college crowd leaves New Orleans,” she said. “People tend to get out of town because it’s so hot and nasty down here.”
As her career progresses, Borders anticipates playing beyond New Orleans more often.
“Whenever we schedule a show somewhere out of town, we always hear from somebody we don’t know, who tells us how excited they are to see us again.”
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