Many artists say the greatest reward is to have an effect on people's lives. Johnny Borrell, 24-year-old frontman for Razorlight, won't settle for merely having an effect, he wants his music to save the lives of others. After all, it was his music that saved his life.
When he was 17, Borrell started shooting heroin, and for the next two years, he made a daily habit of shooting up and snorting cocaine. Over time, he lost most of his friends, some who overdosed, and some who couldn't stand watching Borrell destroy himself. It was only after he decided to mold his feelings into impassioned lyrics instead of numbing them with narcotics that Borrell found meaning in his life. And the more he wrote, the more he was able to cope with the outside world.
"Now I see everything in my life as material for my songs," Borrell said. "Whether it was looking back at when I was 18 and I was staggering around listening to Exile on Main Street while waiting for the man, or whether it was hanging out and having a beer with rich kids in London."
Borrell formed Razorlight with guitarist Björn Ågnen, bassist Carl Dalemo and drummer Christian Smith-Pancorvo (later replaced by Andy Burrows) in London in 2002. Inspired by various American artists including Velvet Underground, Television and Bob Dylan, and more contemporary British acts like Oasis and Supergrass, Borrell and his bandmates wrote a batch of songs that were jaunty, mesmeric and rife with hooks.
"I was trying to write songs that I would want to go see," Borrell said. "I was going to lots of gigs and some of them were OK, but I usually wouldn't want to stay for the whole thing. I wanted to put a band together that would do a show I wouldn't get bored at."
He came up with the band name one night while playing a party at an abandoned fire station for an assemblage of homeless squatters. It was a combination of a high fever and a jam-inspired trance that conjured the magical moniker. "It was the middle of winter and I was very ill and a bit delirious," he said. "There was all this reverb coming off the back wall as we were playing, and it sounded amazing. So, at the end I was improvising, and I started singing, 'It's all right, it's all right,' and that kind of mutated into 'Razorlight, Razorlight.' And I just loved the name. It reminds me of Ockham's Razor [the principle which says if there are two competing theories, the simplest one is the preferable one]. You apply the razor and get down to the bare bones of whatever situation you're dealing with."
The band tracked a batch of demos at Toe Rag studios (where the White Stripes recorded Elephant), and less than a year after they formed, Razorlight had a major-label deal. The many club gigs that followed generated a major buzz, and in no time the British press was comparing them to the Strokes and praising them as the U.K.'s answer to American garage.
"I think some of that happened because we recorded at Toe Rag," Borrell said. "Obviously, it's totally untrue, and we had to just blaze our way through it, but some of it does stick even now."
Plenty of bands would be thrilled about being favorably compared to the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand, but Borrell isn't interested in blanket praise. He considers such comparisons, however accurate, to be lazy and insulting. Remember, he's not just interested in being a pop star; he's out to make a real difference. "The thing is," he begins without an ounce of modesty, "I really write great songs. There's a voice in me that's screaming to people to fill their lives with some integrity. [I want] to let them know that there's something out there that is more substantial than breakfast, lunch and dinner. Also, we've got the best rhythm section in rock music of any band. If anybody wants to show me a rhythm section that's better, I'd love to see it."
On January 15, the band will begin a second U.S. club tour in support of its debut, Up All Night, which was produced by John Cornfield (after a failed attempt to work with Steve Lillywhite) and released in August.
"We've already been really accepted at home, so it's great to be able to come to America and have to win over new audiences," Borrell said. "I think people can connect with my music because it's like a bunch of letters or telephone conversations. It's very truthful. Someone once said that everything that's real is beautiful. I'm not sure if that's true, but at least it's genuine."