With the release of his debut album, "AQUΛRIA," we talk to singer/producer BOOTS about his past.
There are two things I notice about Boots when we hop on the phone, a Thursday afternoon, still three weeks away from the release of his debut album, AQUΛRIA. The first, is that he seems to be a rather quiet, thoughtful person. Not thoughtful as in, how nice, he remembered my birthday. Thoughtful as in, takes the time to think about what he’s saying and construct his sentences with care. So much so, that I quite frequently interrupted his train of thought with an abrupt, ‘hello?’ because I thought we had been disconnected. It wasn’t until I was a few ‘hello’s’ deep that BOOTS, aka Jordy, told me sometimes he just pauses mid-sentence. Oops. The second thing I can tell almost immediately, is that BOOTS is nothing if not a genuine lover of music. All things music. He doesn’t seem picky.
There’s probably one thing you, the reader, knows about BOOTS. That is, he’s that dude who produced almost all of Beyonce’s self-titled masterpiece. That’s one really big thing, mind you. Not too many artists start their career by helping to create a ground-breaking/rule-breaking album for Queen Bey. It’s an odd place to start, almost backwards. Well, I mean, no, BOOTS didn’t magically appear out of thin air and drop into Beyonce’s lap, production in hand, ready to work. Let’s start at the beginning.
BOOTS, real name, Jordan Asher, actually grew up in Miami, not Roc Nation’s birthplace of New York City. Although he was raised in Miami, you really wouldn’t be able to tell, whether it be his style or his sound or his look—nothing at all screams 'Miami.' In fact he seems like a New Yorker in most of those regards, not to mention he has this aloofness, this cool nature to him that is also very 'New York.' He’s often photographed looking pale, almost sickly, as though he avoids the sun entirely (and to that effect, it sounds like he spends most of his time working on music, I can just imagine him holed up in a studio and only emerging at night, a nocturnal animal; for some reason this is how I see him). In his “Motorcycle Jesus” short film, which he released prior to the album accompanied by an original soundtrack of five records, he wore raggedy clothes, a long, faded black tee with a wide neck and rips around the collarbone, and equally-faded black jeans. This seems to be his uniform too—a perusal of his Instagram pages shows ripped faded black tee after ripped faded black tee. Boots, too. Can’t forget the boots. Not only is it his name, it’s an important part of any rockstar’s wardrobe, something BOOTS noticed as a child when his interest in music first started to develop. “There was just something really cool to me about boots and the people who would wear them when I was a kid,” BOOTS says. “You would see people like the Beatles, or Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, all these people that were rocking these boots, and it was always just something that stuck into my head, as music first of all and something that was very timelessly cool. I started wearing them from a young age when I could find ones that fit right. I started breakdancing in boots, and they would be kinda joke and be like, ‘What’s up boots?!’ Cause you don’t see a kid breakdancing in boots. And after that, it just kinda stuck with me.”
That’s the thing about BOOTS. It seems like whatever he does, he can relate it to music in some way, and if he cannot, he probably isn’t interested in whatever it might be. He audibly perks up during our conversation when we touch on more music-focused topics, like how his publishing deal with Roc Nation really works, or his first tastes in hip-hop music. BOOTS is signed to Roc Nation for publishing, and he’s signed as an artist to Columbia Records. You know the Roc Nation connection— Beyonce. As he tells me, “One of my songs miraculously made it onto Beyonce’s desk, she heard it, and she wanted to know if I wanted to come work for a week in the studio. I wasn’t living anywhere at the time. I said sure. I came and I started working for a week. They liked what I was doing so a week turned into two weeks. At the end of the second week, they asked me where in the city I lived. I said no where, really. They said what do you mean? I said I’m staying on my friend’s floor right now, you know. They kinda looked at each other, like, what? A few days later, Roc Nation approached me and wanted to hear all of my music to consider me for publishing. And it wasn’t just like they opened the door and I was in. I showed them my music, and it was real, and they really loved it, and Roc Nation signed me to a publishing deal which is what got me off the streets.”
There’s still a missing piece to this story, how does one miraculously get their CD to Beyonce’s desk? That’s something BOOTS won’t share, and he says he’ll never share that minute but extremely important detail. When I asked him if he knew how Beyonce got his music, he says, “I do know how my music got to Beyonce. I will never tell that, it’s the one thing I will never tell. There will be a hole in the story.”
Now we’re getting ahead of ourselves though. So, back to little BOOTS in Miami, he’s a mix of Hispanic and Russian, his parents were actually both raised in NYC (each immigrated from their respective countries), before transplanting to Miami, where they then shuffled around quite a bit. Imagine a little BOOTS then, back in Miami, a place that doesn’t really sound like “home,” at least the way he describes it, at eleven years old, finding a copy of Nas’ Illmatic. This was the start of his love affair with hip-hop music, and listening to Illmatic, as he says, “changed my life, and that’s why I wanted to be in the hip-hop scene.” BOOTS then describes other old school acts that he discovered in his pre-teenage or teenage years, from A Tribe Called Quest to underground acts you might have never heard of like Funcrusher, to LL Cool J, and finally, the penultimate favorite, OutKast. When discussing his love of OutKast, the singer casually throws in a reference to ‘Dre’— Andre 3000— and maybe it is casual to him, since he did start his career with Beyonce, but that’s something I immediately double back too. Andre 3k came out to Dallas, Texas to see BOOTS perform during the Run The Jewels tour.
“I was telling Dre about that the other day, OutKast was the thing that pushed me from hip-hop towards rock even more,” BOOTS says, which is also funny, because his own album sounds like rock being pushed into hip-hop, or vice versa. “Because “Bombs Over Bagdad” to me is basically a rock song, there’s like a two-minute guitar solo, and I told him that and he thought it was funny cause that’s what he was going for. When I found OutKast it was all over.”
Despite his album being filled with live instrumentation, a key part to rock music, and a general rock vibe, BOOTS tells me, “I’m not gunna say I hate indie rock, but I hate indie rock, just as a concept,” and he doesn’t really name many outright rock influences, at least not the usual suspects one might expect. Instead he names an LA band that formed in the early 2000s, Autolux, as having a ”huge influence” on him. All these factors though, whether rock or hip-hop, helped form the BOOTS' perception of music, culminating in his debut album, which, as is usually the case with an artist’s debut, has been in the works for BOOTS' entire life.
So 11-year old Boots listens to Illmatic, and his life is changed. A year later, he starts to try out the music thing for himself, dabbling into the creation of beats. Three years after that, he’s begun songwriting. He becomes so obsessed with it, or perhaps with music as a whole, that he literally cannot concentrate on anything else. Literally. He drops out of high school, possibly because of it. “I started writing songs when I was about 15,” he details. “Probably one of the reasons I dropped out of high school was because I couldn’t concentrate anything else except the music at that point. I couldn’t concentrate on anything.” As a high school drop-out (he later obtained his GED), he packs his van and drives down to New York, which would soon become his new home. Was the goal to make music, to be discovered? He says, “The goal was getting away from Miami and being somewhere that was more connected to the rest of the world, I felt like I was in a black hole there.” When he first moved to NYC he worked three jobs, which spanned different times and days throughout the week. “I worked as a bar-back. I worked at some bullshit phone company, I worked at a restaurant out in the East Village.” Obviously this was sustaining him only barely, as he hopped from couch to couch until the Roc Nation publishing deal led to some financial stability (well, life stability, really).
We know the Beyonce stuff. In case you don’t though, here it goes, quickly. He worked on 85% of her album, including “Haunted,” which was originally BOOTS’ own song, or rather, a demo he played for Bey who immediately fell in love with it and shotgunned it for her album. You’re less likely to know the FKA Twigs stuff. He produced five songs off her acclaimed EP, M3LL155X. You’re even less likely to know about BOOTS’ personal artistry, which, despite all the production he’s done, don’t get it twisted, his goal has always been to showcase his own artistry. He’s been working on himself, as an artist, since he began making beats at age 12. At 20-years old, he wrote the final song that appears on his debut album, “Still.” It’s a slow, creeping guitar jam that features BOOTS’ signature low-fi vocals. The guitar-strumming becomes more feverous as the record wears on, while BOOTS croons, “they’ll keep burning off your wings.” Present day, the singer/producer is 28. It took eight years for the song to be truly finished, then. “After writing it at 20 and feeling the things that I was feeling and experiencing, it’s really interesting to see that it still holds up no matter what shape it’s in. The production around it maybe has changed in eight years and I came to do it again and it just felt like the most natural time I’ve ever tried to record it and it was perfect as soon as I did it.”
I can only imagine how many other songs Boots has written, perhaps even longer ago, that may turn into something we’ve yet to hear, or may never turn into anything at all.