Mia Borders is a new voice from New Orleans, the city that produced so many wonderful voices. Now that’s she’s gotten her degree from Loyola University, the young singer-songwriter is free to devote herself to music.
“I had that normal uncertainty,” Borders said recently about completing her English degree. “But I’m feeling confident about the musical direction that we’re going in, so this is my full-time job now.”
Borders’ second full-length CD, Magnolia Blue, appeared in April, shortly before her New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival debut. She wrote 11 of the CD’s songs and co-wrote a 12th track with her band’s lead guitarist, Kyle Sclafani.
Borders also produced Magnolia Blue. The disc ranges from the title song’s funky blues to the soul and rhythm-and-blues of “Fly” to the classic-rock of “Yesterday.”
In addition to her performance on the Jazz Fest’s Gentilly Stage (the festival’s second-largest venue), Borders’ other recent appearances in New Orleans include a March performance for 5,000 at Lafayette Square and a New Year’s Eve show in Jackson Square for 4,000.
The latter appearances in front of thousands were a huge jump from such atmosphere-rich but small venues as the Maple Leaf Bar, Carrolton Station and Frenchmen Street’s Blue Nile.
“It’s a totally different experience because there’s so much energy to feed off of,” Borders said.
Media attention for her has grown, too. Recent press coverage includes mentions in USA Today and The Times-Picayune and reviews in Offbeat and New Orleans Living.
Playing more often beyond New Orleans since her college graduation, Borders makes her Baton Rouge debut tonight via the Sounds of Summer concert series at 5 p.m. downtown at Galvez Plaza.
Playing Jazz Fest, especially, was a milestone for Borders and her band. The group’s membership — Borders, Sclafani, bassist Pablo Gonzalez and drummer Nick Hingel — has remained constant for nearly five years.
“They’re all about 10 years older than I am,” she said. “They’ve been in and out of bands for longer than I’ve been alive, so it’s nice to have that stability with them.”
Growing up in Uptown New Orleans, Borders seemingly was born for the stage.
“My mom told everyone that I was an Academy Award waiting to happen,” she said. “I was always putting on shows and showing off. I was always singing and acting and being dramatic.”
Borders played piano during childhood but soon found herself drawn to the guitar, the instrument she’s played since she was 11. After getting a full high-school scholarship to a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut, her studies there included classical music and theory.
“It wasn’t really that big of an adjustment,” Borders said of the boarding school in New England whose population included international classmates.
“But it made me realize so much more about New Orleans because people always asked me about my hometown. I started to realize how special being from New Orleans is.”
Borders chose to major in English at Loyola rather than music.
“I didn’t want to be an opera singer, which so many of Loyola’s musicians end up becoming,” she said. “Loyola doesn’t really cater much to ‘popular’ music, so I decided to go my own way.”
Going her own way included forming her own label, Blaxican Records. The label released Borders’ Southern Fried Soul, partially recorded in Nashville, in 2009, as well as this year’s Magnolia Blue.
“I started a record label when we went to Nashville because I wanted to protect myself,” she said. “I’m interested in expanding the label to other artists but that’s more a long term thing. I have to establish myself before I can bring anybody else along.
“For the most part, I think I’m doing what I need to be doing to build the career that I wanna have.”
In the short time between Southern Fried Soul and Magnolia Blue, Borders’ songwriting took a more rootsy route.
“I was in an age group when bubblegum pop was big and so that influenced me a lot,” she said. “As I got older and I listened to more of the older stuff. I don’t necessarily think about going in any specific direction, but the stuff that I’ve written recently is much more in that R&B, blues vein.”
Despite the progress they’ve made, Borders and her band are not yet at a place where they exclusively play original music.
“One-hundred percent original bands are hard to come by in New Orleans,” she explained. “So we throw some Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder in, stuff that people can dance to and recognize and sing along with.”