'I've Never Found Myself Numb': Boots Feels His Way To Fame

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Boots' new album, Aquaria, comes out Nov. 13. (Courtesy of the artist)
Boots' new album, Aquaria, comes out Nov. 13. (Courtesy of the artist)

When Beyoncé released her self-titled fifth album in 2013, there was one name among the credits that almost no one recognized: A producer who went by the name of Boots. He had written three of the tracks and co-produced many others — and within days, the man behind those credits was flooded with attention he wasn't quite prepared for.

Boots is the performing title of Jordy Asher, who is not only a producer, but also a singer, rapper and multi-instrumentalist. Since his coup with Beyoncé, he has produced music by Run The Jewels and FKA twigs, stunned Jimmy Fallon with a performance on The Tonight Show — and this week, he's releasing his debut solo album, Aquaria. He joined NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about the journey so far; hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.

Rachel Martin: You grew up in Miami, and you've said your neighborhood wasn't the safest place. Was music a part of your life back then?

Boots: I got into a bit of trouble, and was put in a community service program to atone for mistakes I'd made. And through that, I met a couple kids who were breakdancing. And it was a different outlet for frustration, in a very positive way. You know, I think that opened a big door for me — with music, with rhythm, with everything like that.

Your journey to where you are now is fascinating, and not linear. You dropped out of high school to pursue music full-time. At some point, you became homeless. Can you tell me what happened?

After I dropped out, I left home and just kind of roughed it on my own. At first, I had an apartment that I shared with really, really rough, meth-head, addict people. So instead, I worked really hard, got a job, bought myself a big van and stayed in there.

Where were you working?

I was an electrician. I did landscaping and built really fantastic waterfalls for people in their backyard. I sold jeans, not very well — like, "I dunno, maybe they fit? You could buy them if they fit." I didn't care. Which could come off to some people as laziness, but to me, I felt like I was wasting my time doing anything else except making music.

So how did an electrician, landscaper, homeless guy end up collaborating with arguably the biggest pop star on the planet, Beyoncé?

I worked in a bar in New York, and Monday nights, people would spin 45s and records — and it would be a bunch of different industry people. I'm not saying this is what led me there, but someone along the way heard something that they liked of mine and passed it to her. And kind of out of the blue, I just got an email one day that said, "We heard this song. Would you like to come in?"

What was that meeting like?

I spent about an hour and a half in kind of a waiting room. And you go through all of the possible scenarios in your head: Is she in there? Is Jay Z in there? Is the baby in there? And I got to a point where I was so exhuasted with thinking about it that I thought,"You know what, I'm here — so I'm just going to play the most out-there stuff that I have." And I did. I went in and I played her the craziest things I had, and she didn't flinch — she was like, "That was great! What else do you have?"

I read that one of the songs you wound up giving to Beyoncé for that album was the song "Haunted." That was a big deal for you — it was a song you thought might be part of your own first album.

Yeah, I did. It was a big decision, because I came in there and I wrote 20 songs in the first week, and just kind of presented them. And she thought, "Yeah, that's great, but what about this one over here?" I was trying to hide it! It was always the songs where I was being myself. There was something about the delivery of that song and the honesty of what I was saying, because it was true to me, that spoke to her.

How did she change it?

You know, the delivery felt the same: There was still this kind of deep sadness that was coming out through the words, and she meant it. [But] the beat in my version was more implied, more of a heartbeat — and she wanted you to hear it and feel it more.

Let's talk about a song from your album, "Dead Come Running." Can you tell me about how this song fits into the album as a whole?

That's really unexpected: You're the first person that's ever asked about that song. I've been thinking about that song since I did it.

There was a year where I saw three different people die. I saw one person get hit by a car while she was running across the street, just going for a jog. I saw one person on a motorcycle get struck by a car. And I saw a young man in the subway die. And when I kind of look at what we're feeding to ourselves — through media, through outlets, through whoever puts the screen in our face — its becoming numb to things like that. And I've never found myself numb to it. It still affects me; it's still hurts. You know, we get used to the fact that every other week, we're hearing about a shooting or a tragedy that's happened, and to me it's not OK to just accept it as reality.

Is there any part of you that wishes that you were more anonymous, like you used to be?

Sure. Had it been up to me, I would have just been a trail of smoke. But I'm OK to step out front, too. And I feel like maybe it'll be better for me if I do. If I keep revealing more of myself, maybe I'll learn something about myself.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 2013, when Beyonce released her self-titled album, there was one name in the credits that almost no one recognized, a producer who goes by the name of Boots. He had written three of the tracks and produced much of that album. Within a week of the CD's release, the Google entry, who is Boots, had racked up 452 million results. And Boots was flooded with attention he wasn't really prepared for. Now Boots, who's not just a producer but a singer, rapper and multi-instrumentalist, he's releasing his own debut album. It is called "Aquarium."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORACLIES")

BOOTS: (Singing) X's on my eyes. Hexes on my satellite. Oracle, Oraclies.

MARTIN: Jordy Asher is the man behind the Boots moniker. He told me music has always been an escape hatch for him, even from an early age.

JORDY ASHER: I was a problematic 12-year-old at one point, kind of a rough neighborhood to grow up in...

MARTIN: We should say, you grew up in Miami, right?

ASHER: Yeah, I grew up in Miami. And it wasn't the safest place to grow up in. And that kind of had me lash out in some ways. And I got into a bit of trouble and was put in a community service program to atone for mistakes I had made. And through that, in the community center I met a couple of kids who were break-dancing. And it was a different outlet for frustration in a very positive way. And I think that opened a big door for me with music and with rhythm - with everything like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AQUARIA")

BOOTS: (Singing) Who make you look, who make you talk? Who put your love in the gutter? I mix you up, I let you off, I’ll make your heart stutter...

MARTIN: Your journey to where you are now is fascinating and not linear. You dropped out of high school to pursue music full-time. At some point, you became homeless.

ASHER: Yes.

MARTIN: Can you tell me what happened?

ASHER: After I dropped out, I left home and just kind of roughed it on my own. At first, I moved out; I had an apartment that I shared with really, really rough, meth-head addict people. So instead, I worked really hard and got a job and bought myself a big van and stayed in there.

MARTIN: Where were you working?

ASHER: I was an electrician. I did landscaping and built really fantastic waterfalls for people in their backyard, and...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ASHER: Sold jeans not very well. So I don't know. Maybe they fit. You could buy them if they fit.

MARTIN: (Laughter). Really, it's shocking you weren't better at that. (Laughter).

ASHER: It's not that I wasn't better; it's that I didn't care, you know?

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah.

ASHER: Which could come off to some people as laziness. But to me, I felt like I was wasting my time doing anything else except making music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BOOTS: (Singing, unintelligible).

MARTIN: So how did an electrician-landscaper-homeless guy end up collaborating with arguably the biggest pop star on the planet, Beyonce?

ASHER: I worked in a bar in New York. And Monday nights, people would spin 45s and records. And it would be a bunch of different industry people. And I'm not saying that this is what led me there. But I'm saying that someone along the way heard something that they liked of mine and passed it to her. And kind of out of the blue, I just got an email one day that said, we heard this song; would you like to come in?

MARTIN: What was that meeting like?

ASHER: I spent about an hour and a half in kind of a waiting room. And you go through all the possible scenarios in your head. Is she in there? Is Jay Z in there? Is the baby in there?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ASHER: (Laughter) Anything and everything goes through your head. And then I got a point where I was so exhausted with thinking about it that I thought, you know what? I'm here. So I'm just going to play the most out-there stuff that I have. And I did. I went in, and I played her maybe the craziest things I had. And she didn't flinch. She said, that's great; what else do you got?

MARTIN: I read that one of the songs you wound up giving to Beyonce for that album is the song "Haunted."

ASHER: Yes.

MARTIN: That was a big deal for you. It was a song you thought might be part of your own first album.

ASHER: Yeah, I did. I did. It was a big decision because I came in there, and I wrote 20 songs in the first week and just kind of presented them and said, hey, here you go. And she thought, yeah, that's great, but what about this one over here? I was trying to hide it.

MARTIN: Oh (laughter).

ASHER: (Laughter) It always this song where I was being myself. There was something that song and the delivery of that song and the honesty that - of what I was saying because it was true to me that spoke to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAUNTED")

BEYONCE KNOWLES-CARTER: (Singing) It's what you do. It's what you see. I know if I'm haunting you, you must be haunting me.

MARTIN: How did she change it?

ASHER: You know, the delivery felt the same. There was still this kind of deep sadness that was coming out through the words. And she meant it. And one way that we changed it, the beat in my version was - it was more implied. It was more of a heartbeat. And she wanted you to hear it and feel it more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAUNTED")

KNOWLES-CARTER: (Singing) Ghost in the sheets. I know if I'm haunting you, you must be haunting me.

MARTIN: Let's listen to another song. This is "Dead Come Running," off of your album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD COME RUNNING")

BOOTS: (Singing) Dead come running on the evening news. My noose don’t fit. Dead come running knock a ghost in a tar pit. Suck some shale. Dead come running on the kid with a pail. Melatonin like Ronin break off the sleep first. Dead come running like a wolf with a meat purse.

MARTIN: Can you tell me about this song and how it fits into the album as a whole?

ASHER: That was really unexpected for you to play that one.

MARTIN: Oh, why?

ASHER: I'm so happy you played that one.

MARTIN: Why is that unexpected?

ASHER: Because you're the first person that's ever asked about that song. And I've been thinking about that song since I did it.

MARTIN: Can you share with me what happened?

ASHER: There was a year where I saw three different people die. I saw one person get hit by a car while she was running across the street, just going for a jog. I saw one person on a motorcycle get struck by a car. And I saw a young man in a subway die. And when I kind of look at what we're feeding to ourselves through media, through outlets, through whoever put the screen in our face, it's becoming numb to things like that. And I've never found myself numb to it. It still affects me. It still hurts. You know, we get used to the fact that every other week, we're hearing about a shooting or a tragedy that happens. And to me, it's not OK to just accept it as reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BOOTS: (Singing) Don't you want to lose it all?

MARTIN: Is there any part of you that wishes you were more anonymous, like you used to be?

ASHER: Sure. Had it been up to me, I would have just been a trail of smoke. But I'm OK to step out front too. And I feel like maybe it'll be better for me if I do, if I keep revealing more of myself, maybe I'll learn something about myself.

MARTIN: Jordy Asher, aka Boots. His new album is called "Aquaria." He joined us from our studios at NPR West. Thanks so much for talking with us.

ASHER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY")

BOOTS: (Singing) I am the only one alive. That is the only thing I know. I am the only one alive. That is the only thing I know. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.