He may have toured stadiums across the world fronting Razorlight, but more recently Johnny Borrell has been gigging on the street, outside a tailors and in a church. And he’s happier than ever.
His new band, Zazou, is made up of bass player Freddie Stitz, saxophonist Joao Mello and keyboard Darren Berry.
Says Johnny: ‘I first met Darren in 2005.
‘He came and played keyboard with Razorlight when we were on tour with Muse in the United States.
‘I met Freddie when he was playing with the 747s. We met at Reading when he came onto my tour bus and we hit it off. Then he played bass in Razorlight.’
Joao (pronounced ‘zsh’ like a French ‘j’ and then ‘ou’ as if you’ve just been hurt, according to Johnny) joined the band when he met Freddie busking.
‘Freddie busks every Sunday and Joao turned up from Brazil playing saxophone on the streets,’ explains Johnny.
‘So, Freddie said “Come and play with us”.
‘They thought they’d have to teach him all the songs, but he learned them straight away. Then he got on a piano and we were amazed. He’s just a great, great musician,’ continues Johnny, who was surprised to learn that Joao was only 17.
‘I invited them all down to the Basque country and we stayed there and made a record [Borrell1]. It was compeltely DIY and it was an incredibly liberating experience.
‘Last week we hired a van, put in a piano and a petrol generator, made some speakers and decided the first rule of our tour was that there was to be no plan whatsoever,’ continues Johnny.
They travelled to Hamburg, Berlin and Paris, playing in the streets, where people saw them and invited them in or suggested a new tour stop.
Impromptu gigs included playing outside a tailors, playing outside clubs he’d played in with Razorlight and playing in a church in Paris.
‘We were playing on the street in Paris and some guy came and said “come and play in the church down the road”,’ says Johnny.
‘They opened the doors next to Pompidou Centre and 200 people came in.
‘We were loading the piano in and out ourselves and driving for 10 hours each, but these were incredible gigs (although I did start to look at the piano with a bit of hate).
‘It’s the best tour I’ve ever done and I wasn’t doing it to publicise anything. I wasn’t doing it to sell any records. We weren’t handing out flyers or anything.
‘Ninety-five percent of the people at the gigs didn’t know who we were. But it was the most enjoyable and rewarding thing I’ve ever done in music and in life,’ adds Johnny who’s looking forward to a UK tour.
‘This new tour is seriously luxurious for us – to have a stage and amplification!’ he laughs.
‘But with us, it’s not a performance. It’s not like we’re sitting around playing Xbox and then tour the manager comes in and says “Right, time to be a rock star. You’re on stage in five minutes”, which does happen, by the way!
‘The record is the same as what we do all the time. It’s real music and I’m really excited about playing it live.
‘When people see and hear it with their own eyes and ears, they can see how different it is to what else is going on at the moment.
‘It’s a real party.
‘It’s harder to get that across on the internet and radio,’ continues Johnny who has already started making a second Zazou record.
‘In a world where everything is fake and set-up, it’s hard to prove something’s real unless you see and hear it yourself.’
See Johnny Borrell and Zazou at the Wedgewood Rooms in Southsea on Sunday, October 6, from 8pm. Tickets cost £10 in advance from (023) 9286 3911 or wedgewood-rooms.co.uk