The production mastermind invites us to his retreat in the Catskills to explain why Mrs Carter was only the beginning
It’s around 11pm on a wet evening in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and “mysterious producer” Boots is making a rare appearance in public. Inside local venue Rough Trade, a melee of people are writhing, wrist-flicking and dranking to Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” as if it’s 5am in Tulum. DJs Venus X and Shayne Oliver command the smallish, two-tiered venue with the song’s oscillating trap beat, and as we wait for tonight’s headliner, Kelela, the air seems thick with power and sexual urgency, but maybe it’s just the track. Suddenly we receive a text from the production mastermind who co-wrote and produced the surfborting smash. “I’m upstairs to the left,” it reads.
Boots is sitting on the dim upper circle, past a partition labelled “reserved”. Despite the venue’s heat, he’s shrouded in a black beanie and the same nonchalantly flamboyant Astrakhan-collared jacket he wore to Jay Z and Beyoncé’s Miami New Year’s Eve party, though on that occasion it was customised with a feather trim. He bounds over to introduce himself with a cat’s grin and handshake. “You know, I just heard ‘Haunted’ (also by Beyoncé) out for the first time!” Boots shouts over the gunfire set, beaming puppyishly. “It’s always just been in the studio and my house.” As the lighting turns mauve for the entrance of Kelela, with whom he collaborated recently on his solo track “Autumn (Lude 1)”, Boots resumes his seat near the stage, chopping the air and flipping his hand in football-rattle motions with exuberant rhythm. In the busy VIP area of the sold–out show, eyes flick towards model/actor Shaun Ross, who featured in Bey’s “Pretty Hurts” video as a snippy pageant trainer, but Boots passes unnoticed. He sits closest to the stage, not quite spectator, not quite performer.
With the possible exception of Kanye West, in the past year no musician has been scrutinised quite like Boots, aka Miami-born 27-year-old Jordan Asher. It started on December 13, 2013, at around 5am GMT, when Beyoncé uploaded her career-defining, uncompromising “visual album” BEYONCÉ, which featured nine tracks co-written and co–produced by the hitherto unknown Asher, to iTunes without warning. His production was one of most remarkable things about the renegade release, fusing the arpeggiated snares of southern hip hop with the composerly minimalism of, say, Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th”, flipping from tender to turn-down-for-what in a heartbeat. “Who is Boots?” demanded Refinery29, adding that he was “something of a ghost”. BuzzFeed went full-on Murder, She Wrote with a 14-point guide to Boots culled entirely from clever Googling.
The release of BEYONCÉ was obviously a game-changer. “It was night and fucking day,” he says. “Every big drastic change that you can imagine happening to a person happened in like one day. My phone basically melted every night when I went to sleep. I had to shut it off every night. There was all kind of crazy-ass shit: calling my parents’ house, people in South Florida trying to leak information. I would write the dude an email, like, ‘Hey, yeah it’s me, but don’t be a dick. That’s not the point of this whole fucking thing.’ Let me have my peace of mind.”
“It’s so stupid when people write, ‘Oh, he can’t sing like Beyoncé. No shit! I’m not Beyoncé, I will never be Beyoncé, that’s not the point and that’s not what I’m trying to be”
Boots didn’t sprinkle bread to the pigeons, but is still bruised from the pecking. “I don’t really trust you at the moment,” he told us by email a few days before the Kelela show. “That isn’t your fault as much as it is my suspicion with journalists, intention, and my own deeply rooted trust issues.” He agreed to meet on the condition that it’s as part of a curated “experience” to which he holds the strings, and the day after the show at Rough Trade we travel with him three hours upstate to a whimsical Cabin in the Woods-esque house bordering the Catskill mountains. Even the most in-demand artists in music need to unplug.
Any neurotic tendencies are absent during the weekend we spend at Boots’ retreat. He plays host to Dazed and ten other guests – who all call him “Jordy” – with gentle Gatsby-ish consideration, turning the house’s soundsystem over to their iPhones, buying everyone peach milkshakes and chocolate chip cookies during an impulsive hike around the local town, Hudson, and whipping up raw tostadas for the gang as an impromptu appetiser. He can afford to be scrupulous with how he spends his time. Post-Bey, what is there to be if not scrupulous? “Not everybody gets the chance to struggle and exceed their dreams,” he says, sitting at a battered old picnic table on a clear Sunday afternoon. “I’m so fortunate that I get to wake up and live in a dream every single day. The people I’m getting the opportunity to work with right now... It’s really, really special.” He’s rebuffed a clutch of offers to work with female pop artists over the past few months, electing instead to produce an EP for his folkish songwriter buddy Gambles, who also works as a creative consultant for Beyoncé’s online hub. He’s friendly with Lorde, whom he considers “a win for pop music”, and knows Richard D James after a chance encounter on the street last year.
The house is a dark-beamed two-storey property brimming with brass horseshoes and folkish knick knacks, with a ladder leading from the main atrium to a porthole with a mattress, and first–floor bedrooms that railroad through a sauna. It’s like a woodsy version of the winding John Soane’s Museum in Holborn, if not quite the full-on MC Escher. “You know, this place was used by Yale students in the 60s for their weekends away!” declares Cara Stricker, Boots’ visual collaborator, between clicks of her camera. It’s not a stretch to imagine a horn-rimmed Kill Your Darlings crew writing, cooking and carousing in these wood-panelled walls as guests bustle around this afternoon. Blood Orange keyboardist John Kirby, who sports a fine set of RiFF RAFF cornrows, is doing something with kale in the kitchen; Australian musician Kirin J Callinan fetches firewood in his army fatigues; NYC art director Holland Brown floats around in a Klein-blue jumpsuit. Calmly sitting at a farmhouse table, Boots begins delicately strumming San Francisco duo Girls’ “Vomit” on his guitar, addressing no one in particular as he intones: “Nights I spend alone, I spend ’em runnin’ ’round lookin’ for you, baby.” We talk about songcraft, artistic longevity and the solo album by Girls’ frontman, Christopher Owens, which Boots thinks sucked. Sometimes, you’re only as good as your collaborators, right? He fixes us with a quizzical stare. “Absolutely.”
Boots hopes his new mixtape, WinterSpringSummerFall, will forge a connection with at least some of the audience that brought BEYONCÉ to a million sales in a week. On it, he sings and raps over productions that range from James Blake–ish atmospherics to Jai Paul exotics, from the torchy, heart–tugging fuzz of “EST” to the shadowplay of pitch-shifted loops and woolly beats of “Dreams”. The latter is a Beyoncé duet recorded in London in which she unleashes the full roaring Nina Simone power of her voice. “A lot of people say that they’ve never heard her go that far,” he admits with pride.
Pop production heavyweights have long attempted to seize the spotlight for themselves, and you can’t help but wonder whether his solo material will find him following in the starry path of Pharrell Williams, or that of The-Dream, a niche solo artist despite boasting tracks that zing with his “Umbrella” and “Single Ladies” magic. Is Boots setting himself up for a fall? He bristles visibly. “I think it’s so stupid when I see anybody write, ‘Oh he can’t sing like Beyoncé.’ No shit! No fucking shit I can’t sing like Beyoncé! Great observation! I’m not Beyoncé, I will never be Beyoncé, that’s not the point and that’s not what I’m trying to be.” As we sit in the milky light, three quick rifle shots cut through our conversation with a jolt. “Shit!” Boots laughs. “I wish I could have sampled that. Would’ve made a great snare.”
Boots grew up in a “garden-variety Christian” household in Miami, the middle child of five brothers. His father, a pastor, refused to allow pop music into the house. One weekend, his grandmother gave him free rein to choose a gift. The 11-year-old Asher selected Nas's Illmatic because everyone was talking about it, and he would listen to it at her house on weekends. While the kids at school were chastising him for favouring The Velvet Underground and Nico over ska punk, he was furtively recording a whole “album” of TLC’s “Creep”, taping the pyjama-party jam to cassette each time it came on the radio. At 14, he started making MPC beats to freestyle over with his brother and play at meet-ups for their street breakdance crew. “It was escapism,” he recollects. “I shared a room with three of my brothers and the idea of privacy was non-existent. I made 40 a day.” Why the insane perfectionism? He shrugs. “I didn’t really give a shit about anything else after that.”
“The atmosphere I was trying to create with Beyoncé was coming from a very real place, because I actually gave a shit. That’s not to say anybody else doesn’t give a shit, but sometimes producers and other people just wanna get their shine on”
At 18, Boots dropped out of school and began a laundry list of jobs including a stint as an electrician at Macy’s in downtown Miami, where he worked alongside Old Man Bob, a fiery WWII veteran who claimed it was his hate that had kept him going so long. They often pulled shifts from 6am to 10pm in the underbelly of the emporium’s dual century-old monoliths. One day on the job, Asher heard Old Man Bob yell, “Goddammit, motherfuckers!”, and went over to see a wall cavity filled with copper wiring like frayed angel hair. “That’s how electrical fires start, that’s how people lose their lives and nobody’s held accountable for it,” glowers Boots today. “That carelessness kind of summed up that period in my life for me. I was looking maybe ten inches in front of my face.”
You wouldn’t be a proper pop phenomenon in 2014 without a Lizzy Grant–style skeleton in the closet, and likewise Boots hates talking about his time playing guitar in indie-pop duo Blonds with an ex-girlfriend in 2011 and 2012. The mid-length bird’s-nest hair and wiry frame he sported then drew him heckles of “Russell Brand” – hence the shaved head now. While smoking after a show outside the Fort Lauderdale venue Poorhouse, Boots was horrifically abused by a police officer looking to throw his weight around. “He beat the shit out of me and dragged me off and put me in the drunktank, without fingerprinting me, without processing me, without even taking my shit out of my pockets. He left me in the cell with my wallet and my dead Nokia brick cellphone. "Day one went by, day two went by… Day four showed up and finally I got to talk to someone, and he was like, ‘Alright, get the fuck out.’ I used a payphone to call my cellphone to check for any missed messages, and I had none. Zero missed calls and no messages. It felt like no one gave a fuck if I was alive or dead.” He quit his restaurant job and scratched his way to New York, in search of something more than the “9–5 just to stay alive”, as he would put it in “Haunted”.
His mentor and “Empire State of Mind” shout-out Ty Ty Smith (Jay Z’s childhood BFF) was one of Boots’ biggest supporters, helping him ink a publishing deal with Roc Nation last year that, Boots says, got him off the streets. Inevitably, he swerves the question of how he met Beyoncé, elliptically commenting that “the most simple things in life make the biggest difference.” After all, Mrs Carter’s confidentiality agreements are renowned as the most watertight in the business. But the atmosphere was very free, he maintains. “It was like, ‘Hey, you want a room? You want to come make some shit for a week? Show us what you’ve got.’” He wrote 20 songs in that first week. “The atmosphere I was trying to create with her was coming from a very real place, because I actually gave a shit. That’s not to say anybody else doesn’t give a shit, but sometimes producers and other people just wanna get their shine on.”
“I’m so fortunate that I get to wake up and live in a dream every single day. The people I’m getting the opportunity to work with right now... It’s really, really special”
We’re due to leave soon – tomorrow, Boots is back in the studio with Kelela, then off to a gala on the Upper West Side, then over to a “fancy-pantsy record label” to play his mixtape – but there’s a softly thumping whirr coming from somewhere within the house that initially sounds as if someone’s having a really good time with a pneumatic drill in a loofah factory. Following the sound, we find cornrow king Kirby seated on the terracotta-tiled floor, hunched over a Casio SK-1 sampler as Kirin J Callinan airily strums on an acoustic, his fingers barely touching the frets. “Kinda sounds like Aphex Twin, right?” grins Boots, holding up his iPhone to record the audio, which he’ll later add to the 40,000+ samples in his sound archive. “You’ll probably hear this again in two weeks,” he laughs. “I haven’t used my SK-1 in two months because I thought I was using it too much.” He nods his head to the pillowy beat, looking perhaps the happiest we’ve seen him all weekend. “Now I’m falling in love all over again.”