Who the hell is Boots?

Sam Walton went to LA to spend the day with Jordan Asher – the man who co-wrote Beyoncé’s eponymous album, has produced FKA Twigs and Run The Jewels, and is the most enigmatic new talent in pop

When Jordan Asher was eleven years old, he chucked a fire extinguisher through a plate glass window. He was alone, having a bad day and wanted to see what would happen. As he watched the pane shatter, a baby started crying across the street; Asher sat down on the kerb and calmly waited for the City of Miami Police Department to turn up. He received a community service sentence and was made to repair the window.

Thirteen years later, after relocating to New York to try and make it in music, Asher – now going only by the name Boots – received an email from one of Beyoncé’s fixers inviting him to attend a week-long writing session with Mrs Carter herself. He was living predominantly out of the back of his van, occasionally sofa-surfing, and doing bar work to make ends meet. One week with Beyoncé became two; by the end of the second, Jay-Z had signed Boots to the publishing arm of his Roc Nation entertainment business.

Six months after that, on 13 December 2013, Beyoncé’s eponymous fifth album appeared, unannounced, on iTunes. It sold 1.2 million copies in its first week, and Boots, still entirely unknown, was credited as co-writer and producer on nine of its tracks. In the small handful of media appearances he was obliged to give over the subsequent months, Asher talked gushingly about working with Beyoncé but refused under persistent questioning to reveal how someone living on the side of a street in Brooklyn had managed to get the attention of American pop’s biggest star. Initially, he even declined to confirm his real name.

The past two years of sporadic, gently probing interviews, alongside carefully triangulated Googling by gossip blogs and rabid Beyoncé fansites, have unearthed splinters of Boots’ biography. He spent his late teens in sub-par blues rock bands in Miami; he had a brief buzz of indie-pop success in New York hype band Blonds; he toyed with becoming a chef when no-one was answering his calls in music. However, Asher himself has remained deliberately opaque on the most tantalising aspects of his – superficially, at least – remarkable story, clearly relishing the myth-building and the sewing-circle rumours that ensue. It’s a clever trick: now with his own debut album, ‘Aquaria’, primed for release, Asher’s stubborn secrecy has rendered him far more intriguing than most of his tell-all peers. Then again, perhaps it’s less a trick, more just how Jordan Asher operates: aloof and provocative, with the sly smile of someone in possession of a master plan.

This is a story about the sort of personality that performs knowingly goading, very public stunts for no greater reason than to garner wider attention and to generate curiosity in himself. This is the story about a day spent in Los Angeles with the superstar collaborator who acts entirely on his own terms. This is a story about one of the most inscrutable men currently operating in pop.

The lobby of The Line hotel in Koreatown, LA, is the sort of vast space that hipster hoteliers love to declutter. In one corner there’s a bijou cocktail bar. In the other, there’s a takeaway bakery counter selling “LA’s best cookies” alongside live-clean smoothies that come in flavour combos like green apple with kale and celery. Between them is a set of minimalist couches under abstract photographs of empty swimming pools, and it’s here that I have been told to meet Jordan Asher, at midday. From here, I’m informed, we’ll go to Asher’s studio, a couple of blocks over, where he recorded much of ‘Aquaria’, eat lunch together, and then Asher will show me round Koreatown, where he also has an apartment, while we talk. A couple of minutes before midday, I take a pew.

It’s a seasonal 32ºC and sunny, and hotel guests are coming and going from the lobby in t-shirts and shorts. Even the bellboys are in gentle slacks and open shirts. Just before 12:30pm, a short, lean man walks in wearing a sharply fitted charcoal suit over a jet black dress shirt done up to the collar. His jacket is buttoned, and the gold buckles on his patent leather boots shimmer in the lobby’s sunlight. Not looking around, he takes a seat and stares blankly into the middle distance.

Given Asher’s enigmatic approach to publicity, it’s unsurprising that there aren’t many photographs of him in circulation. What’s more, those that are tend to picture him in dramatic chiaroscuro, wrapped in polythene or with a hood over his face, so I’m anticipating there being an element of guesswork to our introduction. As it turns out, it doesn’t take Holmesian intuition to deduce which of the 15 or so people present in the lobby left their apartment that morning with the intention of exhibiting themselves as a pop star.

“Jordan?” I offer, with a smile.

“Great, I thought it was you,” replies Asher to a point just over my right shoulder, without removing his sunglasses. He shakes my hand, and continues. “I’ve just got back from tour, so I want to go and see some art. You want to come to LACMA? Mat will drive us.” Mat is Boots’ PR guy, waiting outside in the sort of estate car on monster-truck wheels that would draw withering looks in British towns, but which in LA feels as natural as a cop’s holstered handgun. “Sure,” I say. Asher instructs me to ride up front with Mat, while he stretches out in the back.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a grand, modernist building on LA’s Miracle Mile, the largest of several public museums and arts institutions in the area, and is currently hosting an exhaustive retrospective of the architect Frank Gehry, full of expressive sketches and meticulous architectural models. As we walk from the car park, I compliment Asher on how well turned out he is. “I’m done with wearing the same shit every day,” he says, not quite accepting the compliment, explaining that on tour he wore the same t-shirt every night for six weeks. “So this is just what I thought I’d wear today.”

Asher buzzes around the exhibition with his shades on and jacket done up, ten paces ahead of me and Mat. He glances briefly at each object, nodding sagely, while other visitors eye him up quizzically, wondering if he might be a “someone”. Periodically, he turns round to engage us about a particularly inspirational drawing, or to remark at how cool it is that the hundred or so trees in one maquette are made simply from scrunched-up green crepe paper and brown lollipop sticks. He professes admiration that Gehry must have made and placed each individual tree himself, ignoring the accompanying giant photographs of the architect’s studio teeming with scalpel-wielding assistants.

We speed back into Koreatown, and out the other side. As we join the lunchtime traffic on the hulking Glendale Freeway that crosses the dried-up Los Angeles River and snakes out behind the Hollywood Hills, Asher tells me that we’re heading for a studio in Eagle Rock, a neighbourhood 15 miles north-east into the sprawl of LA from where we initially arranged to meet. I start to get the impression that all the plans that were hatched in advance were never anything more than a diversion tactic; realistically, we were always going to be at the mercy of Asher’s whim.

Given his past, though, that’s to be expected: Asher has always bounced from place to place as he saw fit, never wishing to be pinned down by anything too structural. He started playing in bands when he was 18, and as soon as he “figured out how to tour” he left south Florida for the first time, only returning to generate enough cash to get out again. When he made it to Atlanta, he “couldn’t believe there were places like that out there”, and became even more determined: “I thought, I’m going back, I’m getting as many jobs as I can, I’m going to save up as much money as I can and if I’ve got enough for New York, I’m going to New York.”

By 2007, aged 20, New York is where he’d arrived. Predictably, Asher’s work-to-live approach is what led to him living out of a his van, driving around Brooklyn each night looking for friendly side streets. “But at least I wasn’t doing the nine-to-five,” he replies, when asked what benefits his homelessness afforded him. “At least I wasn’t doing that. Nine-to-fives always made me want to blow my brains out, because the immediate question I had was ‘why are we doing this?’ Because we have to pay bills? No, we don’t. We don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do. I’d rather be uncomfortable and doing what I really wanted than be worried about losing a job, and then worried about keeping an apartment if I lose that job.”

A month’s work here and there, pot-washing and bar-tending, suited Asher far better. “It was easier for me to just budget out my life based on what I needed and what I didn’t need,” he explains. “Do you need food? Yes. Do you need water? Yes. Do you need to lay down and sleep somewhere? Yes, sometimes.”

He pauses, admiring his own puritanism. “That’s pretty much still how my life goes. It’s still where I base myself from.”

We’re finally in Asher’s studio, sitting on either end of a luxuriously wide, low-slung couch, surrounded by mountains of exotic musical instruments and equipment. Before the studio was Asher’s, it belonged to Dangermouse; before that, the “fourth Beastie Boy” Mario Caldato Jr had the keys. For a man in possession of an immaculately tailored suit and membership to LA’s biggest art gallery to sit in his own musical palace and insist he only cares about life’s bare essentials is clearly a touch disingenuous, I suggest. “Well, normally I don’t wear suits,” he counters, “but what you’ve got to remember is that I’ve only got to this point of comfort in my life on my own terms.” It’s the least cryptic thing he’s said all day.

Not long after Asher arrived in New York, he adopted his childhood nickname of Boots – on account of his garish basketball footwear – and quit playing in bands. “I couldn’t stand having bandmates anymore,” he says, plainly. “People kept injecting too much of themselves into a song, just for the sake of injecting themselves. It was all ‘my guitar’s not loud enough’ – and I’d be like, fuck off man, you’re not listening to the whole song. I mean, I’m a greater-good, best-for-the-song kind of person.”

Obviously, ego levels in any band are a subjective phenomenon, and there’s every chance that, given Asher’s bombproof self-belief, his stated desire of wanting the best for a song simply manifested itself in the elimination of musicians he perceived as less able. After all, here’s a man who exhibits a preternatural level of musical self-confidence: he recalls entirely unselfconsciously teaching himself to play the guitar in the space of a single morning, before school (“I just looked at it thinking, if you put your hands somewhere on this, it’s going to make a sound, and then it clicked and I thought ‘I can play this thing,’ immediately”), and says he mastered the programming of a Roland 808 drum machine, with a click of his fingers, “just like that”.

But whatever his reasons, striking out alone under a new name gave Asher a renewed lease of musical life. Free of imposed band roles, he felt for the first time that his complex ideas had time and space to breathe. “It was then that I started doing my best work,” he says, “and it was that work which eventually got me an email from the Beyoncé folks.”

As he says the B-word – the first time she’s arisen in conversation – Asher’s tone shifts. Up to now, he’s been cooperative but distant, a study in combined control freakery and social unease played out in streams of consciousness, or in tinkling at his piano. Now, however, Asher looks focussed, as if ready for battle. His eyes widen a touch, and he sits forward in anticipation of my next question.

“Since you bring it up,” I begin, “I see you’ve made the truth about exactly how your music got in front of Beyoncé into something of a $64,000 question. But…”

“$64,000!?” he corrects me. “It’s the million-dollar question, man!”

I smile, and press on. “But instead of that, what I’d actually like to know is…”

“You feel lucky right now, don’t you?” he interrupts again. “You’re rolling the dice!” We both laugh at the ridiculousness of his excitement, combined with the futility of any direct questioning.

“I know you’re not going to tell me who hooked you two up,” I admit. “But while we’re on the topic,” I ask, opportunistically, “am I right in thinking you’re old friends with a guy called Gambles?”

Matthew “Gambles” Siskin is a New York socialite, songwriter and web designer who has been cited in various profiles as belonging to Beyoncé’s inner circle. At the ‘Beyoncé’ launch party in December 2013, Siskin tweeted a picture of Asher with the caption, “Celebrating with my dear friend BOOTS who wrote and co produced 80% of the album.” (The tweet has subsequently been deleted, along with Siskin’s entire account.)

Asher doesn’t answer. “You knew Gambles before you got involved with Beyoncé, right?” I ask.

He shrugs coquettishly. “Did I?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m asking you.”

“You’re asking me,” he echoes, narrowing his eyes, “if I knew him beforehand.” A smirk crosses Asher’s face. “Maybe,” he says. “It’s possible. It’s quite possible.”

As far as revelations go, “quite possible” will do. (Later in our conversation, Asher inadvertently confirms that Siskin’s Upper East Side sofa was one of his regular crash pads after moving to the city, and that he did know him well before Beyoncé came calling. He declines to confirm anything more). It’s an enjoyable, light-hearted exchange, but while the identity of Asher’s matchmaker is an absorbing treasure hunt for both parties, it’s also a textbook McGuffin. Far more interesting is why Asher has made so much of the secrecy.

I suggest two possible options: that the Beyoncé connection is so embarrassingly dorky, or nepotistic, that it would strip Asher of his credibility, or that Asher’s whole rags to riches tale is bogus marketing fodder.

“Well the first one’s reasonable,” he concedes. “I’m sure there are people who are embarrassed that they met their significant other through Tinder or whatever. And like that, this is a story that I’m happy to tell only to my friends and family, but that’s all.

“Like, I wouldn’t tell you where or when the first time me and my girlfriend realised we were in love. I wouldn’t tell you where the first time we kissed was, or the first time we had sex, because you’re a stranger,” he continues. “We live in a day and age where everyone feels like they have to know everything. The idea that it’s possible to go from being a homeless street rat to working on a top-level thing is exactly the reason why people mustn’t know everything.”

I ask him to clarify that last sentence, but he declines. I suggest that it’s unusual to associate a big career break – normally an inescapably public thing – with something as intimate and private as falling in love.

“But they’re both things that you think about since being a kid,” he insists. “Falling in love versus the first time you have an opportunity and a chance to work on something that you want to work on. And I never thought that my world would cross with [Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s] world, so when it did, it hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Asher then drifts into the story of their first meeting – he was wearing his best suit, Blue Ivy’s playpen was in one corner of the studio, he decided just to be true to himself – but the ardency of his description of the moment doesn’t ring true. For one, he has been publicly ambivalent towards Beyoncé before and since working with her: he told Florida’s Palm Beach New Times in January 2012, while being interviewed about his short-lived Blonds project, that “singers like Beyoncé are good, but they’ve never impressed me because they don’t have too much character beyond just being able to sing their ass off”, and admits to me later that although he “liked a lot of [Beyoncé’s] singles, the albums never really hit me. I’ll go on record and say this and have every person in Beyoncé’s fan club want to fucking kill me.”

For another, though, Boots is happiest working autonomously; the idea of being in thrall to any other musical project is alien to him. “I’m grateful for the opportunity that Beyoncé gave me, but I never wanted to produce anyone else’s album except my own,” he says, while batting away the suggestion that his secrecy surrounding Beyoncé is masking a great big phony marketing story. “I mean, I’m not a fucking Lana Del Rey. That nearly makes me angry enough to want to tell you how it all happened! But actually I couldn’t give a fuck if people think I’m real or not, because I know how real I am. If people listen to the music, they’ll hear I’m real. I’m straight up. We don’t need another plastic, fake idea in front of our faces; we need people who are telling us the truth, and I’ll keep doing that.”

Of course, the “truth” in pop music is a philosophically slippery concept. Asher undoubtedly talks a great game, but just like Dylan, Bowie, NWA or even the X-Factor before him, his “truth” is no more than his own carefully curated version of the truth, merely context to be drip-fed over his music as it suits him, just as he’s dodged some of my questions, and omitted information from answers to others. That’s his prerogative, obviously, and actually far more fun than an act baring all on Twitter. But to insist that he’s telling the whole truth is kind of rich.

“No, I mean in my music,” he fires back. “Everything you need to know about me is in my music. Everything that I need to say or have wanted to say is in there.” With that, he gets up and walks to the studio door. “I need to use the restroom.”

As Asher returns, he points a finger at me. “Carefully curated version of the truth,” he quotes me. “Explain yourself.” He’s not affronted, more puzzled, as if, up to now, he thinks he’s been 100% candid. We discuss the tradeoff between honesty and privacy, and whether he considers himself to be a public figure, how much context is needed to help understand art and how shocked he was to suddenly become hounded, both online and in real life, the minute the Beyoncé album dropped. “I just wanted to reset,” he pleads. “I didn’t want to be known for anything I had done before.”

Asher is dismissive of all his pre-Boots musical past, and has done his best to purge it from the Internet. Google his old bands and you encounter broken YouTube links and “not available” Spotify tags gently rocking on the hinges of dusty blog posts from 2009. Try and buy anything by Stonefox or Blonds or Young Circles or Blonde Fuzz, and you’re met with 404 errors and “notify me when back in stock” buttons.

That revisionism, alongside his insistence that becoming a producer-for-hire was an accident, makes ‘Aquaria’ something of a Year Zero for Boots. It certainly feels like a debut album: full of ambitious statements and a ready-made worldview, it plays seductively like something that’s been dreamed about for years. Drums clatter around imposing guitar lines reminiscent of DJ Shadow and Massive Attack, and despite the intensity of some songs, Asher manages to imbue the record with a grand sense of space. A pair of tracks towards the end, too, invoke Thom Yorke’s digitally fractured lullabies, and the overall effect is an engaging, haunting, conscientiously constructed if stylistically incoherent album full of unfettered natural talent.

Thematically, though, ‘Aquaria’ is not a restful experience. There are bulletholes in chests and sewn-up eyelids, zombies on the evening news and legs being pulled from the bodies of bugs. A fug of dystopian paranoia lingers. It’s alienated, detached and cut off. Why?

“Because I feel alienated and detached and cut off,” says Asher, bluntly. “My whole manifesto is that we should be taking our world back. I’m talking to every person who’s been told that they’re not allowed to do something, or that there’s a wrong way to do something. We’re all held down by old ideals, and that’s not fair to people who are intelligent enough and driven enough to fix their own lives. People have the tools to do that themselves, but they’re told no, take this pill, eat this shit instead.”

It’s imagery normally reserved for street preachers, or the kind of politico wacko who crashes out early from the US Presidential race after talking too much about witches. Asher constantly refers to “people”, too, but it’s clear he’s talking about himself. Then again, given his recent past, and the success he’s largely brought on himself in that time through little more than sheer will, his enthusiasm for self-actualisation is understandable. The only issue, I suggest, is that it’s alarmingly cynical.

“I’m not trying to convince anyone that the world is shit,” he reassures me. “I’m just saying that there are people out there that will try to take you down, and I’m saying beware of those people. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard,” advises Baz Luhrmann’s novelty ‘Sunscreen Song’ of folksy truisms. Jordan Asher ditched New York in February. He moved to Los Angeles to get into writing film soundtracks and screenplays, buoyed by his newfound solo incarnation and the success of his musical collaborations (he’s also become the right-hand-man of Run The Jewels, and producer to FKA Twigs). He also felt that in New York, he kept “going toe-to-toe with the city”, and was tired of fighting it.

“That city will either crush people into a piece of coal, or into a diamond,” he explains. “It just depends on how you do under that pressure.

“I’ve always been the kind of person that takes to that kind of pressure nicely,” he adds. With that in mind, I suggest that perhaps LA will suit him. After all, despite the globally exported image of California, all healthy living, beach life and year-round sunshine, Tinseltown isn’t the most welcoming of places to a newcomer. Asher is equivocal. “I think anywhere that your feet can take you, you can go,” he says. “That applies to New York, or LA, anywhere. And that’s kinda metaphorical for my whole life: you don’t need anything or anyone apart from your will.”

After our interview, as Jordan Asher stands in the parking lot outside his studio being photographed in the evening sunshine, I remember something he said about first meeting Beyoncé. “When I started working with her, I wore my one amazing suit,” he said. “If you’re wearing a suit, you feel like you’ve got an aura to you. It’s like a great big shield against real life, and you’re presenting what you want to be.” As he smoothes out his jacket in anticipation of another pose, the penny drops, and suddenly I wonder whether all of today was one elaborate performance.

“Live in Southern California once, but leave before it makes you soft,” runs Lurhmann’s follow-up line. Earlier, Boots compared himself to a diamond; softness is a while off yet.