Lead Fiddle


Bethany Borg brings the violin center stage.

By Katherine Webb

Portraits by Art Meripol

 

Bethany Borg’s story might as well be that of modern American folklore. The middle sister of a set of six siblings—three boys, three girls—Borg was given a fiddle just as she began toddling around her Minnesota home. Her folks, she says, wanted each of their children to study music. “As if they were building a band,” Borg says, mimicking an old and mythologized memory: The piano for you, the fiddle for you. “For some of us, it stuck. My sister has a doctorate in piano, and I can’t shake the fiddle.”

When she was still a novice fiddler, Borg hit the competition circuit and was hooked on performing on stage. “I went to my first fiddle contest when I was 7 years old,” she says. “From then on, I dreamed of beating the guy who usually won, and eventually, I did win that contest, and I went on to win 10 state championships and place third in the national championship.”

A Birmingham resident for seven years now, Borg, who still has that competitive edge present in her early fiddling days, says she has played with country acts, folk groups, and rock bands, searching for the right avenue for her own music. She’s also called on her classical childhood training to play violin in jazz ensembles and with the symphony, including the local Black Jacket Symphony.

As she moved throughout genre to genre in the music industry, Borg recognized two unsettling patterns. For one, fiddlers were often—pardon the expression—playing second fiddle to other stringed instruments, namely guitars. “In all the bands that I’ve been in, the guitarists get all the fun lead parts, and I’m finally ready to say, ‘You know, violin can do that,’” she says. “The violin is such a cool instrument and is so versatile, and the violin can run through the same pedals that electric guitars run through so you can get really cool effects and sounds with it.” Having those side-stage traditional fiddle parts, she says, “is what really birthed what I’m doing right now: taking a fusion of electronic and rock that replaces the traditional duties of the rhythm and lead guitars.”

Borg during the making of her recent music video.

So Borg, tired of standing stage left while other artists were able to explore the possibilities of their own instruments center stage, says she’s set out to change the norms in the industry. With her new project, playing under the nom de plume Nordik Fire, Borg is stripping away conventional notions of an electronic album—relying on the violin for the lead on each song. Working with Atlanta-based producer Billy Hume (who’s worked mostly in the hip-hop industry with artists like Ludacris and Nas) in Hume’s self-built cabin on a Georgia lake (videos of those sessions are on YouTube), Borg is creating a record to showcase the multifaceted sounds of the violin. “With the instrumentals,” she says, “a lot of the lead violin parts where my producer played it for people and they say, ‘No way. That’s a guitar.’ It shows that not only can a violin do a ripping, roaring lead like in the ‘Lezog’ music video, but it’s all violin-based, doing what normally a guitar would be doing.… It’s taking the violin, plucking it, holding it a different way than you’re used to seeing it. We’ve built everything based on the violin.”

Along with the unorthodox use of instrumentation, Borg says she’s also challenging another trend in the music industry: the role of female musicians. “The Nordik Fire name is interesting in that Nordik comes from my ancestors, who are Norwegian and Swedish—that heritage has always been a big part of me—and the fire part came out of being a woman musician,” Borg says. “Men in this industry know what they want, and if they’re strong, they’ll do it, whatever it is. It’s clichéd, but women have to be that much stronger. Sometimes, it feels like if you’re strong, you get the stereotype that you’re witchy. But it’s about going after what you want. If you don’t have a clear vision, you will definitely get pushed back and run over. If I’m not strong with my idea, it will be downright laughed at. Ultimately, I know my idea is a good one, and if I’ve got the strength to go ahead and push it forward, and luckily, I found the people who were willing to support that.

Performing with The Black Jacket Symphony.

“The fire part of the name is also for all the women who have come before me so that I could be here,” she explains. “The message is for women to never lose what we’ve done, to keep fighting, to keep the fire going. It’s easy to get run over in any industry as a woman, and I just know the music industry at this point. You just have to keep clear on what you want and go for it.”

With lofty goals, it would be easy for Borg to feel the pressure in the release of this record, but more than pressure, she says she’s feeling relief to “finally show off what the violin can do. I’m having so much fun taking what I’ve learned from years of practice and all the bands and showcase the violin on its own. [The project] is still at this stage where, honestly, I’m having so much fun, and I’ve never felt this passionate about music before. This project has renewed everything about why I love music.”

Part of that fire, too, is fueled by retribution for the sacrifices Borg has made over the years, playing backup. “The name of the album is A New Start, and I can’t tell you how many situations I was in where all the guys in the room could say what they wanted, and they would take each other seriously, and when I would say what I wanted, they would say, ‘Isn’t that cute?’,” she says. “I can’t tell you how much fire is in this project. So pressure? No. It’s relief. I don’t care what happens to this album because I know my goal, and I know I will get there, one way or another. All these experiences of being pushed over, of being too nice, of setting my own goals aside, of being a side person instead of really what I wanted to do—it’s my time now. I’m done. It’s now or never.”

The record itself, she says, is reflective of the emotionality behind its production. “It’s very much exploring where I am at with life,” she explains. “It’s a lot of questions that don’t have answers. The lyrics are dark, exploring a lot of personal things within my own life, what I’ve been through, where I’m headed, and I’m inviting the listeners to come in on that.”

In the recording studio with producer Billy Hume.

Of those past experiences, the failed bands and misguided projects, and the exploration they led to, Borg says she’s finally reckoned what kind of musician she’s meant to be. “My producer and I talk about this all the time: the sacrificing. He turned down doing Lil Jon’s full album, because he wanted to pursue a personal project that he had some heart in. I turned down a gig with Sara Evans, because I decided at that point and time, listen, I don’t want to be a fiddler; I want to be an artist,” Borg says. “It’s almost like I had too many things I could do like being a fiddler in a country act. It took a lot of focusing and digging deep to think about what I really want. In 10 years, what would I be happiest doing?…It’s so easy to get sidetracked with every little thing. I’ve been in a lot of bands that made me realize where I want to end up and how to get there and how to be a little bit better in the end. Nobody has a blueprint, but you sure can learn ways to cut through the noise.”

Nordik Fire on SoundCloud

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