In four years, Jordan Asher – AKA Boots – has gone from sleeping rough to writing for Beyoncé, a tale as shadowy as his sound. Is it too good to be true?
By Al Horner
Jordan Asher is wading through leaves on a crisp autumn lunchtime in New York’s Washington Square Park, contemplating his Cinderella story. Under the alias Boots, he is one of the most sought-after and speculated-about writers and producers in pop music. But that’s inevitably what happens when you come from nowhere and end up shaping the sound of a Beyoncé album. Asher co-wrote and produced a remarkable 80% of Beyoncé’s self-titled, surprise-released record in 2013 but that sound is best exemplified by the track Haunted, all pulsing trap beats and nasty, distorted bass. Here was someone no one had heard of, who was nudging a superstar’s style into murky new territory, seeping menace into pop’s escapist bubble.
Four years ago, though, Asher was homeless. From his late teens to early 20s he lived in a beaten-up Chevrolet Gladiator and, for a period, on the streets in South Florida, swerving Walmart security guards to sneak whatever sleep he could in the warmth of the store’s bathroom cubicles. Once, when spending the night in a “sorta shanty town” under a highway in his home town of Miami, he was alerted by the tyre screeches of military jeeps.
“George Bush was in town,” he remembers, his voice heavy with disgust as he recalls the local authority “cleaning the streets of the homeless” to impress the president.
The young producer who had a major hand in Bey’s 2013 album delivers a solo album that clings to semi-forgotten 90s styles.
Asher mostly declines to talk about how he stopped living on the streets and of the apparently chance encounter that led him to become Beyoncé’s number two. Like much about the 28-year-old, that story is fogged in mystery – mostly of his own making – and any attempt to demystify it is met with short, sharp, stock answers. But he mellows slightly amid the greenery of the park today, quiet but for B-boy dancers pulling shapes to 90s rap around a boombox.
“I was in a room I probably shouldn’t have been in and had an opportunity to play a song to someone,” he says, smiling. “That’s all anyone needs to know.”
His fairytale is so fantastical that it makes you wonder just how legit it is, especially given the rise of the “shadowy producer”, a well-worn ruse in which buzzy electronic acts, from Jungle to Jai Paul, are marketed as mysterious in a bid to turn intrigue into a record-buying fanbase. Indeed, as the internet frantically speculated about his identity after the Beyoncé album came out – according to Pitchfork there were 452m Google queries of “who is Boots?” in seven days – Asher was eventually unmasked as the former frontman of a failed indie band called Blonds, suggesting he didn’t meet her without some toilet-circuit gigging first.
But while he won’t budge on that part of his past, questions over his authenticity don’t seem to bother Asher. “If people want to question the validity of my story, that’s fine, I don’t give a shit. I know I’m real,” he insists.
Perhaps that’s because, in the two years since Beyoncé, he has gone some way to prove himself, and his trademark sound has become as much his calling card as his secrecy and abruptness. He has continued to pull pop and hip-hop in swampy directions, laying glassy beats for R&B innovator FKA twigs’s M3LL155X EP and doomy production for political rap duo Run The Jewels. He’s also keen to prove himself as a solo artist and last month released his debut album, Aquaria – “Something uniquely me that no one else could do,” he says.
Asher is relaxed today: rough-shaven, showing off a tattoo on his hand that Grimes gave him with a biro pen and needle, your everyday hipsterish music dude. But Aquaria shows off a far darker alter ego: in it he plays an unhinged Mad Max-style loner, spitting Cormac McCarthy-ish poetry about “ghosts in the tar pit” and “blood in my piss” around synths that churn like dentists’ drills in an exorcism. Even the song titles – Earthquake, Bombs Away – suggest a world hurtling towards oblivion.
“Well, I’m not wrong! Listen to all those gas-guzzling cars,” he says, bending my ear towards the hum of New York traffic. “The effort it would take to replace all those with electric cars? It’s easier and cheaper for that industry and for us to not do anything. That’s what gets me down. My problem isn’t the laundry list of things fucking the planet up; it’s the mindset that keeps us there.”
His own mindset on Aquaria is mainly of fevered paranoia: on one track, C.U.R.E, Boots depicts an Earth governed by sinister puppeteers exploiting “cash in the rat trap”. It is perhaps because of this bleakness that Aquaria has confused critics, but it certainly marks Asher out from your average rent-a-pop producer. While others embrace the click-happy internet age with saccharine synths and hyper-glossy sounds, Asher’s music reflects the information-overloaded grimness and anxiety.
“If it sounds like I don’t trust people, it’s because I’ve watched humanity fail me and others like me,” he says hastily, nodding to his past horrors.
The criticism hasn’t stopped others from knocking on his studio door. He has to rush off soon to a recording session, which he teases could involve Frank Ocean, a film score or alternatively just be him “fucking around” on his own. Cinderella story or not, it’s his past struggles that keep him going. “Everything that happened before keeps me sharp, keeps me hungry… you don’t forget that.”