With so many different paths that might lead to a full-time drumming gig today, it could seem daunting for aspiring professional players to choose the best road to take. The drummer for the indie/psychedelic pop songwriter BØRNS is proving that it’s not the particular path you choose that matters, it’s how hard you push yourself along the way.
Story by Willie Rose
Photos by Alex Solca
When MD spoke by phone with Kristen Gleeson-Prata, the drummer was in Los Angeles enjoying a much-needed break after an almost two-year-long international tour with the indie pop star Garrett Borns, a singer-songwriter better known by the stage name BØRNS. “I don’t know exactly how long it was since our last little break,” Gleeson-Prata says. “But we haven’t had more than a couple days off for probably a year and a half to two years. It’s been pretty crazy. But we have a good amount of time off now. And we all needed it.”
The group’s latest marathon tour supported the 2015 release Dopamine, an album that shot to the top of alternative and rock charts thanks in part to the gold-certified and infectious psychedelic single “Electric Love.” And although Gleeson-Prata has watched it all unfold firsthand with the band from the beginning, she grinded through endless hours of networking and hustle, as well as plenty of time spent shedding in college, before she was even considered for the gig.
While taking her break in L.A., Gleeson-Prata tells MD about her current plans to dive back into the regimen that landed her the gig in the first place. But with spring recording dates in the works for a new BØRNS record and summer tours starting to book up, it doesn’t look like she’ll be hustling in her free time for too long.
MD: How’d you get started playing drums?
Kristen: My dad took me to see Billy Cobham at a Guitar Center in Cleveland when I was around ten. I wiggled my way up to the front, and then afterward I got him to sign my sticks. I was hooked since then. I started taking private lessons, and my parents were always supportive. I come from a family of doctors and pharmacists, so it’s a very different background. But they’ve always been supportive, and I’m really grateful and lucky.
I did every single possible musical thing I could do in public school—marching band, show choir, orchestra, and all of that. And I studied with a few awesome private teachers. Once I got into my sophomore or junior year, it felt like the next logical step was to go to college for music.
I ended up going to DePaul University in Chicago, but I transferred to Berklee after a year. And I think because I transferred to Berklee and was kind of frustrated before that, I had a good idea of what I wanted to do. I had a fire under my ass, which I think is really useful for a school like Berklee.
MD: How so?
Kristen: I absolutely love Berklee, but it’s such a big school. No one’s going to be on you about going after things and getting them done. It can be easy for people to kind of float through and just get by. But I think because I was motivated, I went after all of the amazing opportunities that the school has. I did so many things because I looked for them and went after them.
MD: Like what?
Kristen: John “JR” Robinson did a recording workshop, and drummers had to apply to get into it. I ended up being accepted and couldn’t believe that I was there. We were assigned a song, and there was a house band, and we went through this whole process while JR coached us. The last day we went into the studio with an amazing band and recorded it. We were literally with the master. That was my senior year, so after that JR said to all of us, “If you guys ever come out to L.A., give me a call. I’d be happy to keep in touch.” So I did, and he was one of the first people I knew here.
It’s easy—it’s really easy—with anything in life to say, “Nah, I’m going to pass,” because it’s easier to pass. But I didn’t do that when I was at Berklee for the most part, and I think it really helped me to take advantage of everything there. I think it’s what students need to do there to get a really good experience.
MD: You graduated from Berklee and moved to Los Angeles right away. What was that experience like?
Kristen: It was so scary. I’m glad that I’m out of that phase, because I hardly knew anybody. Throughout my whole college experience, I was kind of in the moment, and I wasn’t concerned about what was happening afterward. I was dealing with what was right in front of me. I was having so much fun learning and playing as much as I could in school. Afterward I thought, Oh, shit. Now I have to go somewhere.
I didn’t want to stay in Boston, because I felt like the ceiling there is lower than somewhere like L.A. or New York. So I was considering those two, and I made a list of the people that I knew in both cities. I had a couple acquaintances in L.A. from school. I also figured in L.A. I could have a car for my gear. It just seemed more logical.
And at first, again, I knew nobody. It really sucked. But I would go to a lot of shows, jam, and hang with the few people that I did know. And I met a lot of people. But to be honest, doing that four or five times a week drained me mentally.
I did that for a while before cutting down. And from there it just grew very slowly. I joined a wedding band and met a couple people through that, and my network started growing exponentially. Within the first year or two, I kept meeting more people and slowly started getting a lot busier playing for singer-songwriters, playing percussion for yoga and spin classes, and doing cover and original gigs. I was just doing anything and everything and slowly growing my network.
MD: Is that how you met Garrett Borns?
Kristen: I joined BØRNS because of some connections that I didn’t even know were important. You never know where those connections can come from to get you what you ultimately want. But none of us in BØRNS knew each other previously. I was on the road with another group and got an email from a music director who was looking for a female band to back Bonnie McKee. I was on the road, so I couldn’t do it. It was almost like being in the wrong place at the right time, which I was upset about. But I said, “If you don’t mind, when I get back in town I’ll be in touch and see if you have any other bands that need drummers.” When I got back, I emailed him every few weeks or so, and one day in 2014 he said, “There’s this dude Borns who needs a band. We have auditions coming up. Are you interested?”
I listened to his songs and knew that they were amazing, and I really wanted to do it. I did auditions all the time, and you make like 2 percent of them. [laughs] But I ended up getting in to do an audition, and I got the gig. I was so psyched. And it started very slowly. Garrett wasn’t signed yet.
And the transition from being a freelance musician to being just in BØRNS was tough. From the beginning I knew that it was a really important gig, even though the band wasn’t very busy. Gigs would come up, and I might have had something with someone else, and I knew that obviously I had to play the BØRNS gig. I pride myself on my integrity, and I don’t like saying that I’m going to do something and then backtracking. I knew the BØRNS gigs were important, but I also needed to be making money in between them. So to keep doing the other stuff that I was doing while letting those last-minute BØRNS gigs take precedence was really tough.
When we finally got busy enough for me to just do BØRNS full time, it got a lot easier. And the friends I was playing with thankfully understood that BØRNS was in my best interest. They were supportive, even though I might have canceled on them now and then. So it’s been a long time, and it’s been so cool to see Garrett grow and see the band grow into what it is today.
MD: What’s your process for adapting BØRNS’ material to a live show?
Kristen: It’s definitely a fun process. Part of it starts with [cowriter and producer] Tommy English in the studio. He thinks like a producer and musician, so he doesn’t know that it might be really hard to do something with your left foot or do something with your right hand. He thinks outside of the box and relies on me to figure out how to do it. I come from a more black-and-white, type-A kind of brain. I’ll think, No, you can’t do it that way. So he makes me think outside of the box, and then I’m eventually able to pull it off. Even in the recording process I start to think about how I’m going to play it live.
Then Kris Pooley comes into the picture. He’s the music director for Garrett and Katy Perry, Kesha—everybody. He really pushes me to think as well. We’ll go in for the first day of rehearsals, and I’ll play what I’ve figured out myself. He’ll say, “Try moving your left hand over here to catch those claps on the SPD.” And I’ll be like, “Well, I’m already playing the hi-hat.” And he’ll say, “You can do it. Try it.” And I’ll try it, and it works. He’ll just have me try stuff, and soon enough I’m covering most if not everything on the record. And there are minimal tracks to fill in the rest of it.
But I’m learning a ridiculous amount from both of them. And the whole band is so nice and supportive. Even if we’re in rehearsal and Kris says to try something and I crash and burn, it’s fine. They’re all nice and supportive and just laugh at me. It’s a good atmosphere.
MD: Do you have any parting advice for an up-and-coming drummer?
Kristen: Play with as many people as you can, get as much experience as you can, and learn as much as you can. But at the same time, be very true to yourself and what you’re comfortable with. And be genuine. There are a lot of people who are just trying to get all the gigs, or the best gigs, and they’re not being very genuine. People can see through that. And maybe you’ll get a gig for a little bit. But soon people are going to be able to tell whether or not you’re a good person, or a good hang, and that’s what creates the longevity in your career.
Drums: Tama Starclassic Performer birch/bubinga
A. 5.25×14 Fortune Drums maple snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 16×22 bass drum
1. 15″ Giant Beat hi-hats
2. 18″ Signature Dark Energy Crash Mark 1
3. 20″ Masters Dark crash/ride
Sticks: Vic Firth X5A
Accessories: Big Fat Snare Drum “Steve’s Donut” head