Q&A: Jacob Banks Talks Sonic Balance, Kanye West, and Signature Beanie

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A innovative, fresh sound laced with classic influences. A powerfully dominant voice singing of emotionally delicate, sociopolitical themes. African-inspired soul grooves backed by heavy beats. One might assume that, if combined, the aforementioned elements would clash severely…but not if you’re Jacob Banks

Banks’ distinct sound was born from a natural manifestation of his personal music taste and his contrasting environments. While he draws inspiration from the classic soul of Al Green, he also enjoys the pop/folk sensibilities of John Mayer and respects the boldness of Kanye West and Rick Ross–all of which cohesively make their way into his own music. Moreover, Banks was was born in Nigeria and currently resides in London, UK, which explains the sometimes paradoxical sonic and lyrical content– “Some of [the songs] are strong and powerful—the melancholy of London. And some—like, the songs about my mum and stuff—will come from the Africa side, being very family oriented.”

As a follow up to his Boy Who Cried Freedom EP, released in April 2017, Jacob Banks’ latest is a heart-wrenching ballad by the name of “Unknown (To You).” He’s currently gearing up for a handful of European tour dates, followed by a North American tour through early December–don’t miss out.

After following Jacob Banks for the better part of the last two years, we finally got to sit with the prolific artist to talk beginnings, YouTube resourcefulness, Kanye West, artists to watch, and the real secret under that beanie.

OTW: You originally graduated as a civil engineer, right?

JB: Yeah.

OTW: So, how did you first get into music?

JB: I got into music by chance. Like, I learned to play a guitar off YouTube, and I used to write poetry a lot growing up. So I just started singing along when I learned guitar, and I’d write little songs and stuff just for fun. And my friends would ask me to record these songs so they could play them in their cars, and I would. And that’s how it happened—just me making songs that my friends liked. And they were like, “Oh, you should do an EP,” so I did an EP. Then it was, “Maybe you should play this show,” cool, I’ll play this show… and it just all spiraled out of control really quickly. That’s how it happened.

OTW: How did you land on your specific style of music?

JB: I think it came very natural to me. I think we’re all racing against our taste. So, if you are someone who creates, or if you make anything, you judge how good of a band you think it is by your taste level. So we’re all trying to replicate our taste. 

Like, I love Kanye West, but I also love John Mayer. I love Al Green but I also love Rick Ross. So these are my tastes. So how can I bring all these things I love together? I love the old and the new. So how can I present it to people? I’m just trying to create what I like, and that was it: just taking the old vibe but giving it a modern twist, is kind of what we’re trying to do. And that’s how it came about.

OTW: Cool! So you were born in Nigeria and now you live in London–how would you say both of those places affect you as an artist and as a person?

JB: Growing up in Nigeria allowed me to sympathize with a lot of things that happen in the world, that touch a lot of people. And growing up in London–for me, London’s like the capitol of the world. Like, it’s genuinely mad because of the amount of people, and it’s unified, and everyone understands the role that everybody else plays. And I think having both is really interesting to how I make my music, because I speak for the oppressed, and London is very… London never backs down. Like, Brits just never back off in general. So that’s the energy that I get from London–we always say how we feel. I think Africans are a bit more delicate. They’re very warm people, wouldn’t want to piss anybody off, so I learned to shift between the two. 

Certain songs are more delicate, some of them strong and powerful—the melancholy of London. And some—like, the songs about my mum and stuff—will come from the Africa side, being very family oriented.

OTW: Cool, great balance. So you were the first unsigned act to appear on BBC Radio 1. What was that like, and how has the shift been like from that to now?

JB: That was fun. I don’t feel any different, to be fair. I’m making music I want to make. I feel exactly the same towards my team now; I just feel like I have more help, like more people to balance off creativity. There’s no doing away your independence–it’s you trying to make sense of it all. So it’s nice to have another brain to check yourself, to have your back. It’s pretty much the same, just a bigger team.

OTW: Do you feel like that was your big break?

JB: The Live Lounge? There was no turning back after that. It’s cool to make songs in your friend’s bedroom or whatever, but if you’re presenting yourself on Radio 1, you’re saying, “I’m here and this is me.” You can’t pack it in now, you can’t turn around. I guess you can, but it was me announcing myself that I want to play.

OTW: Did you want to turn around before that? Have you ever considered going back to civil engineering?

JB: I would make a terrible civil engineer. People will die! Lots of people. This is for the best! I’m good at applying myself; I can be good at anything I want to be good at—doesn’t mean that I like it. So I can just apply myself, which is how I got through it. I don’t think I’ve ever looked back, it makes me too happy to look back. See like, as someone who works in journalism or stuff: When you read pieces, half your brain is criticizing, and half your brain is ingesting. So sometimes I wish I wasn’t so much of an artist, because sometimes you don’t listen to enjoy, you listen to pick up faults, which isn’t nice. That’s what I’m saying; that’s the only thing I wish I could take back.

OTW: Do you have an idea of an end goal or a definition of success for yourself? 

JB: For me, it’s just to look after my loved ones.

OTW: So, according to some Twitter stalking, you are a Game of Thrones fan. Would you kill for a cameo?

JB: No, I wouldn’t! After what happened with Ed Sheeran, I think I don’t want one. You know what it is? It was just unnecessary. He didn’t do bad or anything, but it’s not some Netflix original trying to make headway; it was unnecessary. If it was like, a new show trying to get fans and all that…I get it, but he wasn’t bad at all, he was quite good. He sang, it was wonderful. But it just didn’t need to happen. Even the whole scene didn’t need to happen.

OTW: The Boy Who Cried Freedom is your latest, where did the name come from?

JB: I think it just came from just what we’re seeing in politics and everything. I think people were asking for the most basic shit. Like, take “Black Lives Matter” for example. It’s a fair thing to ask for. Or women saying, “We want equal rights, we’re not asking for more, we just want the same thing you’re having.” Sounds fair! Or people are asking for refuge because their homes have been torn down by war that we’ve instigated—also fair! 

So it’s like, freedom is the most basic shit, like everybody should get this. And that’s where it came from. And for me as well, I feel like I was always trying to justify my taste and what I wanted to make. And I was like, I should be able to make what I want to make, and people are going to have to tell me their fears as much as I don’t come into your workplace and incite fear into what you make. 

For me it’s just like, freedom is just a basic requirement. I think that’s where it came from.

OTW: Do you get criticism for your style of music?

JB: No, what it is, is everybody’s scared until it happens. Once it happens, it becomes the norm. But everybody’s the first of their kind: Rihanna’s the first Rihanna. I mean, you hear everyone is trying to be like Rihanna, everybody’s trying to copy an original. But for me the original is cooler because it’s like, you don’t know. And people naturally are going to put forwards their fears, and that’s cool; it’s human nature to do that. Like, I don’t have to because I was in a situation before with old management and an old label and they were very unsure; they didn’t want to stick their neck out. So I think that’s where that came from.

OTW: Got it. So you learned how to play guitar and a lot of other things on YouTube. Anything else that you’ve learned off of YouTube?

JB: I learned to fix my car! I can fix pretty much anything. If anything is broken in your house, look on YouTube, somebody’s fixed it. Like, YouTube is the shit. People need to understand this. I can fix anything off YouTube.

OTW: Do you still write or read poetry?

JB: I still read. I read a lot. I think poetry is the purest form of writing, for me. It’s very honest.

OTW: You said you’re a Kanye fan–what about his music or him as a person draws you to him?

JB: I just feel like he’s always pushing the needle. The thing with music is everybody knows what they think they know. So if you grew up and someone tells you an apple is an orange, you’re going the rest of your life thinking it was. So he’s always pushing the needle introducing new sounds, new elements, new ways for people to decide like, “Actually I fuck with this,” or “Actually I don’t fuck with this,” but he’s always pushing the needle of the scale of what we think we like, and I love that about him.

OTW: Yeah. Do you respect him as a person too?

JB: As a person, I do. I feel like he’s easy to understand. He’s not perfect, but if you imagine all your wonderful moments and all your poor moments being publicized every day, you’d make just as many mistakes as he does. The difference is the whole world has to hear his mistakes. That’s the only difference! I get him, like you have to imagine if people are constantly telling you you can’t do something. For every time you’ve proven them wrong, it’s a weird thing. Like, people told him he couldn’t make beats: he made beats. They said he couldn’t rap: he rapped. They said he couldn’t make clothes: he made clothes. They said he couldn’t design his own visuals and stuff… It’s like, what more do you want the man to do? Every time you’ve said no, he goes out and does it, and still people are like, “Just rap.” To have the whole world tell you no every time… it must fuck with you to a certain level.

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OTW: So you’ve had a handful of EPs so far–are there any plans for a full length? 

JB: I’m doing a full length, but I’m doing my full length as EPs. So I’m going to do my full length as 3 EPs over a short period of time. I just feel like I don’t want to play the album game. It’s unfair because we’re all getting the same looks. The industry judges people on albums, but the difference is, I’m not getting as much radio play as Shawn Mendes. So for you to expect me to sell as much as Shawn Mendes is unfair! If you give everybody 10 plays a day, and you want to judge our success on album sells, then I’ll play! But if I’m getting 1 and he’s getting 1000, I don’t want to fucking play. I’d rather just do it my own way, and so that’s what it is for me. Because everybody falls short of it. 

If you’re slightly left of stage, you fall short because you’re not getting as much support. You’re not going to do the numbers of these people. And then people get disappointed because they think someone who became more successful is worse, but it’s just like… I didn’t get the same looks. I didn’t reach as many people for them to even know that I exist or make up their own minds. So I’m just like, I don’t want to play, unless I can guarantee the same looks.

OTW: Makes sense. Your answers and way of thinking are very well thought-out and tactical! So you wrote and co-directed your narrative for “Unholy War,” the video. What got you interested in that, and are you going to keep experimenting on the visual side?

JB: I think I got into it because everybody I used to work with used to take forever, and I’d rather just do it myself. People take forever to do stuff. And I have really good friends who are directors, so it was just like, I just hung around watched how they did it. And we collaborated on a lot of stuff, and same with “Unholy War”—Cody’s my boy, and we’ve been talking for like, four years and always wanted to work. 

I just love being hands on. I feel like the only person who’s Jacob 24/7 is me. Everybody else has to check out. At some point you have to look after your family, deal with your shit, nobody can physically care as much as I can. Because they don’t, it’s impossible. I can’t hold it against them. So I’ll just get the ball rolling then people will join.

OTW: Who are a few artists on your Ones To Watch list?

JB: There’s a couple people from the UK— there’s a lady called Elli Ingram, there’s Kojey Radical. There’s an afrobeat artist called Maleek Berry. It’ll change your life–he infuses afrobeat music with R&B in the most smooth, coolest way ever. There’s also a lady called Amber Mark. She’s on the label, and Billie Eilish, and a guy called Billy Raffoul.

OTW: I just saw Billy, he’s insane live.

JB: We’ve been touring together, he’s opening the tour! In the fall.

OTW: Last but not least, any reason for the signature folded beanie?

JB: I don’t know how it all spiraled out of control!

OTW: How many do you have?

JB: I have a few. Like, at least 20. At least. I don’t know, I just always like them. The thing is, people think there’ something wrong with me. Hairline’s healthy, like I’m good! Everyone thinks like, he’s probably bald, he probably doesn’t have eyebrows, I don’t know. Like, I’m fine. I only wear it when I go to work.

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