Interview: Jacob Banks
Jacob Banks has one of those rare, stop you in your tracks and punch you in the gut voices that give you no choice but to really listen when he sings. Through his narrative songwriting, Banks tells incredibly honest stories that, combined with his commanding voice, create a distinct sense of captivating vulnerability. This was ever-present during his set opening for Swedish songstress, LÉON last week at Rock & Roll Hotel. The majority of the crowd trickling in during his set seemed to not have any clue as to who Jacob Banks was but by the end of his 35 minute performance, it was obvious he’d won the room over with his magnetic stage presence. Most of Banks’ set concentrated on his breakout EP, The Paradoxwith highlights being “Monster,” “Silver Lining,” and “You Don’t Even Call Me.” He also treated the crowd to a cover of Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On” to show love for the place he now calls home, the UK. In addition, Banks played some of his forthcoming EP, The Boy Who Cried Freedom, including his new single, “Unholy War” which fuses soul and electronic elements to create a powerful, captivating sound. As he closed out his set there was a palpable sense of yearning for more Jacob Banks.
Before his set, I sat with Jacob on the chilly rooftop deck of Rock & Roll Hotel to discuss his musical journey, walking away from a major label, perspective, and what he hopes to achieve with The Boy Who Cried Freedom. Check out the conversation below.
Tell us about everything that has led to this interview right now. You’ve released two EPs and will be releasing a third soon; what has your journey through music been thus far, starting at the beginning.
Jacob Banks: I tell people, I never really had a choice with music. I was young, I was studying to be a civil engineer at Uni, I was doing okay. I bought a guitar just on a whim, cause I liked how it looked in my apartment. I’ve always loved music but I never wanted to be a musician –I loved to sing along like everybody else. I’d bought a guitar and I was like ‘oh, it must be fun to learn!’ so I went on YouTube and taught myself to play and then I thought it may be fun to write a song and I wrote a song. And then I thought it might be fun to put in on YouTube, I put it on YouTube. And then there was a competition with a lad called Plan B in London that I won and since that day on it’s just been a snowball effect and now I’m here. I’ve been trying to shake this shit for a long time but here we are. It’d made me so happy and I’m an advocate for happiness –if you’re happy, keep doing it.
When did you discover your voice? It’s obviously very powerful and very beautiful.
JB: Thank you. Even now I still haven’t reached that stage. I’m still kind of like blahh could be better!
No way. Are you kidding!?
JB: Listen I-it’s all relative, like I know people who can blow, you know. So, I don’t know I’m still –my whole thing is not trying to be better, it’s trying to use my voice and understand its limitations and where I can push and just kind of own my voice in a way. I’m not trying to be the biggest, baddest, vocalist –I’m just trying to take what little magic I have and pretend like it’s more, that’s the plan.
I know you were on a major label and then made the decision to part ways. Your second EP was done entirely by yourself, right?
JB: The first one was self-released as well, but that was prior to getting into a label situation. I got into a label situation-I’d recorded nothing in two years and I asked to leave. I played them some stuff on the second EP, “The Paradox” and they weren’t feeling it. So I was like ‘alright you know what, it’s cool.’ One thing about music is, really, as artists sometimes we forget that opinions are just opinions. If one person at a record label says they don’t like it, it’s not a reflection of the world; it’s just one human being.
So when he said he didn’t like it, at the time I was like that’s fine, that’s fair, you’re allowed to not like it, alright all cool I’m gonna leave the label and he was nice enough to let me leave. I finished the EP, I put it out, and it did really will.
It did! How did that feel, did it help you come to this self-awareness you now seem to have?
JB: Yeah, it was good for me. Cause it was a really rough time like, you know you wear your heart on your sleeve every day and when someone tells you ‘ah it’s shit, put it away’ that’s hard. Especially cause I try to go left musically every time so I never really know –I just put it out there, hoping for the best. And you’re always giving a part of your soul away every time. So it was good to be confirmed that I’m not completely crazy.
Songwriting –do you do all of it yourself? Do you collaborate with anyone?
JB: I work with people but I’m writing everything and sometimes I invite people to help out.
I feel like your songwriting is pretty narrative in that your songs sort of tell stories. Where do you draw that inspiration from?
JB: A bunch of bullshit that happens in my life. I think one good thing about being an artist is that you never forget nothing. I can draw from experiences from when I was ten if the music allows me to go there. I’m very music-first. When I hear the chords, it always triggers something for me –like a moment in time. I don’t really write unless I have something to say –I never have much to say –but when I do, it just pours out. That’s kind of like the process for me, you know. And whoever’s in the room helps if they can. It’s very much about relaying a story that happened.
Has your recording process changed through the span of your three first EPs?
JB: Yeah it has. This new EP called, “The Boy Who Cried Freedom” focuses on production a lot more. We’re really trying to push the medium. The first EP was more like, traditionally soul; the second EP was still traditionally soul with a tiny bit of production; but this new one is really more production than it is songs. We’re really trying to create energy, so I’m trying to almost create a genre. We’re calling it digital soul –we’re using EDM kind of vibes and really traditional soul –which you’ll hear tonight and let me know your thoughts on it.
Wow I can’t wait that’s exciting, man!
JB: We’re really just trying push the needle forward and just challenge people on what you think you know. Music is –it’s all born out of comparison so you never really know until you hear it, you could say oh I might actually like this but you can’t fathom it unless you’ve heard it. So that’s what we are trying to do with this new one (“The Boy Who Cried Freedom”).
So with this vibe you’re going for with the new EP, is there a certain headspace or vibe you want your listener to be in, are you trying to evoke a certain emotion out of people when they listen?
JB: This EP is about just believing in your juice, generally it’s the boy who cried freedom, and believing in your juice regardless of hard it gets. My whole thing is, I wanna remind people that ‘you’re the fucking shit.’ For that brief moment, that Monday morning when you forget, I just wanna remind you real quick that you’ve got this and this is light work. So, I’m just here to help, just here to remind you. That’s the general energy of this EP, it’s very much just a reminder that whatever it is, you can handle it.
You can handle it, I like it. You seem to have a pretty positive outlook on life but also understand it can be shitty sometimes and that’s why you’re making these songs to remind people you can fucking do it. Does that come from any experience in particular?
JB: I grew up in Nigeria so, I’ve seen some shit. But growing up in Nigeria, I don’t remember anyone being unhappy. It wasn’t great but to the best of our knowledge it was wonderful. So when I moved over to the UK I was like ‘ah, it might have been nice to have electricity 24/7’ could have been nice. But I wouldn’t know at the time unless it was cold. So my point of view is very much like, everything is a luxury. The only true thing that matters is time –cause everything you can get back –time you can’t get back. So how you spend your time is key –these are moments and you can either use them to be wonderful or learn from them. That’s kind of where I’m at in life, I’m all for happiness but I’m also all for understanding that expecting to be happy 24/7 is mad selfish. Alright it’s gonna get real deep real quick.
Go for it.
JB: But quickly –somebody dies every 2 seconds, so that’s every two seconds that’s a mom, someone who’s pissed off at dad, someone. And if you get pissed because you missed your bus, it’s hardly anything compared to those two seconds. So my thing is understanding that you know, it’s just your turn. Sometimes you just have to take a couple Ls, it’s cool it’s just my turn; you’ll get back you’ll be fine. Just take my Ls, I’ll move to something else, I’ll come back round again and take it. And that’s just how I believe life is. I don’t believe I can have it my win all the time, so when it’s not my win I just accept it.
And you move on.
JB: Yeah, it’s easy.
Finally, artists you look up to?
JB: There’s three artists I really look up to:
- John Mayer for writing and just being a musician.
- Kanye West for pushing the needle and just putting it out there and trying different things.
- And Bob Marley for always telling the truth.
I look up to those three people to help me own my sound and remind me of what I’m trying to achieve.
Future plans for 2017 –tours, festivals, music?
JB: Yeah, we’re gonna do a North American one, we’ll do one in the UK as well –wherever else will have us we’ll do it. And we’ve got an album this year as well. We’ve got the EP and then the album in October/November; we’re giving it all to the people this year.