Artists are entrepreneurs. They narrate familiar tales in ways we’ve never thought to tell them. One such entrepreneur is British-Nigerian musician Jacob Banks, who brings new light to everyday situations. Laying bare feelings so commonly stowed away, the kind you only share with the closest of friends, he is here to be of company to those who crave it. This year, Jacob resumes this introspective journey by surveying stories and lessons of recent times: “We’ve felt and seen so much - and I want people to know that they’re not alone”. With an authentic voice like his by our side, confidence restores as we navigate an optimistic 2021 and heal from 2020’s broken promises.
His latest releases offer genre-bending delight, from the soft, piano piece Devil That I Know to the edgier Parade. In upcoming single Found, Banks’ trembling vocals make tribute to his grandmother who passed away. A heart left vacant, he asks where to channel the love made redundant, “What do I do with this love I saved for you?”. Presenting a grief so tangible, you can’t help but think of those lost to you. Where Found guides the listener, Stranger, a song about the feelings of growing distant from someone, is open-minded in its intention, leaving it to the listener to decide: “With this song I wanted everything to have the same synergy, to allow whoever's listening to choose their emotion”. Within the realm of Jacob Banks’ art, everyone may be the protagonist.
In an East London flat, photographer Clare Setian captures Banks in the forced quiet that hovers over London. Plain curtains dim the bleached Winter sky from interfering with the soft atmosphere, which Fashion Editor Nathan Henry complements with grounding earth tones and comfortable luxury. Moods run between poles, from laughter to melancholia, with the latter becoming a staple for many as of lately: “It’s hard for me to write positive, uplifting stuff because I don't feel positive and uplifted”. Over the new normal, Zoom, Banks and I talk bucket lists, happiness, and his new music. I get to know his favourite poets and learn he’s allergic to his cats. “You must really love your cats”, I remark. “Yes! Sometimes I wake up and I’m like, ‘this is not a good idea’, but it’s been going on for four years now”, he admits while trying to suppress his stuffed nose.
Jacob Banks’ latest single, Parade, is out now.
As we leave 2020 behind, what are your thoughts heading into 2021?
Well, to be fair, the bar is very low. I'm just trying to exist, be present and not take anything for granted. I think I took a lot of stuff for granted before. It's been hard to understand and to really make peace with the fact that we are very powerless. We're just lucky to be in certain situations. If those situations come back around, I want to be more present in them. That's all I hope for really.
In what way has this year affected your music?
It has affected what I can make. My job as an artist is to reflect the times and it's hard for me to write positive, uplifting stuff because I don't feel positive and uplifted. Everything's a bit more melancholy and dramatic because everything's dramatic.
How did your sound come about?
When I started out, I did one genre at a time. My very first EP was all soul - straight down the middle guitar, drums and songs about women I had never met. Then I met the people who came to my shows and they turned out to be nothing like me. They were only a small percentage of who I was, so I had this notion that if my job is to keep people company, I have to present all of me and all of me doesn't just listen to soul music. I listen to jazz. I listen to funk. I listen to hip-hop. I listen to poets. I listen to drum and bass. I listen to reggae. If I want the people who connect with me to be my friends, then I have to present all of me. I like music as a whole. I don't really pick sides and that is important for me to project. If my job is to serve my friends, I want to make sure my friends know me well.
You sing with such honesty and authenticity, and it feels like you're getting more honest with each release. Has opening up to the world become easier as you've progressed?
Yeah because I know that people out there are weirder or at least as weird as me. I'm sure the audience is weirder, so I feel like I'm not that bad. To create a space where people feel seen, I have to be honest and allow things that scare me to happen so it doesn't have to scare someone else. I grew up listening to lots of poetry. Poets are really weird people and if there's one thing they've taught me, it is how to bare your soul. I learned a lot about being vulnerable in art through poetry.
Who are some of your favourite poets?
There is this guy called Anis Mojgani and he is my favourite poet - but there are so many amazing ones, especially in the UK. There's a lady called Sophia Thakur. There's LionHeart, who's amazing. Incredible poets.
What attracts you to their work?
It's the fact that they can challenge my thought process. There's a poem by Anis Mojgani called Shake The Dust in which he says, "This is for the fat girls (…) This is for the celibate pedophile who keeps on struggling". He makes the listener have empathy for a pedophile, which I never would. A writer can force an audience to see an object that they’ve looked at for thousands of years from a different perspective, just for a split second. That's my favourite thing about art. I want people to hear how I tell stories from a different perspective. You’ve heard love songs or songs about heartbreak before, so how can I present those stories to you differently? That's what poets do all day. They tell the same stories, but in new ways - and that's my favourite thing about them.
In terms of songwriting, what comes first, lyrics or melody?
It changes and really depends on the song. With Stranger, for instance - which is the first song we put up from this project - the melody came first. I think that with the weirder songs I've written, the melody typically came first. For the more emotional ones, for instance, The Devil That I Know, I was just sent an 8-bar piano loop and the whole song is just that. Spencer, the producer, wanted to change it, but I just fell in love with this loop that runs through the entire song. That loop inspired the whole song. With Stranger, I had pretty much written everything by the time I got into the studio, and then worked with one of my really good friends and collaborators, Sillkey, to produce the song.
With writing, the trick is to stay open. By that I mean to stay present in every moment because inspiration can hit any second and you have to be there to catch it. It won't necessarily find you in a studio. It won't find you in a writing session. Most of my ideas come from me just sitting in my living room playing video games. I saw the phrase "The Devil That I Know" a while back and wrote it down on my phone thinking I could use it for a song. It's all about being present. If you're constantly open - even if your mind is busy - I think inspiration finds you a lot easier, in my humble opinion.
Back to Stranger, could you tell me a bit more about the making of the song?
I wanted the song to feel like one instrument, so I didn't want the vocals to sit above the track. With certain songs, you'll have your vocal track and the guitar track, and so on. With this song, I wanted everything to have the same synergy, to allow whoever's listening to choose their emotion. To present a space where the mind can wander and go wherever it needs to go. Whereas with other songs, you might lead them to the emotion that you think they should get from this. I tried to create a vibe that wasn't distracting and left room for the listener to be the main character of the song.
How was the journey between Village and your latest musical phase?
Village and I had a good time. We toured the album for two years straight, finishing in February 2020. I experienced things that were way past my bucket list. I played on Ellen and Jimmy Kimmel. I saw the world with my friends and showcased music we wrote in bedrooms and studios. It gave me an opportunity to look after my family and cats. I’m so grateful for these experiences.
That sounds amazing. Have you written a new bucket list?
Genuinely, I'm in a weird space where I've achieved everything I wanted out of this. I'm in a bonus stage now. Everything I hoped for and everything I wanted to do with my money business-wise, I've been able to do. I'm out here having a good time and making music that I want to make and working with people that I want to work with. I'm trying to have an impact on society and give opportunities back.
Do you have a favourite song that you've written recently?
I don't have a favourite song, but I have things that move me differently. There's a song called Found which I wrote after my lovely Nana died in March last year. It felt good to be able to immortalise my Nana and write about the process of navigating the feelings of losing her. Love is this thing that we chase and hold so dear, but it comes to an end. I always wonder when love comes to an end, where do you put all that love that you've had for something or someone? Where does it go? What do you pour it into? Is there like a jar somewhere that you can pour it back into and save for the next love that comes around? It’s a song that I'm glad I got to make, just because of what it means to me.
My life isn't that interesting; there's not much that happens to me that moves me. I don't find human beings that interesting because they are very simple. Everybody just wants to be seen and loved, and they act accordingly. If you feel seen in a hate group, you're going to join the hate group. If you feel seen at church, you're going to go to church. It's situations that I find grand and interesting.
What are you hoping to convey with this next musical phase?
I want to share things that I've learnt over this period. To let people know that they are not alone in these emotions. We’ve felt and seen so much. We're all hurting; we're all feeling the same emotions. I understand now more than ever that people feel alone in navigating these. I want people to know they’re in company.
I’ve noticed that love is quite a central theme in your music. How would you describe the feeling of 'falling in love' visually?
It would probably be an art installation: a giant mirror and that would be it. I don't think people should ever ‘fall’ in love. You should stand in it. 'Falling' sounds erratic and out of control. You should choose love. I choose this space as long as the space serves me, as long as it makes me feel seen and equal. If that changes, I will bounce. Falling in love is choosing yourself; choosing what makes you happy. If a person happens to make you feel happy, be there. If they don't make you feel happy, try again. And if that doesn't work, choose yourself. You will always be in love if you choose yourself. You'll never have to fall into it because you’re already there.
Putting music aside for a moment, who is the man behind the music?
I'm here. I'm alive - for now. I’m a son. I’m a friend. I’m a traveller. I fuck up sometimes. I'm trying, above all else. I'm always trying to be better.
What makes you happy?
I think making other people happy makes me happy. I’m the happiest when I feel my life means something because I'm helping. I have a very strong sense of duty and being of service is my love language, so I feel the most seen when I'm of service to my loved ones. It’s cool, but I do need to learn how to be happy when I'm not doing that too.
What saddens or angers you?
Because of the way my mind works, I feel anything can be fixed. I feel everything's a misunderstanding. I don't think people are inherently evil or wicked, I think people are misunderstood. The reality is that if you upset me enough, I'll just kick you in your chest. It's hard for me to be angry.
I think 2020 has made me sad - seeing people lose their loved ones and jobs. I feel sadness for people, but not much makes me sad, personally. I also live a very privileged life, so it's easy for me to say these things.
What's your first significant music memory?
When I was in Nigeria, we lived in a complex and I remember walking up the stairs one time and hearing a music video that was playing on my neighbours’ TV. It was two black guys in suits and they were on stage. It was like a music performance video. There were girls trying to hold their hands. That melody stayed in my head. I must have been about 10 at the time when I heard the song, and for the life of me, I could never find it. I also didn't have any way to find it. When I was about 16 though, YouTube came into play and I went in one time and there it was. I saw that same song and it was All My Life by K-Ci & Jojo. One of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard and I never forgot it. I only heard it for a split second back then, but as soon as I saw the visuals and heard the melody, I knew it was the song I’d been searching for. It found me really.
How was it to move from Nigeria to Birmingham when you were 13? That must have been a big move.
It's probably not as bad as it could have been because I moved with my whole family and my god family. There are four kids in my family and three kids in my god family. We got houses next to each other in Birmingham. Then another family that we knew moved as well. We basically moved our whole street over, so it was fine. I also didn't know any better. I was 14 so my mind wasn't processing stuff like it would have if I had moved today. It was simpler times too. There wasn't much to worry about.
Where in the world do you feel most at peace?
I feel most at peace in my home. I'm pretty chill as a person, but I feel the sanest when I'm in my own home.