[Written by Ellen Grant]
[Image Credit: Grace Rivera @__gracerivera]
Jacob Banks is, in his own words, a storyteller. At just 27, he exudes a self-assured wisdom that belies his years. He was the first unsigned artist to perform in Radio 1’s Live Lounge, and has already toured with Emeli Sandé, Sam Smith, and Alicia Keys – but now he is a headline name in his own right.
Banks’ newly released debut album, Village, is based on the proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and weaves a largely autobiographical narrative. He spent his childhood in Nigeria, moving to Birmingham at 13. Refusing to be pigeonholed into one genre, Village is an album which celebrates the myriad influences that have made Banks into the artist that he is today.
GUM chatted to Banks between the European and UK legs of his world tour, finding him to be just as thoughtful as his musical offerings would suggest.
On this tour, you’re performing your debut album ‘Village’. Can you tell us a little bit more about the background behind it?
I wanted to celebrate my tastes and my influences. Growing up, I felt I always had to identify with one or the other, either be African or be British, and as time went on I realised that actually I was both. I try to always wear that proudly across my music and across everything, really.
You know, we are so many things as human beings, we can be so many things. We can be lovers, we can be siblings, we can be parents, we can be religious…we identify with so many different things and I just wanted to make an album that celebrated that because I am so many things, just like everybody else. Those two things are part of my story and I wanted to tell the whole story, not just a small speck of it.
On this album, you’ve experimented with different and sometimes unexpected genres. Did you go into it the album knowing you wanted to experiment, or did things just evolve during the process?
It just came from me trying to stay human and stay true to what I listen to. I don’t just listen to soul, I don’t just listen to hip hop, I listen to a whole bunch of things, so when making the album I wanted to take a more fluid approach that reflects my diverse tastes.
How easy do you find the song writing process? Your songs are very personal and very emotive – is it a daunting process revealing so much of yourself, or is it cathartic in a way?
For this album, I had to unhinge myself a lot and really learn about myself. The whole idea of the album was to present myself and present my tastes, so that meant I had to really figure out myself and figure out my loves, and where I draw my lines and whatever. But in general, writing comes pretty easily to me. Not because the actual act is easy, but I think I understand that some days it will come and some days it won’t, and I’ve made peace with that fact. I take things at face value, so it comes easy to me because I understand that it’s not easy. If that makes any sense.
Did you go into the album knowing that you wanted to collaborate with other artists? (Village features collaborations with Seinabo Sey, NANA and Bibi Bourelly, as well as production from Malay, Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder).
No, not at all. I think as an artist we often sound so intellectual after the fact, but when you’re doing it, you’re just doing it. You don’t really know what is going to happen, the story just kind of tells itself. I’d love to work with Frank Ocean in the future though.
The album features a re-recorded version of the previously released ‘Unknown (To You)’. What made you want to re-record that song?
It was just to know that I was putting my best foot forward. When I first did it, I wasn’t in a space that was allowing me to thrive to the best of my abilities. I’ve met people who prefer the older version, and some who prefer the newer one, but the joy is that now you have both, you can choose which one is for you. But the second one is for me and I just wanted to feel like I gave all I have to give.
Where does the album artwork come from?
It’s a painting that I own, by an artist called Alex Gardner (https://www.instagram.com/artposer/). When I was trying to find artwork for the album, I couldn’t find anything that embodied what I was trying to say well enough, and then I saw the artwork and I felt like it told the story of the album better than a picture of my face or anything would.
Other than Village, you’ve also recently worked on a few songs for the Creed II soundtrack. How did that come about? What was it like to feature on a song with A$AP Rocky?
For me, it’s important to flex my brain in different ways. Working on an album means trying to get out my interpretation, whereas working on a film means figuring out what best serves the film. You really have to put yourself aside and work towards what suits the image best. It’s something I’ve always loved, you know. My earliest memories of music are attached to films and Disney cartoons, so films and songs have always been very synonymous to me. It was dope, super dope. It’s a privilege getting to create something for a film, and then to have A$AP on there, that was pretty special.
Your music videos always have a big visual impact – how much of an input do you have with them?
I write all my own music videos and I direct them, or co-direct them with all my friends. It’s fun, it’s another part of the story. It’s just another extension of being a storyteller – I never really call myself an artist or a musician, I identify much more with being a storyteller.
How has the tour gone so far? Do you enjoy the process of touring?
It’s good man, it’s always fun. It’s a very simple process really. You’re just on a bus with people that you care about – it’s pretty fun. I think my favourite thing about touring is the memories. It’s a very special thing to get to see the world with your closest friends, and get to do what you love.
These days it’s so easy for people to access your music on Spotify or wherever, so for them to actually spend money to come and see you must be pretty rewarding.
Yeah, I mean these days everything is pretty much force fed, or streamed, or Youtubed… everything is kind of in your face and you can pick and choose when you want, but I think coming to a show is a sole decision of your choosing to be there.
Before pursuing a career in music, you did a civil engineering degree. How did your parents feel about you leaving that more traditional path?
Ha, I didn’t really tell them, to be fair. I just think, when you’re trying to sell someone a dream the best thing is just to go out and just show them, as opposed to trying to convince them of what is inside your head. That is never going to be productive for me. I believe in asking for forgiveness instead of permission – consent though, obviously. But yeah, I believe just go out and do it, just go out and chase your dream, you don’t have to explain yourself.
You’ve spoken about your admiration for Kanye West, and then your disappointment at his recent behaviour and statements. As someone who puts so much of himself into his music, do you think the artist can be separated from the art, or are the two too intertwined?
Ah, it’s difficult, man. Logically speaking, I think yes, but, it’s hard. I find it hard to listen to Kanye right now, but I would never take away from his legacy. He is still one of the geniuses of music, if that makes sense. He still is, and he still will be, but as of right now, me and him are not talking.
I think a lot of people feel the same. To end on a lighter note – your hat is very much part of your look. Where did that come from? How many colours do you have?
It actually came from just being cold, it was just to keep me warm! I have a few dotted about, but I only ever wear the black one now. I used to wear all sorts of interesting colours but now I just go with the black one. We sell them for merch as well, which is a really clever way to own lots of beanies for myself, so I just swap them out day to day.
‘Village’ is out on now on all platforms. Tickets for Jacob Banks’ Glasgow show at St. Luke’s on the 10th December are still available at http://www.mrjacobbanks.com/tour
[Image Description: a three-quarter portrait of Jacob Banks wearing a white shirt and brown trousers, standing against a brown background.]