Jacob Banks Bares His Soul

Jacob Banks Bares His Soul

He was trained as a civil engineer, but Jacob Banks’s hypnotic voice transcends all borders.

He was trained as a civil engineer, but Jacob Banks’s hypnotic voice transcends all borders.

Text: SAMUEL ANDERSON

Jacob Banks didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 21, but some would argue that musicians are born, not trained. Now 27, Banks has accomplished a slew of milestones in a relatively short period: becoming the first unsigned act to ever appear on BBC Radio 1’s “Live Lounge,” scoring a record deal, then breaking the deal and leapfrogging to Interscope. Earlier this month, Banks released his first full-length album Village, featuring the neo-soul smash “Chainsmoking,” and will front an international tour next year.

While his career is now reaching a fever pitch, the smoky pathos in Banks’s voice, apparent on his debut EP The Monologue, lends his stardom a predestined quality—one only heightened by his circuitous path. Born in ‘91 in Nigeria, Banks moved to Birmingham, England in the early 2000s, where he gravitated to the arts. But lacking in role models, he never pursued them seriously, instead enrolling in civil engineering school. “I was just being what I thought was expected of me,” says Banks.

Village (2018), Jacob Banks

It was his best friend at uni who set Banks on a bittersweet path to success. “We met on the basis of [his being] tall and dark, like me; everywhere I went, people would call me by his name and people would call him by mine. Eventually we met and were like, ‘You are me.’” says Banks of the friend. More than lookalikes, the two turned out to be kindred spirits: “I knew I could write on some level, but I always shied away [from it] for whatever reason. [But] he used to push me all the time.”   

When the friend unexpectedly passed away at 21, the loss was Banks’s call to action. “He was the greatest person I’ve ever known,” says Banks. “If his life could be cut short, then I, the average Joe that I am, have no chance.”

Today, this former average Joe is one very self-actualized artist. We talked to the ascendent singer about the problem with award shows, overcoming loss, and his pet cats.

VMAN What’s your state of mind after sharing this album, Village, with the world?

Jacob Banks I feel grateful. I feel privileged to have survived long enough to do an album. I am grateful I never gave up. It’s never been about the glitz for me and I don’t think it ever will be.  

V Was releasing three EPs before a full-length record part of a strategy, or did you face certain challenges in putting an LP out? When you say you are grateful, did the process of putting this album out contribute to that feeling?

JB Coming from where I come from, in the sense of being a small town boy from Birmingham, I don’t think my dreams were ever this big. Secondly, as far as doing all these EPs first, it was easier to stand by. Everything is real when you do an album. It’s like, oh shit, he’s actually trying to be a musician. I’ve just run out of excuses for why I can’t call it an album, so that’s why I am calling this one an album.

V What else made it possible to commit to putting out this LP?

JB I guess I am just at a point in my life where I have more to say. And I think I found my tribe; I have the right people around me. But more than anything I just felt ready. As an artist, you run away from so many things because you are afraid of how it can be perceived.

V How were you afraid people would perceive it?

JB The album being as broad as it, for example. You don’t really hear albums that travel across that so many tastes. It travels across different sounds, and different times, even. You can hear all my influences. But My whole thing is that that’s how we listen to music: nobody listens to just one genre. Nobody is just one thing. We are all so many things.    

V Who makes up your current “tribe”? In what ways did you not have one before?

JB Before, I was signed to a label in the UK. I was with them for two years and we put out maybe one song. We could never agree on anything—we couldn’t even agree on a font. I asked if I could leave, and allowing me to do that was the kindest thing they could have ever done. That leap of faith brought me the right people into my life, which allowed me to believe in myself and to be loved and happy.

V Was a lack of believing in yourself also holding you back, or is that self-doubt just part of the artist’s state?

JB I had a thought about that yesterday. Being an artist is weird, because you’re both adored and criticized at the same time. I was talking to someone about award shows, and I was like yeah, it’s necessary but while I was having that very conversation, I had a thought like, why the fuck do we have award shows? Whose voice is important enough to say, “Actually, this album is better than that album.”? I think one day you just wake up and you’re like, you know what? Fuck this shit. I am going to create my own happiness.

V Is self-worth a theme of music itself? How does this album depict that journey toward self-worth?

JB I definitely talk about self-worth and enjoying the moment in “Slow Up,” for example. Of all the songs on the album that’s the one I am most proud of, because of that message. That song was very much a note to self.

V So how soon after your moved to London at 13 did you consider making music?

JB I started making music at 21 and I am 27 now.

V What happened at 21?

JB I’ve always loved music, but my taste in music wasn’t reflected in anything that I saw, so I guess the option was never presented to me. [But] in the back of your mind, you know it’s an option. I just always put it off. I used to write poetry, so I knew I could write on some level.

My best friend used to push me all the time. And then he passed at 21, and after his passing, that was it for me. It all just made sense. That’s kind of what set me off, unfortunately.

V When did you start making the kind of music you wanted to make?

JB [After leaving my first label] I left London and moved to the countryside, [just] me and my cats. I wrote an EP called The Paradox by myself. After that EP, I got to meet my current management and label. I worked so hard to be in space where my validation doesn’t depend on how the album [performs]. I don’t need the album to keep the lights on in my house. I don’t. I work outside of “Jacob Banks, the artist.” I score films, I write soundtracks, I do so many other things that allow me to create from a pure place. That’s kind of what I always wanted for myself—to not have to play the game.

V What are you looking forward to about touring? Are your cats coming with?

JB Oh no. I wish, but they would get stressed out about everything. The cats—their names are Rizzo and Puppy—are very territorial, so change doesn’t work for them. I’m just looking forward to playing new music, man. Being on a bus with my closest friends, eating good food, linking up with new people… What I do is such a blessing.

Credits: Photo: Grace Rivera

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