"I don’t think I ever thought it would get this far," says Jacob Banks, who is sat talking to Gigwise backstage at KOKO ahead of his second sold out London show in a month, and at the end of a 36-date world tour. He’s also just been for a meeting with the Grammys, made his debut US television appearance on Jimmy Fallon, and is one of the main UK acts announced for Coachella; 2017’s been good to Jacob Banks.
Of the Grammy’s meeting the singer says: "This was never a dream, I can’t even pretend like it was. This was never on the table for me. I just wanted to make music. My mentality is still small town boy from Nigeria. Maybe if I grew up in London and knew about these venues etc it would be a dream."
Such interest from the upper echelons in our industry – the details of which he keeps close to his chest - is remarkable for an artist who hasn’t even put out a debut album yet, and indication of a prosperous future.
But it’s unsurprising given strength of the songs. He’s struck a fine balance, gracing our airwaves with a beautifully woven array of modern rock and indie pop references with classic soul on his latest EP – hits ‘Unholy War’ and ‘Chainsmoking’ are particularly intoxicating.
Current label Interscope, who became interested after hearing Banks’ Paradox EP, had the foresight to realise these cuts would be loved by millions; and without wanting to fiddle about with them, Banks signed to them opposed to any other major who was knocking.
“I was like these are the songs – ‘I had most of the EP [The Boy Who Cried Freedom - his latest EP] written. It just spoke for itself. They wanted to play with all of what I had already made. It’s a lot of faith. It made me feel like this will work. They like me for me.”
By contrast, his first label, Atlantic, fixated on one variable in his art – his voice – which resulted in a clash of visions. Blatantly, his voice is arresting and the most immediately grabbing thing – there truly are few UK vocalists touring this century with as much talent - but it wasn’t a conducive move.
“Sometimes people like you for your voice which is not you,” he says whilst recalling the catalyst for him asking to leave the label that he signed to over two years ago. “So they look at an artist and go yeah you have a nice voice and want to help you use that voice. They don’t like the artist in you. They will put that voice in anything because it will probably work […] They wanted me to be a cliché popstar.”
Banks has embraced his artistic freedom, buyoyed by the encouraging new A&R team and gives off the air of a man teeming with restless, creative impluses; he's inspired, and receptive in all the ways needed to be the best he can be.
Some of the creative routines he has include writing beautiful phrases he hears from ordinary, unassuming people around him, writing poems as soon as he wakes from a dream; and crafting songs according to colour. Of working in terms of colour he says: “I would create a colour chart so each song has to represent a colour. So in the end it has to a spectrum of colour. I don’t like to have too much of the same colour. Once I tick off a colour I keep going.”
Hearing such prolific activity reflects is indicative of his irreprssible urge to create at the moment, which is encouraging ahead of the release of his which is due out in 2018. “I want this album to keep people company,” he says, sensitively. We have no doubt he’ll achieve that.
Such standards also translate on stage – the singer has a Grammy-level backing band, who seems to have a strong social bond; these aren’t session bots dropped in. Banks encourages his bassist and guitarist/keyboardist to rock out to the most emphatic moments and improvise away from the original takes. His drummer has a nonchalant cool about him, never missing a beat. It’s a titanic sound that they muster with Banks’ soul-bearing vocal performance, delivered with the intent that each show could be his last.
Emphasising how much they care and respect each other as band mates, Banks tells us that they travel across the Atlantic for band practice. “It’s expensive” he says of the decision he made to have two members who live in LA. “But we make it work. Either they come over or we go there.”
With so much of the success spiralling in the US it also makes quite a lot of sense, though. And they formed in an organic way, which seems true to the roots of someone averse to the cliché manufactured pop star. “I met them on a random one in LA, “ he says of his US band mates.
Before touring the world Banks was a big part of the open mic and small gig scene in East London, moving over by himself after graduating from university in Coventry.
Was this a lonely journey?" I‘ve always been very much independent as opposed to loner; perhaps it’s kind of the same thing” he says. “They do say lonely are the brave, success is a lonely road. There are compromises I say. You have to… Even when I started playing the guitar it was because I had a guitarist who took forever to come to anything. I thought ‘fuck it I’ll learn myself’. You tend to start out shit so people don’t care so you have to be your only fan, you’re your only supporter, and you have to keep going. You will travel alone for some time by yourself."
The more solitary moments appear to be more confined to his uni days. It seems he opted to go to London when he’d got the hang of it – and what was going to be a day trip turned into a new home. Banks' first gig in London was put on by Something for Sunday in Shoreditch and gig offers snowballed from there with promoters evidently blown away by this rare talent.
"I just never left. That’s genuinely how I got to London. The couple who booked me for the [first] gig are now my best friends. I just stayed."
By playing whatever nights he could and as regularly as he could the singer has grafted his way to the top, and he seems proud of having done so rather than the quick fix to success that shows like X Factor champion. The most moved he is in our entire conversation is when he takes a moment to reflect on what headlining KOKO in London means to him: "This one’s special to me. I earned my perks here. I was out here sleeping on my friends couch. Playing here is second to only Birmingham,” he says. Birmingham is where he moved from Nigeria when he was 13.
The singer also has so much respect for the fans eagerly awaiting to see him tonight, and is healthily insecure about his blossoming following: “It’s the only thing I think people listening to music and putting their hand in their pocket to choose to spend time with you is a humbling feeling. Money you can get back; time not so much. So I always feel like, ‘am I deserving of your time?’ Perhaps this insecurity stems back to his childhood and the smalltown mentality he was talking about inheriting from his Nigerian upbringing.
Asked about the musical landscape of his birth country, Banks is knowledgeable and passionate: “It’ so eclectic. The country has sub genre’s of every genre as well as its own. There’s African jazz / African hip-hop / Afrobeats, amongst Afrobeats there’s Jùjú, which is all very similar and very different at the same time. Then you have artists like Ebo Taylor, a synth artist from back in the 80s.
An influence that Banks holds dear is an artist named “Asa. She would sing a western sound in a different language and texture. You can hear that African in what she’s doing. It’s very familiar even if you don’t understand what she’s saying.”
Banks would go and visit his grandmother in the countryside, he speaks about the different style he heard out there: "My dad’s from a village and we used to see my grandma all the time. It’s more masquerades and parade music. It’s more Brazilian festival–esque sounds. It’s called Bata. You would see someone playing a drum and someone dancing to the drum and they’re very tied in, always knowing what the drummer's going to do. It’s like a battle between the dancer and the drummer. So the drummer would play something and the dancer would mirror what the drummer had done.”
This rich knowledge of music is indicative of someone passionate about music his entire life even if he didn’t start playing his own music until he was 20. He’s now 26: “I’m a listener first then an artist. If I had to choose between ever being able to listen to music for the rest of my life or make music for the rest of my life I would choose listen."
Emphasising his passion, his total immersion in music he adds: “On tour we used to play a game it’s like X-Factor everyone would sit around the table and we’d pass the aux lead around. You had to get six yes’ to move on to the next around. Everyone has a minute to choose a song that’s already saved on your playlist - so you can’t stream something - you play it and people tell thoughts on choice. It’s just judging other people’s music taste.”
Such careful listening is definitely one of the key reasons there’s such an exciting sound so far with the existing EP’s and - very likely - on his forthcoming album, which he says ”is more introspective” and “not as aggressive as the EP. It’s very personal. Very honest. It’s more like a book of short poems.”
Banks’ stage time is nearing and we wrap up the interview. He’s unhurried, gracious and takes time to ensure Gigwise are about for the show in a couple of hours, which turns out to be one of the best live shows of the year – and adds to the impression we’re only just seeing the start of something great. He may not have had the most straight-forward route to getting his debut album out, but it seems that holding off to get everything right sonically and creatively has been a very healthy decision. You can be rest assured what he puts out is exactly the best representation of who he is deep down. 2018 will be a big, big year for the impressive newcomer that is Jacob Banks.