It may be hasty to say, but 26-year-old British-Nigerian singer-songwriter Jacob Banks has the sort of voice that could potentially define a generation. By turns soulful and bluesy, other times distinctly fresh and pop-facing, Banks’ sonorous, silk-lined croonings are held aloft by poignant songwriting and an emotive delivery that few other performers can touch. Though the singer released his first EP, Monologue, in 2012, it was only last year he finally signed with a major label. He followed up the move with his latest EP, The Boy Who Cried Freedom, which came as a primer to his first American tour, with his most recent release coming in the form of the single "Unknown (To You)."
Since then, he’s been on a non-stop journey across America and the rest of the world, and for good reason - Banks’ heady, contemporized soul music hits the sweet spot between history and progression. He can moan and wail like a distant relative of Otis Redding and in the next breath flip the script, offering up witty observances on modern love and culture with the same smooth delivery as one of his songwriting idols, John Mayer. Songs like “Photograph,” which appears on The Boy Who Cried Freedom EP reveal this innate talent for fusing succinct lyricism with powerhouse vocals.
“We used to have it all,” Banks opens over a slick guitar riff, “like Chicago Bulls in ‘93, then came that Civil War, now texting you is like a battlefield.” In an age where “ghosting” has become a full-on thing and relationships live and die by the keystroke of an iPhone, it’s the sort of observation that makes Banks’ music relatable. That, coupled with the stellar reviews his stateside shows are racking up, indicate by all accounts, 2018 will be the year of Jacob Banks.
What does youth mean to you?
I think youth is an energy. Youth is staying in touch with the now.
How does youth manifest in your music? It manages to look backwards while still being progressive.
I think it's important to always pay homage to the things before you, but you might compete with them, and you might outdo them. I just accept something for whatever it is, try to innovate on old ideas, and take the time to build on what others have done. I want to speak to the now.
What is your first memory of soul music?
One of my earliest memories of soul music moving me was watching The Book of Eli with Denzel Washington. There's a scene where he's sad and alone - there's a song that plays in the background. It's Al Green, “How You Can Mend A Broken Heart.” That was one of the first moments that soul music really moved me.
Who are some newer artists who’ve influenced you?
I adore Frank Ocean. I love Kehlani, and Daniel Caesar. I think that's it.
How did your Nigerian background influence your taste in music?
I think my Nigerian background affects how I perceive tempo. I like more tribal energies as opposed to a full dancefloor environment. So I like to have stuff that has more rhythm as opposed to tempo. That side of me really shows in more uptempo songs like “Monster.” I think I always go back to just the essence of that tribal sound.
You’ve said that you don't come from a musical family. Where did the majority of your exposure occur?
A lot of it just came from watching TV. I find most of my earliest memories of music are always tied to a film that I saw, or especially Disney movies.
One of the most memorable things about your music is your voice and the poignancy of your lyrics. How do you approach songwriting?
I let the music lead the way because I see myself as a vessel. I'm always trying to remember something and trying to create something. So I think music always triggers a memory and I try to document and give an accurate description of what I'm feeling in a moment in the nicest way possible.
What about writing TV jingles and the other advertorial stuff you’ve done? Did that help hone those skills?
I do that mainly because it just triggers a different side of my brain. I think I'm not thinking too much about heavy truths all the time. I can be playful. I think it's important to engage all aspects of your brain. These things are important, because otherwise I'd just be mad depressed all the time. I'd just be moaning about shit.
There is a really cinematic feel to songs like “Unholy War,” for instance. What were some of the inspirations behind that soulful sound?
I just write and watch film scenes and music videos that I love. I know what I want to say, so I find a music video that mirrors that energy and kind of map out the music to that visual. In “Unholy War,” more than anything I was trying to paint a feeling, the feeling and essence of oppression. So, there was more in that approach than just how I can create a song sonically, I wanted to create something outside of the words. I wanted to create a visual that sounds like what I'm talking about.
You said that you first bought a guitar because you liked how it looked. What kept you coming back after that?
How it felt. I think the guitar was the first time I got to fully express myself for once in all my life. That was addictive to me. I never had an outlet before.
Let’s talk about The Boy Who Cried Freedom. What was going in your life during the creation of that EP?
When I was making the EP, I was looking to be free of the most minuscule things. In my personal life, I also found myself asking the same questions. I wanted to be free of labels. I wanted to be free to express myself how I wanted, as opposed to be pigeonholed. I wanted to speak in many voices for many people.
What can we expect from the forthcoming album?
I think this album is heavily influenced by just looking back into life, looking at what my taste is, and everything that makes me. This album is a massive reflection of who I am as a person and things that make me tick, my background, being African, and my current life. And being in the worst state, all these things meshing together. I wanted to share those two aspects at the same time.
I think you can expect a journey of emotions. It's not - I'm not speaking on the same thing over and over again. I take myself through a bunch of emotions from as young as I can remember until now. You just expect to hear many layers of myself, and me just being honest through all these emotions.
For more of our interviews, read our cover story from the new issue of 'Highsnobiety' Magainze with the incomparable Tinashe right here.