Jacob Banks has the tall, broad-shouldered build of a basketball player, which makes sense for a person who once believed he was destined for the glossy wooden floors of an NBA court. When the Nigerian-British singer delivers his textured vocals it's like he's reached deep into his diaphragm and spilled forth a tumble of sonorous, velvety, beautiful noise. His is the type of music that catches you off guard with its honesty, complexity and richness. Though Banks considers himself a soul singer he often pulls from genres ranging from alternative to pop, Afrobeat and rock music, all in an effort to modernize the potent, often emotionally heavy hallmarks of traditional soul music.

Recently the singer - who is also a self-taught guitarist - embarked on his first US tour which will see him making stops across the country at major festivals and events - SXSW is his latest scheduled appearance. Yesterday Banks also dropped a new music video for the single "Unholy War" which will appear on his forthcoming EP, The Boy Who Cried Freedom. Before he set off across the country we chatted about his new EP, John Mayer being a songwriting hero, the Afrobeat invasion, and his silent appreciation of fuckboi culture.

How are you feeling about your first American tour?

I'm looking forward to it. I love to perform and America is so massive. In the UK the longest drive I did from show A to B was like four hours. Here it's like sometimes you have to drive for days so I'm not looking forward to that part of it but I can't wait to go on the stage and share my story with people. I'm excited to see all of the weird parts of America too. I'm excited to go to Portland, I've never been but I've heard great things.

What first got you interested in singing?

I'd heard a song called "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room" by John Mayer. I think I just wanted to be able to play guitar and sing like he did on that song. After that I could never put the guitar down. I learned how to play guitar from YouTube tutorials and from that moment on I never really had a choice. Every time I'd do a show or an open mic - because my friends would ask me to - it was always resulted in an invitation to do another show. Four years on and I'm still talking about music. I honestly haven't had the chance to actually decide if this is what I want to do. I've just always been doing it. I do love it though. It's the happiest I've felt in a long time so I wanted to elongate that as much as possible.

How old were you when you picked up the guitar?

I was 21. I used to play basketball so I was convinced I was going to play basketball until death. I just loved music enough to want to try and sing - at first it was mostly to myself. My friends kind of made the opportunities happen. I never wanted to be an artist which I think helps in the long run. I'm not as attached to Jacob Banks; I'm attached to Jacob. Jacob Banks to me is just an entity, it's a side of what I do but I love music more than I love being an artist.

What's the significance of the title 'The Boy Who Cried Freedom'?

The Boy Who Cried Freedom is essentially me. I've been in a rough situation before with music and I wanted to separate myself from everything and just go and make music that I loved. That's why I made an independent EP about a year ago called The Paradox. I did it all by myself and it was a sort of a war cry of me wanting to make music under the terms I wanted.  The whole EP is a story of a boy (me) who ran away from something so it talks about everything he found on the way. It kind of explores this idea that ignorance is truly bliss and the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know.

What was the boy running from?

Power. He was running from people who want to take his power away from him. I was in a situation where the people I worked with saw me very differently than I saw myself. It wasn't bad per se, just not what I needed. It did give birth to a lot of good music from my side so I'm grateful for the experience. Ultimately it was just people who wanted me to be something else, not because they're evil people but because they just knew what they knew.

What are your musical influences?

I'm fucking with all of those old-age genres. Soul, for instance, is older than time so I always ask myself how I can make it modern. How can we push the needle forward and make it sound like it was made in 2017 as opposed to before Jesus was born. That's what I try to do with my musical influences. I take the three people I look up to just to help nudge me in the right direction.

So that's John Mayer - I look up to him as far as writing songs and being a good musician. I look up to Bob Marley for always telling the truth, and Kanye West for always pushing the needle forward. I essentially try to do what Kanye West did for hip-hop for soul music - pushing the genre forward and asking questions of people. Sometimes you'll hear the pure, bluesy record from me but more often you'll hear that I've introduced some new element. So maybe it's an electronic element, you know, I'll use synths or 808s or something. Soul can be heavy. People only come to soul when their boyfriend left them or something so it's important to lighten it up sometimes.

I will say I put all my money on the fuckbois [Laughs]. I need them to keep breaking hearts so people will buy my album. You know, they're out here making people come to my shows so I'm here for it.

Did your parents play a lot of Nigerian music growing up? If so, how did it influence your sound?

That's actually all I listened to, I don't listen to anything else now either. I think it's just mad unique, like it's not trying to be anything else and it just holds my attention. Plus there's a scene now - there's an Afrobeat scene in the UK especially. These people are incredibly talented and they're just doing what they want to do and it doesn't sound like anything else you've ever heard before.

I grew up on Fela Kuti and another guy called Lagbaja - they're both similar but somehow still the polar opposite of each other. Fela talked about politics and he wanted Nigeria to really rise up in solidarity and Lagbaja was more for the youth, you know? Lagbaja always wore masks so for the whole time he was doing his thing no one knew who he was. Lagbaja means "nobody in particular" in Yoruba. I'm Yoruba - I speak Yorobua and everything. Now there's people like Maleek Berry, Wizkid, Mr Eazi and Sarkodie. Afrobeat is coming for everything. I give it two years. It's coming.

Also see why UK rapper Kojey Radical isn't here for your preconceptions right here

 

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