Kota Banks on embracing pop music, self love and NLV Records
As the rigid rules of genre continue to dissolve, we continue to see artists from seemingly different worlds come together to create something utterly unique. Their mutual determination to not be defined or categorised means the drive to do something new and unheard of is stronger than ever, and as fans, it’s more exciting now than ever as we enjoy the results. Because of this, Australia is currently having a pop moment: forward thinking, progressive and refreshing artists are joining forces and delivering a new kind of pop, one that rejects the manufactured, highly processed approach and instead opts for raw and real emotion while maintaining the pop sensibilities at heart, and one artist that is absolutely at the forefront of this moment is KOTA BANKS.
Having been behind the scene for a couple of years now as part of the pop machine, writing songs for others, real name Jess Porfiri is ready to see the world through her own eyes, and more importantly, is ready for the world to see her. Having released a couple of songs either in her own right or collaborating, she found her home in the open arms of the NLV Records family, with NINA LAS VEGAS leading the charge and SWICK on production duties. This signing may have come as somewhat of a surprise when it was first announced in 2017, with Banks‘ pop stylings an interesting addition to the progressive, dance-oriented label, but all it took was one listen to ‘Holiday’ for it to make sense. Merging Kota Banks‘ lyricism and pop roots with Swick‘s experimental sound design was a match made in musical heaven, and second single ‘Zoom’ only confirmed this further.
Now, with the final results of the past nine months of working together now out in the world in the form of PRIZE, Kota Banks‘ debut mixtape, it’s so clearly evident that Kota Banks represents a new evolution of pop and dance music in this country’s music industry, and she’s just the shake up it needs. Across ten songs, she brings forth her own anthems not just for fans, but for herself as well. Intentionally straying from the pop “rules”, she remains true to herself while perfectly complementing Swick‘s left-field production. From anti-love songs to self love anthems, owning her heritage and shedding old friends and her old life, PRIZE is an ambitious, dazzling project that’s indicative not just of how brilliant Kota Banks is, but how ahead of the curve the NLV Records crew really is. Having just wrapped up a national support slot on the enormous WHAT SO NOT album tour last weekend, we chatted to Porfiri to talk all about self-empowerment, why pop is so important and what’s still to come.
Congratulations on PRIZE! How has everything been going since it was released?
Thank you! It’s been going really well actually. I was super nervous about putting it out, but it’s only been the weekend and it just hit 100K streams which is sick. I’m really happy!
This has been in the works for a while, right? You’ve been working with Swick for a bit of time on this one.
We’ve been working on it since mid-last year so I guess, 8 or 9 months.
Wow, and now it’s out in the world! I’m sure it’s been a bit of an emotional time.
It’s been crazy because I’ve been on tour as well, so I haven’t really been able to party that much which would’ve been ideal. It’s been really good, it was a huge day on release day because we played the Hordern Pavillion in Sydney supporting What So Not. It was really cool having a hometown show on the day it came out. That was amazing.
That What So Not tour looked enormous – how was that experience for you?
It was the best tour I’ve ever been on. The experience was especially sick because not only were the crowds huge and the venues were amazing, but the crew was sick as well. You never know what to expect when you’re dealing with such big artists, and What So Not is huge, obviously. His whole crew was super dope and friendly and it was such a nice environment. I’ve kind of been spoilt actually, we got dressing rooms, I got a rider, now I don’t know what to do for the next tour!
You’re gonna play your own shows and they’ll just be like, “Here’s a bottle of water, set yourself up.”
[Laughs] Exactly! I am going on tour though in September and I can’t wait.
I know! I can’t wait! Can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve developed your live show, going from not playing many shows to now having the mixtape out? You’ve obviously been rehearsing a lot!
We just wanted to keep it really simple and sweet for the first set of live shows, so it’s just me and a DJ. I think for the tour, we might work on some really cool transitions. I want to get some string sections going and make it really epic. But pretty much, I just have the live track mastered and focussed more on my vocals and how I can move and express the songs physically. The songs are very club-based or “club-sounding”, so I think it would sound weird to have live drums when the drums are more electronic anyway.
The whole mixtape feels really like such a powerful statement from you. Has it been liberating for you to have such a self-assured release out? It’s all about self-empowerment and girl power – I love it so much!
Thank you! Sometimes I write these songs when I’m feeling the opposite way and I need that kind of song to get me through the day and push me through anything I don’t think I would be able to do. I used to get really nervous performing live, so I thought if I had the opportunity to make a mixtape, I would want to make it with songs that would empower me to get up on stage and do my thing and be confident and fearless. Also, just from my experience, I wanted my first piece of work to reflect my experiences as a woman in her 20s and the struggle to be respected as a woman and coming to grips with yourself and all these things. I feel like it’s the perfect combination of all my emotions in one project, so I’m so happy that it’s out.
It’s a pop release but it’s really quite “unconventional,” for lack of a better word. It’s different to what people would automatically think of when they think of pop, which I think is really awesome. The way pop is seen is definitely changing. When you came into our radio show a few weeks ago, you spoke about how it’s been freeing for you to be able to write your own music rather than when you were writing for other people – do you think that liberation has allowed you to embrace those themes a lot more?
It just made me so free to experiment with concepts. You can always find a way to insert emotion into whatever song you’re writing, even if it’s for another person, but with this mixtape I feel like I got to paint with all the colours of the rainbow. There’s a song called ‘Toy’, and it’s about a dream I had where all my exes were stringed puppets, it was really wild. That’s the kind of stuff you never get to talk about through someone else’s song so explicitly, so I really got to go into this other world and go crazy. It’s about expressing stuff hyperbolically as well, working with lots of different colours and being weird. There’s a song I really wanted to put on the mixtape but it didn’t end up on there – I think it might end up on the album.
Good to know there’s more stuff coming!
Yeah! It’s like the quintessential example of just being ridiculous. Like you said, Danny/Swick is so experimental with his sounds and he really loves to push the boundaries of pop and make it sonically avant garde, so I felt the need to push myself lyrically and melodically to work with that.
Totally, even with a song ‘I’m It’ -which is my favourite song on the mixtape- you don’t really hear many songs that vibe of being so about, “Yeah, I’m the shit.” It’s going to become my morning mantra, I swear! Can you tell me a bit about that song and how it came to be?
The day we had to turn in the mixtape, that wasn’t actually written. I wrote it on the day we had to turn it in because I just kept listening over and over again, and I felt it was missing this really explicit, non-apologetic anthem about being self confident and pushing through barriers. I was feeling like shit to be honest, I was having one of those days where I wasn’t super confident and it just came from, you know the self talk or pep talk you have with yourself to get you geed up for something? That song is like my pep talk to myself. I had to fight really had for it to be on the mixtape, the label loved it but we were at nine songs and that’s a lot of songs for a person who has never put out an album before! I really had to push them. They trusted me because I have the best label in the world. That’s why I signed with an indie label as well because you have the freedom and artistic control. I’m glad it’s your favourite! People like that one, I didn’t know if it was too narcissistic and arrogant but it really comes from a place of wanting to convey that and share that emotion with other people.
No way! When I first heard it, I was walking down the street and by the end I could feel myself strutting!
Yes girl, do your thing!
Back to the NLV crew – they’re one of the most forward thinking crews in Australia at the moment and with you involved, it pushes it even further. I feel like they’re writing their own rules when it comes to music coming out of Australia, how has that independence from them aided your work and your approach to your music?
Absolutely. The fact they’re an indie label is instrumental to any kind of success we’ve had thus far. We’ve been able to create a fusion of these two different worlds: there’s the club scene and the avant garde, futuristic world they know so well and I’ve always had such a huge pop sensibility in my music and lyrics. I just write pop songs, I grew up listening to pop, I love pop music so the fact that we’re able to meet in the middle and bring our strengths together has been what’s been able to push us forward. Even just putting a mixtape out, I think we might be the first pop act in Australia to do something like this. We wanted to keep it real and keep it not so manufactured and a lot of the songs on the mixtape have just been recorded one time for the vocals. We didn’t go to a professional studio after the demos to re-record them, we wanted to keep it real and keep the emotion in it and that’s not something that would happen on a major label. I don’t even think they’d release a mixtape like this, to be honest.
It’s interesting you say that because with pop, it can be so manufactured and expertly put together where you can do 16 takes of a vocal track, so it’s really cool that you did the one take to keep the rawness and the realness in there. Australia is definitely having a “pop moment” right now, I think there’s something really exciting about it. Do you think it’s because pop artists are now saying more and more, “Fuck it, I’m just going to do what I want,” and that’s why we’re hearing these different sounds now?
Totally. I think also because there are platforms like Spotify and iTunes now where you can just put your own stuff out. Before, I feel like pop music always came from major labels, and no shade to the majors- I love them and work with them all the time, but I think there’s a different vibe because people have reclaimed their voice. Pop music is manufactured, but there’s so much that’s good about it. When I was growing up, I would analyse all the number one hits. I have pages in my room of analysis of major pop songs, so I feel like the manufacturing can be cool because it can sometimes maximise emotion and express emotion and what not, but I definitely agree Australia is having a huge pop moment. So many of my peers, I feel like we’re all coming up together which is really exciting. There’s so much different pop coming out, shout out to my friend CXLOE and VERA, and so many people right now. It’s all so different, it’s a really cool moment.
It’s awesome! Looking forward now, you’ve already kicked some major goals over the past 12 months. Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to for the rest of 2018?
I’m really excited for the tour, I want to make it something really memorable and I want to connect with all the people. There’s been so many really nice messages about the mixtape and I want to see these people face to face and connect and have fun with them at a live show. I also just want to see how this mixtape goes. I’m maybe five songs deep into the album already, so maybe I might have that done by the end of the year. So the tour, seeing how the mixtape goes and finishing the album are my main three goals.
PRIZE is out now via NLV RECORDS. Catch KOTA BANKS at the below dates:
PRIZE Tour Dates
Tuesday September 4 – Friday September 7 – BigSound, Brisbane
Friday September 7 – Rocket Bar, Adelaide – tix HERE
Friday September 14 – Workers Club, Melbourne – tix HERE
Saturday 15 September – OAF Gallery, Sydney – tix HERE
Image: Tiff Williams
Interview by Emma Jones