Tarriona “Tank” Ball is at a picnic table sandwiched between trailers backstage at Shoreline Amphitheater when I sit down to talk to her. She is the frontwoman and namesake of Tank and the Bangas, a band just hitting their stride. They’re in the middle of their first headlining international tour and in February were announced winners of NPR’s 2017 Tiny Desk Contest, huge accomplishments for any band, but especially for this group of New Orleans musicians who met in 2011 at an open mic night.
On this day, she and the band are the opening musical act of ID10T Music Festival & Comic Conival, a new outdoor festival in Mountain View, California. Festivals are nothing new to them, as I am assured Tank and the Bangas are “festival killahs.”
For Tank, there’s something special about performing at an outdoor festival. “The energy!” she explains. “You don’t have to make people get up out their seats like you have to do when it’s inside.” I can admit there is a different vibe in the open air compared to a dimly lit concert venue, but credit where credit is due. When I ask how she will choose the setlist for the day, Tank says her plan is to “Just him ‘em hard” and keep the energy up.
Tank and the Bangas are electric. They create a sound better described by the audience’s reaction to it than by standard music genres. What has been called soul, funk, trap, rock and jazz can be felt oozing from your body through the scoop of your hips and the weightless lift of your arms. Tank puts it best: “We have this really big sound [that] can’t be contained.” It’s too large both for venues and the beating hearts of the audience.
Their big sound, indefinable as it may be, is created by a collection of skillful musicians backing up Tank: Joshua Johnson (drums), Norman Spence (keyboards, bass), Merell Burkett (keyboards) and Albert Allenback (flute). Other musicians, like Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph (vocals), are featured on certain tracks to add even more depth. At ID10T Fest, the massive stage somehow looks crowded by Tank and the Bangas’ 10 band members.
Tank and the Bangas’ first studio album, Think Tank, combines the power of their live set with nuanced melodies and insightful storytelling. The mood oscillates from dreamy to playful to romantic, but what is consistent throughout is a purposeful approach to instrumentation layered under Tank’s poetry. The band uses songs “Oh Heart” and “Ripperton Love” to explore the tingly sensations of love, while “Boxes and Squares” and “The Ass” serve a happy reminder why I’m single. A couple tracks on the album distinctly demonstrate Tank’s writing chops: “Human,” in which she jams about facts and figures that affirm the brilliant beauty of our bodies, and “Hands,” which paints vivid portraits of couples through the details of their hands.
Think Tank was named as a nod to the collaborative nature of the band, as opposed to being a reference to the lead singer one might expect. Nothing demonstrates this magical collaboration more astutely than “Quick,” their Tiny Desk Contest submission. The single-shot video features a delightfully expressive Tank closely encircled by her band and their instruments. Everyone onscreen plays off of each other, giving the song an organic quality. “It goes a lot of places,” Tank says of their sound, “because we love so much music. But it fits, it goes together so well, because it’s natural. It’s not something you’re trying to do.”
Beating out 6,000 other bands in the Tiny Desk Contest has opened a lot of doors. “They kept telling us ‘your life is about to change,’” Tank says.“We didn’t know, like, it’s really about to change.” And so it has. The band is on tour now, affecting audiences all over North America (and Ireland!) with their New Orleans sound and energy.
Through rising success, Tank is able to stay grounded with the support of her manager and friends. In order to preserve her voice, the singer drinks alkaline water and has given up guilty pleasures like fried chicken and ice cream, which she admits makes her a little sad. “God gave me a gift and I have to take care of it, because I asked for it! I wanted to sing like all my sisters. They could sing, but I only could write. So I practiced every day and it just came to me. I have to take care of it.”
It shows. Tank’s voice is a supernatural force. She fluctuates with ease from soulful singing to sounding like a Disney Princess to laying down rhymes somewhere between scat and rap. Oftentimes, these changes occur during a single verse. Tank draws inspiration from the Spice Girls, Ingrid Michaelson, Sara Bareilles and Donny Hathaway, because they “define themselves. Not by skin color, not by what they grew up around, but by what they love the most. And that was music.” Tank and the Bangas inspire in the same way, the lyrics forming a playbook on falling in love, growing up and accepting your true self.
Before the Bangas, Tank was known around New Orleans for her slam poetry. When asked about the influence of other art forms on her music, she references Studio Be, a 35,000-sq. ft. NOLA warehouse that showcases the work of visual artist Brandon “Bmike” Odums alongside other collaborators. Bmike’s first solo show, “Ephemeral Eternal,” features graffiti paintings and murals, one of which enshrines Tank in a confident and contemplative pose wearing a shirt that reads “I AM MY ANCESTORS’ WILDEST DREAMS.” Tank is never one to lack inspiration, and words like that move her to “write a million poems and sing a thousand songs.”
When I first arrived backstage for the interview, my heart was pounding. I had just sprinted over, convincing not one but two guards I was indeed allowed to be there, and I was flustered.
With the interview finished, I walk away feeling even better than I did after that initial hug because Tank is an authentic person with hard-earned talent. She speaks humbly with genuine excitement when talking about her music because she loves it, and her fans love it, too. While Tank and the Bangas’ music may be hard to pin down, it does not elude description. It’s visceral, collaborative, inspired. The same can be said of New Orleans.
For more information, check out Tank and the Bangas on Facebook.
Header photo by Gus Bennett Jr.