As the vocalist and bandleader of New Orleans’s Tank and the Bangas, Tarriona “Tank” Ball is proud to carry on a tradition of musical quality — even if the music her group plays is somewhat unexpected. “When people hear we’re from New Orleans, they expect to only hear jazz. A bunch of tubas moving around, you know?” she says.
The Bangas don’t have a tuba, but they do have a big sound fleshed out by keys, sax, and backing vocals. And while they retain several classic elements of their city’s rich musical legacy (in New Orleans, children get their instruments before they can even walk), they produce a fusion of soul and r&b, with Tank’s spoken-word pieces embedded into the tracks.
Their 2013 debut, Thinktank, is sincere and eclectic. Ball’s vocals are strong and versatile — evidence of her childhood in church — and she coasts through sweet melodies and wide-ranging vocal undulations reminiscent of Nicki Minaj’s character voices. She throws gentle shade when reminded of this — “I’ve been doing that before she came out,” she says.
Tomorrow and Friday, Ball and her crew come to Brooklyn to play songs from an upcoming album they’re currently working on. The Voice caught up with the singer to talk improvisation, inspiration, and the force that drives her forward.
Village Voice: On a local talk show a few years ago, you said that writing songs is easier than writing poems because they are not as political. Is this still true?
Tank Ball: It used to be easier till I started writing songs with other people. When you do it alone, it’s fun and it’s easy and you can say whatever you want. You don’t care how people interpret it. But once you start keeping up with your fans, they want to know what you’re talking about. Then you start to write with your band and you start thinking about it a little bit more. You think about what makes sense to people and not only to you, because it’s not just about you. So now poetry is easier to write. Sometimes I miss the days when I didn’t give a damn.
What have you and the band been working on lately?
We have been working on new music, which I’m excited to share because the fans have been so loyal, singing every word. We’ve pulled inspiration from other people’s stage shows and albums coming out right now. Love that RiRi, that Drake. We’re always trying to incorporate those [elements] to excite the fans. Or just try to make things tie in with each other.
You’ve said that your improvisation techniques stem from your church upbringing. Your performance is never the same — even when it’s the same song.
We work for it to be a little different every time. We always feel like we’re going to go somewhere a little different, and I welcome that. As long as everyone else in the band knows where you’re going to go, I welcome you to do that and to have fun. This should be your thing. We’re all flying — just know where you’re going to land. And I’m excited about the journey.
It’s hard to categorize your music. How do you navigate playing so many genres in the group?
It can be challenging, but there’s always someone in the band encouraging someone else. The drummer encourages the pianist. The pianist encourages the bass player — everyone encourages each other when we’re taking on a big challenge in a song. And just the fact that all our roots are in church.
We incorporate different music because we love all kinds of music. Why should we shy away from it? It can be hard when people ask you what kind of music you play, but I just say it’s “feel good” music.
Which instrumentalist fuels you the most when you’re performing the spoken-word sections of your songs?
I really love the guitar. You can do a whole show with the guitar and people will still be touched. I love the strings and the sounds they produce. How it makes people feel. That’s the instrument that does it for me. It’s just beautiful.
There’s a YouTube comment on one of your videos from a person who claims that when she closes her eyes and hears your voice, it reminds her of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughan. You’ve gotten comparisons to Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, too.
People used to tell me I reminded them of Jill Scott and I never used to listen to her music so I never really [got] the correlation. Erykah Badu — I could see the correlation, but my natural voice sounds like no one that I can think of. It’s just a strong, deep alto. All my fake voices remind people of other artists, but my favorite comment is when I remind them of no one.
Tank and the Bangas play June 9 at Rockwood Music Hall and June 10 at Sofar Sounds.