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Kota Banks loves herself and that’s not cocky

The Sydney popstar’s new mixtape is an assured arrival

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To say Kota Bank’s recently released mixtape Prize is a breath of fresh air is an understatement. In the over-saturated and repetitive world of mainstream pop music, genre-bending originality and whip-smart lyrical content can be hard to come by. Not so with Kota Banks. Building on the success of her previous singles Zoom and Holiday, years of crafting pop bangers for other artists, the release of Prize rings true that the 23-year-old singer songwriter is carving out a space entirely her own. Signed to independent Australian label NLV Records, Kota counts Prize’s producer Swick and NLV Record’s founder Nina Las Vegas as label mates. NLV Records boasts a roll call of innovative artists who are comfortable with taking risks sonically. In this regard, Kota and her label are tapping into the pop zeitgeist. After years of formulaic chart-toppers, pop music is feeling reinvigorated and the often maligned genre is in the throes of a reinvention, with artists like Charli XCX and her PC music cohort injecting new energy into the field with their futuristic outlook.

Much like Charli XCX, Kota is a true pop aficionado. Raised on a soundtrack of early 2000s Kylie Minogue and the like, she has developed an unparalleled understanding of the genre. It’s this knowledge and her incisive lyricism that truly shines when combined with producer Swick’s avant-garde, experimental sounds. Prize is both an ode to female empowerment and a middle finger to men who, in her words, ‘Do not deserve these women.’ With an assured self-confidence permeating every track, it’s clear that Kota Banks doesn’t have time for anyone’s bullshit; she’s here to make her mark and revitalise the genre. And she’s going to do it exactly how she pleases, one glistening pop hook at a time.

Hi Kota! Congratulations on the release of your mixtape Prize, how long had the project been in the works for before you released it?

Hey, thank you! We’d been working on it for a while, probably eight or nine months in total. The majority of the body of work interestingly was written in a weekend. I went down to Melbourne to visit my producer, Swick, and I think we wrote about six songs in that particular weekend. Then we were kind of just picking apart different songs, like adding and subtracting and I guess probably the whole process took around 8 or 9 months. It felt like I was giving birth. It was like a nine month pregnancy situation.

Now that you’ve given birth to the project, what does it feel like to release the baby into the world?

Aw, I’m such a protective Mum. People always ask me my favourites and I really do feel like they’re my children. There’s such an attachment there and it was such an intimate project in the sense that it was just me and Swick who created the whole body of work. It feels amazing to have it out.

You just wrapped up touring with What So Not, what was that tour like and how did you find audiences were responding to your new work?

I got to play it live maybe once or twice before the tour but this was a longer set for starters. The audiences were so much bigger and it was such a fun tour. What So Not’s crew was incredible and the people surrounding you makes all the difference when you’re touring, because you’re on stage for like 40 minutes but then you have to spend the rest of the time with these people. I wasn’t sure how the audiences would respond to my music because it’s not so EDM. It’s still kind of in the dance music framework but it’s very pop. But they responded really well and I got heaps of messages and people posting stories of my performance, so it went as well as it could go I think.

I’m a massive pop fan and I’m interested in your thoughts on pop music in general. I know you’ve been writing behind the scenes for a few different artists over the last couple of years. From your experience what do you think the difference is between a run of the mill pop song and a really incredible, banger of a pop song?

Oh you’re a pop nerd!

I am, I’m a true pop nerd.

It’s so cool, I love it when people ask questions like this because when I finished school I pretty much just locked myself in my room for two years and studied pop songs. The essence of a truly good pop song that is a cut above the rest is something intangible. It’s not really a palpable thing, it’s just something you kind of can’t put your finger on. But I guess that there are techniques that you can employ to maximise emotion and I honestly think that a good pop song is just the perfect combination of like masterful craft and technique and the artist’s flair: something that only they can bring to the table, true emotion that comes from their experiences. We kind of have to as artists walk this tightrope between analysis and the more scientific realm of writing songs and then bringing our own experiences that are totally emotional and raw and vulnerable to the table and then putting a really fun spin on it, something unique that no one else could do.

That’s a really good way of putting it. That’s what stands out about you – you’ve got something different and intangible but you’re also employing these classic pop tropes in a new, fresh way, which is such a hard thing to do. I feel like you’re tapping into this movement of new age pop music that’s happening on a more global level with movements like PC Music and Charli XCX. Why do you think it is that pop is starting to gain more respect and critical acclaim as an art form lately?

That’s really a good question. I think a lot of it has been, and no shade to major labels, but I think the fact that individual artists are reclaiming their voice within an indie framework a lot of the time is really cool. It allows us to reclaim our voices and our artistic freedom. So the fact that I signed to an indie label, I signed to NLV Records, has given me so much freedom. As much as I adore working for major labels, I don’t think they would have released a project like mine necessarily. Just working with people that believe in uniqueness and pushing the boundaries, I think that’s what’s pushing pop forward and people like Charli XCX are at the head of that kind of movement. She was really inspirational to me when I was writing this. I also think it’s got a lot to do with distribution. I kind of credit my label for getting people actually listening and caring about this as a pop mixtape.

It often feels like female pop artists have to fight tooth and nail for critical acclaim, which doesn’t make sense to me because some of the most moving and timeless music is pop music. It’s like there’s this weird dichotomy between pop music and what people class as ‘serious’ music.

Totally! I love talking to people like you because I’m on the same page. I grew up listening to pop music. The reason I think it’s harder for pop music to be critically acclaimed is that sometimes it’s like everyone’s trying to do it and a lot of the time it’s not done well. Because pop is such a huge genre and so many people are trying to write in it, a lot of the time it’s just not pulled off the right way, and it can seem like it’s very generic because a lot of people are employing the same techniques. But we’re breaking through now. I mean being inspired by Charli XCX and the PC producers that she works with is part of the reason I was so excited to work with Swick on this project, because I’ve been able to bring something that’s not pop into the equation. We’re almost two different worlds and we’ve seen them collide. He’s a dance producer and someone that is super futuristic and avant-garde in their production, and I’m from the pop world and I have such a pop sensibility with my lyrics and melodies, so the fact that I’ve been able to bring a completely different sphere of music into my world is what I also think people seem to be responding to more and more.

The duo of you and Swick, that dynamic seems to work really well. What was working with him like? Did you know him before this project?

He’s on NLV Records as well but I didn’t know him before I signed. Working with him is the best. He’s such a genius and he embodies that not only when he’s in the studio but he really lives that out, he’s such a quirky dude and you can just tell that he’s someone who’s super interested in pushing the boundaries. The way that he works in the studio, the way that he pulls up sounds, the way that he plays melodies. He doesn’t actually play piano or an instrument, but he’s able to so masterfully create these melodies and these drums and he’ll make the drums sound so cool and will work for hours on a drum sound to get it sounding sick. I love watching him work, I love his process, and I’ve learnt so much from working with him.

For me an important part of pop music is the way that it uplifts and connects women. It’s so ingrained in the female experience in a way, whether it’s getting ready to Rihanna or tearfully belting out a breakup banger at karaoke, there’s all these moments that pop seems to be the soundtrack for in your life as a woman. Do you think that pop music plays an important role in helping women ‘feel themselves’ for want of a better term?

Yeah, it does. I think the reason pop music has such a mass appeal is because it’s positive, even when they’re heartbreaking songs there’s a positive spin. Definitely with the Beyonces and the Riris and all the women in pop music, there seems to be that common theme at the moment. I think it’s becoming a more common theme as we evolve as a society and as the notion of feminism has come to the forefront of social discussion, it’s like the zeitgeist. There’s been a shift in music culture as well towards that and it comes really naturally to me and my music and it always has in my song writing to empower myself and to empower women, because I think we need it. It’s been so good for women to have songs that they can get ready to and feel empowered. I’m excited about it.

Your music is very empowering, particularly your song ‘I’m It’. The day I found out I was interviewing you a friend of mine texted me and said I should listen to ‘I’m It’ because I was feeling down on myself. It’s cool how pop can be this kind of language between women, I mean between anyone really, but I do think there is a definite female slant. I guess it’s one of the only genres of music that has predominantly been the domain of women which I guess is why it’s had such a hard time in the media.

Totally. I wrote ‘I’m It’ because I had a really bad day one day, and not to ever trivialise what women have been through, but because we’ve felt vulnerability and weakness in our lives it kind of produces this strength from us and gives us something to write about, it gives us really strong, empowering material that we can share with the world. We turn our weakness into a point of strength which I think is sick.

In that song, I found the lyric ‘I love myself and that’s not cocky’ interesting because in genres like hip-hop and rock no one really bats an eyelid if a man talks himself up. It’s kind of the expected thing to be like ‘I’m the best and everyone should respect that I’m the best.’ But when a woman, whether it be in real life or in pop music, says something like that it’s often perceived as being arrogant or attention seeking. Why do you think that polarity still exists?

It’s just so ingrained. It’s so dumb and it makes me angry every day and the fact that I even have to say in a song lyric ‘That’s not cocky.’ I felt like I wrote that as a bit of a disclaimer just in case anyone came at me, not that I care that much but I don’t want to come across as cocky and I don’t think I’d feel that way if I were a man. Even some of the experiences I’ve had on stage. I was supporting this artist Duckwrth at the Oxford Art Factory, and I don’t even want to give this air time in an interview, but this guy came up while I was singing and he called me towards the front of the stage. He just started abusing me, saying that I was super arrogant and to get off the stage and that this isn’t music. I know that that wouldn’t have happened if I were a dude. It’s just bullshit what we have to go through on a daily basis. There is still this sexism in every industry and I don’t know why it’s so ingrained but you’re exactly right. There is this double standard, especially in songs, and dudes can talk about banging as many chicks as they want but as soon as a woman comes forward and makes a strong statement they’re completely condemned. It’s frustrating and I don’t know why it’s the case but we’re working towards changing it as a collective.

That guy just sounds like the absolute worst. You’re going on your first solo tour in September, what are you looking forward to the most about touring alone?

I’m feeling a lot of mixed emotions. I’m nervous because at the What So Not shows people didn’t really care because I was just a support, so I have to take it pretty seriously now and make sure the shows are really dope. I’m excited to make the shows really special. I just want to meet people who have messaged me telling me they liked the mixtape, and if people are bothered to come to my show then I’m so excited to see them. To have the freedom to be on stage for an hour, perform my own material, to be in my own little world, and have people come and connect with me on that basis is really exciting.

I’m super excited to see the show. Do you have anything else in the pipeline that you’re working on at the moment?

There’s gonna be a track coming out by Swick soon that will wrap up this mixtape era. I’m like six songs deep in the album right now. I’m working on my album and I’m always writing. I’m just excited. I love the mixtape so I want to try and keep that at the forefront but I’m always onto the next thing and always writing because that’s just how my brain processes things. There is an album in the works though!

You can catch Kota on her PRIZE tour this September
Tuesday September 4 – Friday September 7 – BigSound, Brisbane
Friday September 7 – Rocket Bar, Adelaide
Friday September 14 – Workers Club, Melbourne 
Saturday 15 September – OAF Gallery, Sydney 

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