Tarriona “Tank” Ball more than lives up to the nickname her late father gave her as a child. “A tank does nothing but make noise and blow shit up,” says the 27-year-old frontwoman of the New Orleans-based band Tank and the Bangas. In 2011, Ball—formerly a member of a slam poetry team—began her musical blitzkrieg alongside Albert Allenback (flute and sax), Merell Burkett (keys), Joshua Johnson (drums), Jonathan Johnson (bass), and Norman Spence (keys and bass), with Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph joining the band later on vocals. Their 2013 debut album, Think Tank, showcases the band’s rollicking gumbo of spoken-word, soul, funk, rock, hip-hop, and jazz.
Earlier this year, the Bangas catapulted onto the national stage after winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest (beating out more than 6,000 other acts), with their song “Quick.” That exposure put Think Tank at the top of the iTunes soul/R&B chart and led to a string of shows sponsored by Tiny Desk and then on to a full-fledged tour. We caught up with the indomitable Ms. Tank in the midst of that tour, which is continuing to wind from the U.S. to Europe and back Stateside through the fall. Bringing the humor and dramatic flair of a champion slam poetess to the stage, backed by a band that can go from prog to bouce to funk in a beat, the show is not to be missed.
TRUMAN PORTS: Many of your songs have a childlike whimsy to them, but you also have this powerful singing voice. Do you purposely try to create a contrast between your spoken-word voice and your singing voice?
TARRIONA BALL: It just comes so naturally to go in between the two—to speak really playfully and then go to a place that’s really serious and heartfelt. It’s a part of who I am.
PORTS: What was the submission process for the Tiny Desk Concert competition like?
BALL: It was probably different from a lot of people because we weren’t really jumping to do it because we all had something else to do. But thank God we had a manager that really pushed us to do it. She had to literally set it up like it was a gig. We all came to this school, and it was the last day that the videos were supposed to be turned in. I’m just so happy that we had somebody that believed in us enough to really push us to do it.
PORTS: People frequently talk about your blending of genres: jazz, folk, gospel, funk, hip-hop, and rock. What about these sounds inspire you?
BALL: Jazz moves so fast, and it can feel so good and rushed, but everybody knows exactly where they’re going. And rock, man, it just has this powerful feel. The term “rock star” didn’t come from just anywhere. It came from someone feeling powerful, in complete control, and sexy as shit.
PORTS: And are you feeling powerful and sexy as hell?
BALL: I always feel powerful and sexy as hell, [laughs] even when I’m at a poetry club with, like, three people—I have your full attention. I’m honest with you and I’m vulnerable, and that’s when I feel the most powerful. And I get to feel that way all the time. It’s my job to open up, and I like to do it.
PORTS: How does New Orleans influence you as an artist and as an individual separate from your music?
BALL: Anytime somebody asks me, “Where are you from?” we feel so proud to say New Orleans. It doesn’t matter if the Saints just lost the game; it doesn’t matter if the storm came and washed almost everything away; it doesn’t matter if they say anything negative about the politics or anything. We’re just still so proud to be from there because we’re connected to something so much bigger than whatever the media projects.
PORTS: Your piece “Instructions on Being” is so relatable and honest. You say some darker things about yourself, your family, friends, boys… Where were you mentally when you wrote it?
BALL: I was at school, thinking about leaving school, and everybody kept asking me, “When are you graduating?” I stopped going to church, and everybody was like, “Tank, you don’t believe in God anymore? I heard you worship a poetry god.” So it was a lot of little stuff with my family and my friends, and I cut off all my hair. I was just going through a lot of little things and people had a lot of little questions. I was really tired of answering them. I had to make a reminder list to myself, a true, honest one: I need to call my niece more; my little brother looks up to me; and forgive my dad because I feel like he forgot about me. All types of things. And screw that boy that couldn’t tell you “I love you” because I love you.
PORTS: I like the fact that you close it with, “It is amazing what you tell yourself when you think no one is watching.” That’s also the last line of the entire album. Did you want to leave those as the final words?
BALL: Yeah, because it’s just the sum of everything. I spoke on him, I spoke on myself, I spoke on her. But now it’s time to be incredibly honest. So honest that it could be painful. So honest that it could be embarrassing. But something about the truth, it just feels so good. And you know you’re not the only one that’s feeling this way. There’s no escaping it.
PORTS: What do you hope your music evokes in people when they hear it?
BALL: Oh man. I like people to be in their feelings. Boys and girls. When people say that you’re in your feelings, some people like to make something so natural be into a negative thing. I don’t like that shit. I want you to be in your feelings. Your feelings can be feeling emotional, feeling scared, feeling brave to tell somebody how you actually feel about them, or how you feel about a situation that you’ve been in way too goddamn long. For you to be extremely honest with yourself so that you can break through some things. So that people can literally get out of their own damn way. Some people like to blame stuff on other people, but a lot of the times we’re in our own way and we don’t even realize it. I want people to be inspired to do their own thing, whether that’s music or not. Just inspired and occasionally, definitely dance. As dumb as the lyrics are is to trap [music], that shit feels good. [laughs]
PORTS: What upcoming projects can we expect from you guys?
BALL: We’re working on another album right now. I wrote so much. I’m feeling different about myself and my surroundings, so I don’t know if all the stuff I wrote before is going to go on this album. For some reason, I feel strange, but I feel like it’s going to be all different stuff. Y’all will see soon.
FOR MORE ON TANK AND THE BANGAS AND UPCOMING TOUR DATES, VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.