Niche definers: Jim Garland, Tank and the Bangas, Ani DiFranco.
Ani Difranco is an admired singer and songwriter known for her signature alternative folk rock sound and political activism. Among her accolades she has won the Woody Guthrie Award for social change, the Woman of Courage Award from the National Organization for Women, and two Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards.
She was born Angela Maria DiFranco in 1970 in Buffalo, NY, and began busking at bars at age 9. She became an emancipated minor when she was 15, graduated from the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts high school at 16, and started her own record label at 19. Her self-titled 1990 debut and all of her twenty albums were released on this label, now known as Righteous Babe records. DiFranco won her first of nine Grammy nominations for the song “Shy,” from her 1995 album Not A Pretty Girl (she won the award in 2003 for the package design of her CD Evolve). Her highest-charting album, Little Plastic Castle (1998) reached number 22 in the Billboard charts.
DiFranco published a memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream, in 2019.
Jim Garland is a world-renowned designer of water features. Admired for their intricate and pleasing choreography, his innovative fountains are found in China, Dubai, Singapore, South Korea, and across the United States.
Garland earned a bachelor degree in architecture at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1980 and a masters in architecture at UCLA. He began working in water design in 1986 while teaching architecture and maintaining a private practice. He spent thirteen years with famed water designers Wet Design working on numerous large format projects around the world before founding his own company, Fluidity Design Consultants, in 2002.
His large-scale public water features combine elements of urban design, landscape architecture, hydraulics engineering, lighting and sound design. He spearheaded the $19 million redesign for the fountains at Longwood Gardens, the former estate of Pierre S. du Pont in Pennsylvania, and designed fountains for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sundance Square in Fort Worth, the National Mall in Washington, DC, and Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA.
Tank and the Bangas is a New Orleans–based musical group fronted by singer Tarriona “Tank” Ball. They won a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 2020.
Raised in New Orleans, Ball performed as a spoken word poet before pursuing a music career; she was part of a team that won the National Poetry Slam in 2012. Tank and the Bangas formed in 2011 at a New Orleans open mic night. The band fuses various genres of music: R&B, funk, and hip hop, among others. They released their debut album, Think Tank, in 2013,and won the 2014 RAWards for Best New Orleans Artist. They gained national prominence in 2017 when they won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest for the song “Quick.”
Tank and the Bangas’ second album, Green Balloon (2019), reached number 73 on the Billboard charts. They have also released three live albums and two EPs, including 2020’s Friend Goals. That same year, the group teamed with other New Orleans musicians to record a cover of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s 1960s hit “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”
Coming up on Articulate, the beauty of water in the wild is unparalleled. Jim Garland harnesses this natural brilliance.
Jim Garland: What if you were a painter, and nobody discovered painting before, and you were just doing painting, and you discovered it was fantastic, and you were just gonna do it, and there were no critics out there writing about what you were doing … The successes and the mistakes you were making … how great would that be?
AJC: Welcome to your world.
Jim Garland: Exactly.
In any relationship, compromise is helpful. With her soulful spoken word infused music, Tank and the Bangas give selflessly.
Tarriona Ball: When I think of Pop, I don’t always think … This is just popular, and it got around, it caught. Lauryn Hill was popular, D’Angelo was popular … They got around because it was that dope and that deep.
And for most of us, fighting the man is a youthful enterprise. For Ani DiFranco, it’s been a lifelong vocation.
Ani DiFranco: I’ve never felt less alone in my outrage. From my perspective, I’ve often felt like a voice in the wilderness, not that I ever was, not that I’m any more knowing than the rest of the human race, but, there’s so much more of openness around me right now. I have never seen so many people saying, “Enough is enough.”
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Within the hierarchy of beautiful things, there is sunlight, Jim Garland says, and then, there is water.
Jim Garland: It’s beautiful, meaningful, powerful, authoritative, fantastic.
Trained as an architect, Garland is today a choreographer of spray, splash, and sound. Responsible, along with his colleagues at Fluidity, for water features in Dubai, China, Singapore, South Korea, and all across the United States. His design for the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial Fountain in Washington, D.C. offers a respite, a place for contemplation. His Sundance Square in Fort Worth, Texas makes saturation fun. At the Hearst headquarters in New York City, water cascades across sculptural stairs—forever moving, forever alive. Despite his successes, Jim Garland upholds the outsider stages of his profession, calling it “unsanctioned art.” And he revels in the freedom.
Garland: Just unrecognized, unbelieved in… which is fine. What if you were a painter and nobody discovered painting before? And you were just doing painting and you discovered it was fantastic, and you were just gonna do it, and there were no critics out there writing about what you were doing, the successes and the mistakes you were making? How great would that be?
AJC: Welcome to your world.
Garland: Exactly. It’s fantastic. Immediacy is our ally because people are so immediately satisfied that we get to do anything we want.
Grounded in urban design and landscape architecture, Garland’s work also requires the intuition and insight of a theater architect, a hydraulics engineer, a lighting designer, and a visual artist. Out of these come three cardinal virtues Garland pursues.
Garland: One of them is superlative water expression. Just look at the water, exclusive of everything else. It’s maybe the best thing you’ve ever seen, outside of sunlight. And the next thing is how it’s integrated into the place—nested, anchored, woven in. So, you have to have a sense of architecture or urbanism to do that. The third thing has to do with experience and meaning. It’s about the emotion you feel in the end, and what is the meaning of that emotion.
A recent invitation from Longwood Gardens, the former estate of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, provided Garland with the opportunity to transform an existing, more than century-old fountain into a cinematic display of water jets and swirls, colors, and sound. Water like basket weaves. Water like eggs. Water touched by fire. The $90 million project expands the garden with a story. It illuminates, among other things, the music of the Beatles.
Garland: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a journey. Regardless of what John Lennon said, it’s a journey that’s drug-induced. It’s kaleidoscopic, it’s magical, it’s inspiring. It takes you somewhere new and better. That’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” So, what we tried to do—what we tried to influence the choreography to achieve—was not literally paint the colors of her eyes in the scene…
AJC: But you do do that as well.
Garland: It does do that.
AJC: And it’s lovely.
Garland: Perhaps. It’s a little literal.
AJC: Literal’s okay every so often.
Garland: It worked. But really, we wanted you to be in that boat. We wanted you to go on the river. We wanted you to see the marshmallow-colored landscape. We wanted you to be there and have the polarized glasses and see colors you’ve never seen before. And it’s a utopian gesture, yes, but not ashamed of that. You’ll walk away a changed person. You saw a better world, if only for a moment.
Garland is cognizant in his work of elements visitors might overlook. Take, for example, the sound of water—spilling, raining, rushing.
Garland: Most fountains in the world don’t sound very good. They have one sound. They have one pitch.
AJC: White noise.
Garland: White noise. But usually it’s in the upper-middle frequencies. But if you listen to rain in the forest, or the stream, or if you go to the ocean and listen to the waves, there are these great, sonoric effects. They’re rich, they have multiple frequencies, they interweave. People used to say, “Oh, the music of water.” They didn’t mean that. They meant the musical sound you hear in a stream going through a curvy rock shallow bed, right? That sounds great. Why does it sound great? Why does that water sound so very, very good and that fountain over there sound terrible? There are environments that you want to hear the fountain, perhaps, before you see it. So, we might do certain things that use heavier flows of water falling, maybe not so far, that will turn the corner. And we might layer the water’s sounds in a way that really sound unusually good. We have discovered that the best sounds actually don’t look so great. You have to design for one or the other in most cases.
Garland is also aware of water’s place in our lives today, of its abundance, or lack thereof. What are the social responsibilities of a fountain designer? Is there a conflict between our desire to conserve water and our human need to take pleasure from it?
Garland: This is a question that many people ask. It’s a good question, because we’re all told how rare fresh water is, and how valuable it is, and how, in lots of places in the world, it’s the most necessary and missing thing. And it’s almost not fair to ask the water feature practitioner a question like this. How can you possibly get an objective answer from such a biased position? But I could tell you what a landscape architect told me recently, such an interesting thing to say. I asked him the question and he said, “Water is a precious material and therefore, it should be used sparingly and only in important locations.” And that means in the public realm, and in a beautiful way. That’s the highest use there is, other than drinking and maybe bathing occasionally. That’s the highest use there is. What’s wrong with the public realm?
Water will inevitably flow. It will rain, it will fog, it will mist. With his fountains, Jim Garland tells the stories of that which we are all made of.
Tarriona Ball, known to friends and family alike as “Tank,” is a born entertainer. The band, Tank and the Bangas, came to mainstream attention in 2017 when they appeared on NPR’s hugely popular web series, the Tiny Desk Concerts. They had won the spot in an annual competition with this mostly-improvised video for their song “Quick.”
Tarriona Ball (Tank): Just me watching the video, I watch it like it’s not myself. It’s fun to watch. The beat is catchy. We broke the song down like we had never did it before. It felt very organic.
But despite its lighthearted delivery, “Quick” tackles some pretty heavy subject matter. It tells the story of a prostitute who takes revenge on a client who assaulted her, a story that not everyone was comfortable with.
Tank: It can kind of make you giggle a bit, that someone even feels like they could put a patent on your thoughts and what you can write about. There are so many stories of the world. It’s full of it, and there are all type of women, and all of them are not your mother. They got stories.
And Tank is, first and foremost, a storyteller. Well before she started making music, she made a name for herself as a spoken word poet. In 2012, her team won the National Poetry Slam, the so-called “Olympics of Performance Poetry.” It was in this world that she developed her vocal dexterity, and several distinctive personas that she moves between easily.
Tank: The childlike part that’s inside of yourself, which is… Everybody was a child before, so it’s easy to relate. The strong spoken word poet that got something to say that’s real political. And then there’s the soft poet that’s always in her feelings, and just wanna talk about what’s going on in her heart and not the world. And then there is the strong singer, that have the gospel roots of having grandfather that was a pastor. You wanna reach that. And there’s the side that just wanna sing something real pretty and folky—’cause that’s what I love, folk music.
AJC: At what point did you know that you needed to sing rather than just perform poetry?
Tank: It was the moment that we won Nationals. It was the biggest competition. I didn’t think that we could ever win it. I just knew that I just needed more time to do my thing. When you’re competing, they only give you three minutes and, like, ten seconds. That’s not enough time to inspire the world on a continuous basis.
Ball got the nickname “Tank” from her dad, himself an aspiring singer. Though he died suddenly when she was just four, she says his spirit lives within her.
Tank: I ask God for help, but I go to my dad. I say, “Dad, can you help me out of this one, can you help us, Dad?” And sure enough, it helps. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re driven off by, or why you’re doing this, or why people even love you the way they do. And then you realize that your ancestors really are living through you, and I think I’m living out my dad’s dream. My dad died really early. And he used to sing every talent contest. Everything, he was there for it. And I feel like I’m living out his dream. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it, but you know you can’t do nothing else, and you ain’t good at nothing else.
Tank: I really feel like a poet up there that got some songs, ‘cause I always was just a better writer than a singer. It took me a while to sing correctly, to me. But writing always just came so easily, and just so naturally.
AJC: How important is it that the people who are listening understand what it is you wanna say to them? Cause a lot of the time with “pop music,” people sort of “ya, ya, ya…” They sort of know how to sing along to the chorus, but the deeper message maybe doesn’t hit home all the time.
Tank: The coolest part is just being around… Just meeting fans that had the album, and was like, “I listened to ‘Hands,’ I love ‘Hands.’” And I’m like, “Damn, you listened to that long poem? Okay! Somebody listening.” And when somebody breaks down “Quick” the way other people can’t, you know? I know that that’s someone listening. And all people like to do is shout out the main people that they think that just aren’t. But there are people that get it. When I think of “pop,” I don’t always think (sings and dances). This is just popular, and it got around. It caught. ‘Cause it was, it was that dope.
AJC: And that deep.
Tank: And that deep. That dope, and that deep.
Since Tank and the Bangas formed in 2011, their genre-defying sound has been led, but not quite dictated by their leader.
AJC: Does there ever come a point where you wanna say, “It’s my song. That’s how it’s gonna be”?
Tank: Sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. For real. That’s when you get so aggravated with yourself, because you didn’t take the time like your band to go to school for music theory and stuff like that. ‘Cause they like, “That doesn’t make sense, Tank, because you know it has to hit the five before it hits the three.” And you be like, “Damn, all right. You got me this one time. All right.”
AJC: Improvisation’s a big part of what you do. Is that related to the fact that you’re not this trained musician?
Tank: Probably could be—just growing up, being introduced to music, in a way, while I’m at the spoken word club. Where everything was truly like, “Get on the mic, express yourself, do what you want.” So it just came naturally, just to flow on it. And that’s one of the amazing parts of the Bangasthat, if I go somewhere, they can go there with me.
And this is perhaps what makes their performances so engaging. Tank and the Bangas are creating together, in real time, every time.
Tank: I feel like I am living a life that I portray. I’m with my friends. My best friends work around me. Like, everybody chill. Everybody humble. And even if you get up there and you tired, you gonna get into that happy. It’s gonna come. It’s gonna come on you. It’s contagious.
At 47, singer-songwriter and agitator Ani DiFranco has discovered, within herself, an easy place to be.
Ani DiFranco: I know what and why I’m doing what I’m doing, and I feel at peace in it, you know? I’m over wanting to be somewhere, something else.
Such inner peace was hardly preordained for this Buffalo-born melodist and poet. DiFranco began busking in bars at the age of 9, won legal emancipation from her parents at 15, and launched her own label (now known as Righteous Babe Records) four years later. In hundreds of songs written over more than 30 years, she’s questioned hierarchies and called for justice. She’s never put business first.
DiFranco: It’s so ironic to me that the label “entrepreneur” has followed my name for decades and decades. Because it’s exactly the opposite, is my point. I don’t wanna be an entrepreneur. I wanna be an artist.
From the start, DiFranco was flagrant in her disregard for music industry norms— honoring self-expression over self-promotion, checking in with her conscience and not her accountants. She was, she sang, “Not A Pretty Girl,” and she would not be tamed.
DiFranco: It was this funny, like, “Oh, we’re supposed to go on tour when a record…” Didn’t work out that way. You know, or I’d get invited to play a TV show, for instance, David Letterman or something, and decide to play a very political song ‘cause I got three minutes on TV. I wanna say something. And they would say, “Mm, yes, we’d like a song, maybe, that’s more upbeat.” In other words, “We don’t want that song on our show.”
AJC: And how would that be delivered, and how would you respond to it? A tap on the dressing room door?
DiFranco: If I was ever switching into businessperson mode, like, “I’m running a record company here. We gotta get our artists on this national TV show,” I would say, “Well, pick another song. There’s lots of good songs.” But instead, I said, “No, that’s the song I wanna play.” And I didn’t go on the show.
DiFranco: You know, ‘cause that’s just… That’s how we did it. I was pretty uncompromising.
Ani DiFranco has also been rather uncompromising in her relationship with those who have carried her songs forward—the fans, who have found in her some version of themselves. Their devotion is a gift and a responsibility.
DiFranco: It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder, in a way, to… “Can I continue to give that to people? Can I not disappoint that person, and that person, and that person, who holds me so dear?” You know, the people with the “Babe” tattooed, or my face, or… You know. “Can I somehow live up to what you need from me? Will I falter? Will I fail you? Will I…” It’s pressure, you know? The pressure builds.
And so, says DiFranco, does the sense of community—the possibilities for social justice and change, that are so alive within her songs.
DiFranco: I’ve never felt less alone in my outrage. From my perspective, I’ve felt often like a voice in the wilderness—not that I ever was, not that I’m any more knowing than the rest of the human race. But there’s so much more openness around me right now, receptiveness from not just the tribe to, “Let’s talk about patriarchy. Let’s talk about…” I have never seen so many people saying, “Enough is enough.” I find that extremely exciting, extremely hopeful.
Hopeful and at peace, Ani DiFranco is today, no less a righteous babe—still singing against tyranny and boundaries, still writing the unexpected hook, still agitating for the art.