Tank and the Bangas: Tank’s Soul Pursuit
Tank and the Bangas create music that’s soulful, poetic, and persistently original.
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.”
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.