When Liana Bank$ first strolls into SoHo’s Sanctuary T on a rainy Wednesday morning, her typically light-hearted demeanor is as overcast as the gray sky. We’ve just so happened to agree to meet the day after Election Day and, to put things lightly, neither of us are particularly happy with the results. But soon enough, our matcha lemonades and her infectious smile that quickly reveals itself prove to be the antidotes for the dreary day.
It’s understandably difficult for Bank$ to remain dejected, considering that her long-awaited debut mixtape, Insubordinate, is finally out for the world to hear. We’ve already gotten a taste for the R&B/pop/trap/hip-hop medley that the Queens, New York, native offers, thanks to previous releases such as slinky “LVLUP” and her collab with Mura Masa, “Leave Me Alone.” Her mixtape expands upon her no-fucks barred attitude by giving us a glimpse of the doubt from other people that clouded her journey—even with her grandmother’s impressive Broadway and television career (she and Liza Minelli are “really tight,” Bank$ says), some of her family members had reservations about her foray into music.
But Bank$ remained steadfast in her dreams, and it surely paid off: Not only is she headlining at New York's Webster Hall tonight, one of her songs is being used in Lee Daniels’ upcoming series Star, and she’s been working with Lily Allen on her upcoming music. That said, now is the perfect time to get to know the singer-songwriter. Here, we discuss her upbringing, influences, and how she remains confident in her individuality—as well as the time she found out her ex-boyfriend was still dating his ex.
Where in Queens did you grow up?
First Jamaica, Queens, then—I moved so many times. Laurelton, Springfield Gardens, Flushing, Rosedale. I think that's it. [Laughs.] And then, I lived in Brooklyn briefly. We moved a lot. My mom would be like, 'We're moving!' And we would be like, 'New school, again? Okay. Fine.'
Do you have siblings?
I do. I have two younger sisters. We were born back-to-back so there were constant fights, stealing clothes and everything. It was crazy, but one good thing about it now is that we see how much we come together cause we're so close. Whatever any of us needs, we're there for each other. But when we were little, it was like, 'I don't like you.' And I was the oldest, trying to set the good example and tell them what to do, and they were just like, 'But you're a year older than me. I'm not listening to you.' So, it was very difficult growing up, but it was fun.
Are they into music and the arts, too?
They love music. They both sing but because neither of them write they haven't really honed in on it. I can call them to do background vocals at any given moment, but I guess they just decided to do different things. They both actually bartend right now, so when we need drinks for any occasion, it's always lit.
Noted! So how did you decide that you wanted to go into songwriting?
It sounds corny, but I feel like it chose me because no matter how much I tried to stay away from it, it just always happened. It was inevitable. For a second, I told myself I wanted to be a lawyer, because my mom was like, 'You argue so much, you should just be a lawyer.' So I tried to get into that. I went to school for business management—which actually pays off now, because everything is a business and I know how to manage certain things—but the lawyer thing wasn't going to work. After I tried it out, I went home and wrote a song about it, and I was like, 'Yeah, I just want to write. This is all I want to do.' So, at a certain point, I was working part time, going to school full time, and then I was trying to do the studio at the same time and it was not happening. I was doing well in school, but I just didn’t want to be there, so I quit my job—I had some savings—I quit school, and I told everybody this is what I'm going to do full time. And I've been working for myself since I was 18 turning 19. It gets really, really tough at times, but it's super fulfilling. I set my own schedule, I set my own prices. It's what I want to do.
Pretty early on in your career, you were working with people like Scott Storch, Lily Allen, and PnB Rock. Do you still write for other artists?
Yeah, definitely, because I have to pay my bills. Just until everything pans out how I want it to. But I think I'll always write for people, though, because there are a lot of songs that I have that sometimes are drawn from other people and situations that don’t really cater to my artistry, but I can give them to another person and I know they'll sing it the right way, or they'll make an impact in the right way, so I don't think I'll ever stop writing for people but I'm definitely going to hone in on my project more.
What made you eventually decide to focus on your solo project?
Honestly, I always knew I wanted to, but because I always knew I had to pay bills, I decided to get sessions with artists and get paid. I didn’t decide to go all the way with it until I met my current manager because it was really important to me to have the right team behind me and the right people who understood my vision and weren't going to put me in a box like so many people did before. I'm really blessed to have my manager now. He gets it. He's super creative. Both of [the guys on my team] were artists themselves. One was signed to Columbia and the other guy produced for Missy and Beyoncé, so they know both sides—the business side and the artistry. It's challenging because they're both men. [Laughs.] As a strong woman who's very boisterous and always lets them know what my opinion is, things can be a little challenging, but it's cool to have that rock there that gets it.
What was a specific time when you guys butted heads?
Oh man, it happens all the time. Dan is super against anything that's sexy. I could just be chilling and he'd be like, 'Why'd you wear that?' and I'd say, 'Because I'm a woman and I want to look like this today. Why'd you wear that hat? I didn't ask you why you wore that hat!' And then the other manager, he's super laid-back so he'll be like, 'Why are you always covering yourself up?' So I'm always in the middle like, 'If y'all don't leave me the hell alone….' [Laughs.] So that is always a battle. When it comes to my clothes, don't bother me because I know my style, I know me, and I know what I want to wear. Do not bother me.
It makes sense—you have such a unique style. What was your reaction to the attention that you got during New York Fashion Week?
I actually was really shocked. First of all, I'd never gone to New York Fashion Week as a working artist so I didn't know how hectic it actually was. Seeing [my publicist] Kaz deal with the craziness, I was like, 'Wow, God bless you.' But I was just really happy that people really appreciated my uniqueness because, growing up, there were a lot of people who didn't appreciate it—almost shunned it—and it felt like uniformity was the way to go, so it was nice to be around people who embrace uniqueness. I'm excited for the next one.
Considering you've always wanted to go your own route, what helped you learn to embrace your individuality?Growing up, I loved to sing but I really hated that my voice was weird and that I stood out from the other people. I used to tear myself down because of it, and I actually stopped singing. It wasn’t until people were giving me compliment after compliment—when one of my sister’s friends would come over, and I'd be in my room on my keyboard, they'd be like, 'Oh my god, your sister can sing'—that I was like, 'Maybe they're right. Maybe I'm just bugging out.' So then I started to listen to artists with weird voices and screeching vocals and super low ranges and all kinds of shit. Then I started to embrace who I was as an individual and started to love it.
Who were some of those artists you were listening to?
Sade, Nina Simone, Michael Jackson, John Mayer, Alanis Morissette, Imogen Heap—most of the artists who are artists and can’t be missed and can't be replaced.
Your family is very musical, was there a lot of music played in your house growing up?
Oh, it was crazy. My grandmother played every old-school song you could imagine in her iTunes, so I listed to everything. She had Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong—all kinds of really good jazz musicians, and then she had gospel. My mom was into jazz, but she was also into R&B. My mom also liked country, so she also played country, too. She was in love with Shania Twain. She was always on in the house. So I had all of these different influences and I took them and incorporated them into my sound. It was weird making an album because with all of the influences, it was a little overwhelming, but it turned out pretty cool. It turned out pretty dope and there's a lot more coming.
That said, how do you describe your sound?
That’s a good question…. You know what? I was in a meeting with [record exec] Kevin Liles maybe a couple of months back. He was like, 'I fucking love this! This is weirdo music.' [Laughs.] He said those exact words. He was like, 'Nobody does this. You don't fit in one genre. You’re genreless.' So maybe that.
One thing I appreciate is that your music seems so effortless. Every single track on your mixtape, Insubordinate, has a different vibe, but what remains the same is that you’re being yourself.
That was very important for me to get across because you can tell when something is forced. Having worked with so many artists, I've tried give them what they asked me for as opposed to what actually fit them, but I saw things not work out, and I saw people say, 'This song is great, but I don't believe it.' So it was important for me to be completely honest and completely open. Tell some things that I didn't want to tell.
What is the story that you’re telling on the project?
It’s me coming into my own and not listening to what other people told me to do because, for so long, I did listen to what other people told me to do and I was obedient—always had a mouth, but I was very much so obedient, and wanted to follow the rules and learn the ropes. But what I didn’t realize was that, because I am a creative, I have the freedom to do the things that I actually want to do. So it’s just saying fuck your opinion. Fuck what you think I should or shouldn't say. I'm going to talk about cunnilingus. I'm going to talk about how I want Benjamins now instead of my ex-boyfriend. I'm going to talk about the idiot who tried to get me to sign a contract and not read it. I'm going to talk about all of these things and I don't care. It’s about my truth.
Even on the very first track, you start it off by rehashing what negative things people have said to you over the years.
A lot of people have hit me up about that, too. When I performed it, actually, it was very interesting because my mom was in the front row to the right and the first verse is about her, and I knew that she knew that it’s about her. But it's real, so she could be mad about it for a little bit but I'm telling my truth. And I'm going to buy her house down the line, so it's okay. [Laughs.] It’ll balance out.
On a general level, what's her response to you coming into your own as an artist?
You know what's funny? She didn't really know what I was doing. She knew I was writing songs for people. She knows that I wanted to be an artist, but she didn't know anything else. Any accolades I would get, I don't tell her or my grandmother because, number one, my grandmother, as a businesswoman, is automatically like, 'Where's the check?' [Laughs.] So I stopped telling my grandmother things and then my mom is just completely out of the loop, so when she came to the show, she was actually blown away. Maybe a day later, she called me and was like, 'I always knew you were talented. I always knew you could write songs, but I didn't know [this is what you were doing].' She tried to get all involved, so she's excited. It's nice to see that.
I think the biggest reason why she didn't want me to do music is that she did it herself, but didn't give it everything—or wasn't able to because she had three children to look after. She was scared for me and my well-being. But I put everything into this—literally everything—so for her to be there and see the show come together, and see everything that I've built is really wild. She saw that this is really possible, and I think it kind of fulfilled the little girl in her a little bit.
How long did it take to create Insubordinate?
Since I've been working with my manager, so it's been about a year. But some of the songs on the tape were made six or seven years prior. Some of the songs, like 'Benji,' I started writing when I was maybe 12. Some of the songs, I had ideas for when I was like 19, and then added more to the songs. So it's kind of like, spanned out, because things came out from different areas. But the majority of the project is about a year.
You reference FaceTime and social media in some of your lyrics about relationships. What’s been your experience with how technology affects your personal relationships?
Actually, my ex-boyfriend was dating me but apparently was still in a relationship with his ex-girlfriend. I could never see her Instagram page but one day I found it—I forgot how I found it—but there were all these pictures of him on there! And I was like, 'What? I was with him yesterday. I bought that shirt!' It was crazy. And the other day I was on my phone and I looked at my blocked list. Mind you, I have one person blocked in my phone. There's no reason for me to have people blocked. It's not that serious. But I saw that she was blocked on my phone, so that means he went in my phone and blocked her so she couldn’t see my page!
Wait, that is crazy. That’s doing too much!
I know! Social media is the devil.
Well, let’s switch to a brighter note and get into some trivia. What’s the last song you listened to?
Probably something from Solange's album. That's the last thing I listened to last night.
What's the best movie you've seen in theaters?
It would be between Inception and Wolf of Wall Street. I used to watch a movie every week because I'm a movie buff but as of late, I just haven't had time.
The Alchemist. I've read it, like, 20,000 times and I always go back to it.
What’s your sartorial signature?
Shades—I have a big collection of them and they're usually weird or a little bit different.
What's your personal mantra?
'This, too, shall pass.”