By SPECIWOMEN Photography RUBY ROSE
"I am directing, producing, writing and acting in my own web series, but my main project is singing and writing for my band, Juka."
Tell me about yourself.
My name is Banks Harris and I am a writer/performer. The beginning of my writing started with writing stories and little plays as a child, which cultivated into studying writing and performing in college. I am directing, producing, writing and acting in my own web series, but my main project is singing and writing for my band, Juka. Our single "Smallest Rupture" is premiering on SPECIWOMEN!
How did you get into music?
My parents always had music playing in the house. Mostly country blues and classical music. At a young age I had a deep voice and remember a few times being mortified when I opened my mouth because other kids would make fun of how strange I sounded. There is a home movie my family has which is pretty hilarious because there are a gaggle of four year olds playing with chalk on the sidewalk and then the booming voice of God comes from off screen (me) asking where the pink piece was. It really did stand out that much- My mother was tired of people telling her that I sounded so unusual so she signed me up for voice lessons. People were shocked that a little kid sounded like some old out of work Cabaret singer who has smoked a pack a day for the past twenty years. I find that people tend to describe my voice as raspy when in fact it is just low in register. When I was a child it was shocking, but now that I am older, not so much.
I began taking singing lessons when I was eight with a teacher in the neighborhood. At the end of the year she held a recital at the Steinway piano hall in midtown. This was my first performance, second grade belting out the Beatles "Can't Buy Me Love" and "She Loves You". After my father saw me sing for the first time he gave me Janis Joplin's "Pearl". I was hooked. From then on I bounced around singing in rock bands from high school to early college. For my eighth grade graduation the principal had me sing "Mercedes Benz".
Have you performed?
Juka tries to perform once a month in Brooklyn. When I started out though I was in high school and performed in a blues duo. I sang with my friend Kane Dulaney Balser and we performed songs from the Alan Lomax collection, mostly field recordings from the south and gospel songs. My father has a massive record collection that he passed down to me. Tons of Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Howlin' Wolf, Memphis Minnie, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Willie Dixon. Kane and I performed all over Brooklyn and Manhattan at places like Pianos, Rockwood Music Hall, Rocky Sullivan's, Bell Bottom Haus, Union Hall, the Old Stone House, Bowery Poetry Club. We were a part of a group of kids who played mostly punk music and I felt horrible about not being able to write my own songs. I was confident in covering songs but I convinced myself I could never write originals. When I was sixteen I had a vocal coach tell me that I was destroying my voice by singing hard blues so I stopped singing all together. (You can read about this story in my nonfiction piece "This is How Your Life Turns Out) It was one of the darkest times of my life. I had a woman take away my entire identity as a musician and wasn't able to come out of it until I met with another vocal coach.
Towards the end of college I wasn't singing in a band or writing my own songs. Instead, I was wallowing in a never-ending downward spiral about graduating from school. I was suffering from panic attacks and the last thing I wanted to do was to see a vocal coach another friend had recommended. I was weary of vocal teachers- when I entered this man's class I tried to stay as quiet as possible for fear that he would tell me my voice was damaged. But the class was unlike anything I had ever taken before. Instead of having a one on one session with a teacher standing around at the piano, this class was held with a group of people at a dance studio. The first exercise was to simply sit cross-legged on the floor and to sing into your own hand. The teacher Jean Rene Toussaint holds these classes where the goal is to focus on your breathing and freeing the primitive voice. When I told him that I had a teacher who told me I was ruining my voice he told me that it was essentially impossible. Toussaint's work is dedicated to letting people express themselves vocally without the guise that one can so easily break it. He claims it is psychological. As he points out in all his classes, when a baby is small and wails like crazy the baby doesn't grow up with some sort of Louis Armstrong voice. Human beings are meant to scream and howl, the only people who tell you that you can't are people who are afraid of themselves. They are afraid to let themselves go because they are afraid of what they will release and see inside themselves.
How do you deal with nerves before a show?
Ask anybody in my band, I don't. I let it roll over me and infect anyone and everyone I am around. The rule pretty much is that the day of a show my bandmates know now not to hassle me too much. The worst thing is the time before going on stage. Once I am up there I can just do my thing, but the hours leading up to a performance are an absolute nightmare. You start wishing you had opted to stay in bed and watch 30 Rock instead of stand in a mostly empty bar shouting your own poetry.
What genre of music do you play?
FREAK DIVA. Our friends have a kick ass punk trio called NoPop and they cultivated this idea of coming up with your own genre. (They play pink punk and will melt your tiny, selfish heart.) I like saying Freak Diva when someone asks what type of music Juka plays. It's a lot better than saying, I don't know, rock? It's pretty loud, which was what I was saying before.
What are your favorite places?
Freddy's Bar - South Slope's dive bar with a taco truck wedged in the back and great music. There is never any charge to play a show and it was one of the first venues I played as a teenager at the original location near Atlantic Center.
Barbes - Park Slope's special hub for world music! You can come here on any night of the week and see amazing jazz groups and this fusion Colombian band that plays regularly. Barbes is the type of place that gets rowdy later at night- last time I was there the place was packed with a mariachi band playing and a guy going around passing out Corona twenty-fours.
Trans Pecos - One of the many venues popping up all over Bushwick, Trans Pecos has a massive venue on the top floor, a great backyard, and the basement can be set up for dj sets. It is also a part of the Trans Am Cafe next door where I like to get food and write sometimes. The music here tends to be more jazz based and electronic, but they also have the type of act where people are snapping pencils next to a microphone and calling it music.
Sonny's Bar - Oh Red Hook! The bluegrass jams on Saturdays are insane. This place is getting more and more crowded so I would urge anyone to go down there to check it out. The atmosphere is truly unique; it gives Red Hook a vibe of an old New England fishing village. You don't feel like you are in New York when you're there and it is reasonably priced.
Sugar Foot's Barn - This does sound like some other type of trendy bar, but it is actually an old little shack that used to house my mother's pony in Burlington, North Carolina. Once Sugar Foot passed away I was able to clean out the little barn with a friend of mine and we made a club house. Years later I turned it into a writer's den where I started to write my stories. This is also where I have my first memories of singing by myself, playing near a swing set and coming up with melodies. If I am ever having a bad day and start doubting my abilities I think of myself as a child experimenting with my voice. That is all I need to know to know that I am a singer- I was already doing it before anyone taught me how.
Who inspires you?
The painter Margaret Bowland. She does massive portraits of people covered in face paint. I have been able to watch her entire career because she also happens to be my mother. She had a hard life as a young person; and was completely self-taught when it comes to her technique. She wasn't able to paint as much when she was raising my brother and me. It has been thrilling watching her career explode over the past few years. Being twenty-five, I feel like everyone always tells me that these are the best years of my life and I am so lucky to be a young person. My mother is proof that your life can be a continuous flowing craft. She has taught me that there is no ripe time for an artist to create. The time for an artist to create is always now, in the moment. For years she was never recognized for her talent but she kept working. She is the hardest working artist I know.
The people I work with also inspire the hell out of me. Every single person in my band, whether they have lugged a drum kit through the snow or talked me down from a meltdown before hitting the stage, has shaped me as a performer. I will always say that I was born a writer first, always working by myself. But with music, the collaboration was inevitable. When I bring in a melody I am always thrilled with what the other band members come up with to contribute because it is always something I would never have thought about before.
How has being a woman impacted your life?
I can’t think of a way in which it hasn’t. Like most women I speak with, they too have experienced supercilious discussions with men and are told they are acting like a bitch if they make a suggestion or disagree with them. Something I often think about is how little looks matter to men. In this society it is acceptable for a woman to be attractive and that’s it- she doesn’t need to work or create or have any sense of self. As a general statement, a man cannot coast on his looks. He is expected to work and be independent, while being attractive is considered a plus. With women I find it the other way around. The most important thing for a woman to be is to be sexually desirable by men.
However, in the past few years, I have seen this change. When I was sixteen years old we were given the whole don’t wear your skirt too short or else you shall entice the boys, and I could not be more thrilled to see how society’s views have changed and this is now seen as a preposterous way to stop sexual harassment. As I get older I find the fight for women’s rights to be more and more optimistic and powerful. But if you do not think there is currently a war on women then you aren’t paying attention. The newspapers are flooded with sexual violence reported from all over the world. Every act to protect women and their reproductive rights in this country has left me slapping my forehead and wondering if a rake with a bucket for a head would be a better director for the Centers of Disease Control.
Anything to add ?
Even though I am the front woman of Juka, the process is very collaborative. The songwriting in my band can be painful - I come up with melodies and will usually sing them to the guitarist and or keyboardist and they come up with a chart to show to the full band. They are all a bunch of jazz heads, can read and write music. I'm just a weirdo who listened to a bunch of records and tried to sing. I would be nothing without the band helping me to write songs and further craft our sound.