In a world shuttered by COVID, English singer/songwriter BANNERS scores an international hit with “Someone to You” thanks to TikTok teens and an uplifting message for those of us missing human connection.
Stream: “Someone to You: – BANNERS
What is the half-life on a song? If a track doesn’t get picked up by the ever-spinning wash cycle of Top 40 radio, placed in an Apple ad, or featured on coveted Spotify editor playlists, listeners may pick it up and put it down after a few plays. Even if it’s good. There is simply too much music out there and too many ways to access it to avoid consumption ADD. Gone are the days when you rotated through the same six CD’s in your mom’s minivan disc changer. Now it’s all about gorging on the latest releases like a perpetual game of Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Mike Nelson, better known to his fans as BANNERS, is aware of how hard it can be to connect with listeners in the streaming age. “It’s very easy to spend a lot of time thinking that what you made is rubbish,” he says. “You think, ‘I am not very good at this,’ or ‘the label regrets signing me.’ It’s easy to lose confidence.” His is an anxiety shared by many artists, especially when live, in-person shows are an impossibility. Without that face-to-face connection with fans, the walls tend to close in. Being a musician in 2020 is a whole different beast than it used to be.
But in isolation, a lot of new and chaotic variables work in artists’ favor. The music-focused video app TikTok has taken the world by storm, and with it opened a new frontier in global tastemaking. Teenagers have dictated the course of popular music for ages, screaming for the likes of Frank Sinatra, ushering in the era of rock and roll, and taking to Soundcloud for a new era of catchy, bite-sized trap. Now, they’re flocking to TikTok in droves, capitalizing on viral challenges to bring attention to artists old and new. Only in our interconnected, plugged-in world would a video of someone riding on a skateboard and sipping cranberry juice propel Fleetwood Mac back onto the charts, or thousands of videos of people spinning like microwave plates turn burgeoning alt-R&B artist Joji onto an international phenomenon.
For BANNERS, it was his three-year-old showstopper “Someone to You” that ignited in the zeitgeist.
Originally off of his 2017 Empires of Fire EP, the song continues his penchant for big, orchestral numbers that could fill a stadium (if concerts were still a thing) and uplifting themes of hope and intimacy. “My music is me saying that it’s going to be okay,” he explains. “I know that a lot of people say to just make music for yourself, but I am very aware of the effect I’d like to have on people…
To me, it’s all about making somebody’s day just a tiny little bit better. Even if it’s just for three and a half minutes.
With over 400 million streams and hundreds of thousands of TikTok videos featuring the song, that optimism has found quite a few ears. “Obviously it’s a really exciting thing, that something you made keeps people coming back,” he says between frequent remarks of gratitude. “So it’s lovely to know that hopefully I’m doing something right. And like I said before, I hope that means I’ve played a small part in making people’s day a little bit better.
I don’t even need to change the world
I’ll make the moon shine just for your view
I’ll make the starlight circle the room
BANNERS first hit the airwaves in 2015 with the single “Shine a Light.” It’s stomp-along chorus and big, sweeping instrumentals firmly established his pop rock fingerprint right away. Describing his sound, Nelson muses with a bit of a laugh, “If you wanted Coldplay to play your wedding at a fraction of the price, you can just get me.” The comparison isn’t an unfair one, but BANNERS is more than just Chris Martin-lite. Through all the radio-friendly hooks and gospel-esque back of the amphitheater choruses, there exists a thread of folk-like authenticity in his work. These are songs for people looking for a shred of humanity in troubled times, reaching for an empathetic hand.
When writing “Shine a Light” and the subsequent “Start a Riot” with producer Stephen Kozmeniuk (Dua Lipa, Lykki Li), the pair bonded over the songs that brought them that sense of connection and ennui. “We talked about the songs we loved in our lives,” he recalls. “Songs that were the soundtrack to a road tip, or the soundtrack to a breakup, or the songs we put on a CD for a girl to listen to. We were always really conscious of writing our own songs for people and trying to have a positive impact on their lives if we could.”
Watch: “Shine a Light” – BANNERS
That thread continues throughout his discography, culminating in a way with “Someone to You.” Though not overtly different from his body of work, the song is an amalgam of everything he does best. It hits with striking immediacy and intimacy that belies an artist baring his soul to the world. It’s the sort of thing TikTok can’t help but drink up in gallons. “I think TikTok is lovely,” adds Nelson. “And it’s so funny that there’s a creative outlet there now that has music as such a big component. [Users] get to create stuff that builds on what you’ve already made. It’s like a collaboration, man, and it’s really lovely.”
With the rampant negativity on some social media platforms, it’s relieving that some digital spaces trade in the type of positive creativity that shares themes with BANNERS’ music. In some regards, “Someone to You” and TikTok are a match made in heaven. “I think the more connected we are, the easier it is to see how ridiculous prejudice is,” says Nelson.
Because in the end we’re much more similar than we are different. That’s the amazing thing about it.
So much uncertainty still surrounds the music industry, but Nelson is keeping his head up. Even after the Internet moves on to the next craze, he plans to build on the success of “Someone to You” with bigger and better BANNERS projects. “I hope that [the track] has elevated me a bit higher now, so that people will listen to the next song,” he laughs. But his music speaks for itself. As long as listeners reach out for shared humanity, BANNERS will have an audience, singing that they want to be somebody to someone.
We sat down with BANNERS to discuss his newfound viral success, challenges facing artists in quarantine, and how the streaming age has affected how musicians create. Read the full conversation below:
Watch: “Someone to You (TikTok Compilation)” – BANNERS
A CONVERSATION WITH BANNERS
Atwood Magazine: Though you’ve always been in the driver’s seat, Use Me is the first album you’re taking full credit for as an artist. What led you to that decision?
BANNERS: Most of this year I was in Toronto, Canada, where I’ve been living for the last five years. That was quite a lonely existence. Everybody that I knew or went off to cabins and so I was kind of on my own. But about four weeks ago, I just came back to Liverpool. I figured I just needed to hole up my mom’s and it’s been good. It’s been nice to be back.
Yeah, I had a moment similar where I had to just get out of town. It can be a little oppressive being the same four walls.
BANNERS: Yeah, the first two months of it was kind of interesting. I was quarantining, obviously. But writing songs over zoom was suddenly a thing. And all of a sudden, you could write with people that were miles away, but then quite quickly, when you’re not doing anything, you run out of things to write. So it’s nice to have a change of change of scenery.
What has it been like, as an artist adjusting to the “new normal” that we're facing?
BANNERS: Obviously it’s strange, but we’re so lucky in many respects. Even if this was 10 years ago, it would have been really hard to even do this interview. I feel quite fortunate, from a personal perspective, because of my job, that things like Spotify, Zoom, and YouTube are so readily available. Even down to recording songs. It used to be that you’d have to go into a studio to record really good vocals. But now, I have all that equipment in my apartment, and it’s a lot cheaper than it used to be. I’m definitely in a better position with my job than I would have been if this pandemic happened even a few years ago.
'I think about this a lot. Can you imagine if this pandemic happened in the 90s?
BANNERS: Which is not that long ago, is it?
Even if it the early 2000s, it would have been a very different thing. But of course, there are lots of lots of businesses and industries that aren’t so lucky.
Yeah, that's absolutely true. So, let's start talking about your music. I've been a BANNERS fan since “Shine a Light” showed up on my release radar like five years ago. For those who aren't as familiar with your music, how would you describe your sound?
BANNERS: If you wanted Coldplay to play your wedding at a fraction of the price, you can just get me. *laughs* I like uplifting themes. My music is me saying that it’s going to be okay. You’ll be alright. I like to present people with a bit of hope. I grew up singing in a big cathedral in Liverpool. And it’s really massive. So I think I tried to make music that you could potentially fill a cathedral with. That makes me think it’s quite authentic.
We talked a lot about the songs that we loved in our lives, songs that were the soundtrack to a road trip, or the soundtrack to a breakup, or the songs we put on a CD for a girl to listen to.
I talk to a lot of artists and everyone has a different drive or muse when they're creating their art. When you sit down to write a BANNERS song, is there a consistent feeling or process that you go through?
BANNERS: I know that a lot of people say just make music for yourself, but I am very aware of the effect that I would like to have on people. I keep people’s experiences in mind when I go to write even really early on when I was writing “Shine a Light” or “Start a Riot” with producer Stephen Kozmeniuk. We talked a lot about the songs that we loved in our lives, songs that were the soundtrack to a road trip, or the soundtrack to a breakup, or the songs we put on a CD for a girl to listen to. We were always really conscious of writing our own songs for people and trying to have a positive impact on their lives if we could.
I think it’s funny. At first you’re just trying to get somewhere with it and you’re trying to figure out how you can make it your job. But quite quickly, what becomes addictive, and what becomes the real drive is just making people’s days a little bit better.
With that in mind, would that be what you say is your favorite part about creating music?
BANNERS: I don’t really view it in terms of Spotify streams or whatever. To me, it’s all about making somebody’s day just a tiny little bit better. Even if it’s just for three and a half minutes. There is a really big positive impact that you’re having a cumulatively over time.
Obviously, I’ve had help from Island Records and I have this opportunity for that to happen to a much wider group of people that than I’d have otherwise. And I don’t think there’s many jobs you could have you get to do that. It makes me really confused as to why, for example, some politicians don’t do their jobs in the same way. Some of them do, but a lot of them have this ability and opportunity to make things a lot better for people and they’re just greedy and self-centered instead.
“Someone to You” recently had a big resurgence on TikTok. What do you make of the songs extended life?
BANNERS: Obviously, it’s a really exciting thing, that something you made keeps people coming back. It’s very easy to spend a lot of time thinking that what you made is rubbish. You think “I am not very good at this” or, “the label regrets signing me.” It’s easy to lose confidence. So it’s lovely to know that hopefully I’m doing something right. And like I said before, I hope that means I’ve played a small part in making people’s day a little bit better.
I think TikTok is lovely. I’m not very good at doing it, but I’m really glad that it exists. From my experience of doing music, I’ve seen that kids are awesome. They’re creative. They’re excited about the world.
When you when you meet people after, they’re just there to have an experience. Sometimes they want to come and just say hello, and they want a picture, but they don’t want anything else from you. The thing that I’ve learned with music is that a lot to be hopeful about with the younger generation. And it’s so funny that there’s a creative outlet there now that has music as such a big component. They get to create stuff that builds on what you’ve already made. It’s like a collaboration, man, and it’s really lovely.
I'm also not very good at TikTok. I look at all these videos, and there seems to be so much work and artistry that goes into creating them. It's kind of overwhelming.
That's why I like Instagram so much. It's the positive social media. These platforms have this incredible ability to bring people together like they have around “Someone to You.” Do you see the positive of these apps outweighing the negatives?
BANNERS: Yeah, I do. First of all, I think the people that are being dickheads on Twitter are the minority. Twitter as a platform amplifies the ones that shout the loudest. Issues are never as simple as 280 characters. It’s all very blunt, very short synopses of something that of course, miss all of the nuance. That’s true of almost everything, and I think it rewards the easy answers. Genuine real politics is much more complicated.
I think the more connected we are, the easier it is to see how ridiculous prejudice is. Because in the end we’re much more similar than we are different. That’s the amazing thing about it.
Social media is the industrial revolution of our time. And we are only 10 years into it, so it’s going to have teething problems. Of course we’re not going to nail it in the tiny amount of time it’s been around, but I hope that the longer it is, the more we learn how to utilize it correctly. In the long run, it’s far better for us to all be connected.
So let's back up just a little bit. How did “Someone to You” first come together?
BANNERS: I had not been long signed to Island and it was all very new to me, you know, having a career in music. Up to that point, I was just writing songs for myself, or for a girl once. That part is quite easy because there’s no pressure on you at all. And all of a sudden you’re signed to these great big, very historic institutions and there’s really nothing to prepare you for it. There’s suddenly a lot of people waiting to hear the songs that you write. It’s a lot of pressure.
So I went to LA to do a month of writing. I had twenty-five different concurrent writing sessions, and I really hadn’t got anything that was very good. I was just quite lonely. I was up there on my own. And I had one more session to do. I remember saying to my girlfriend at the time, if I could just come home now I would just cancel the session.
Then on the last the last day that I was there, I got together with Sam Hollander, who’s a brilliant, very successful songwriter. I went in there with him, and he’s got just Platinum records all over his walls, you know, and I was saying to him, “Man, I feel like I’ve been struggling a bit.”
And he just said to me, “Forget about all that. Today, we’re going to write your big hit.”
And I think just having a bit of confidence went a long way. “Someone to You” was the song that we wrote together. So, I’m very grateful for him, and it’s also a testament to just hanging in there. Don’t cancel the writing session because you never know.
That's great that it came together that way.
BANNERS: Yeah, man.
I was in an Uber a lot in LA because I didn’t have a car. And that Saturday of the session, I thought I’ll just walk. It’s good, isn’t it? For your blood flow and get going? And the idea for the song came through. The phrase “someone to you” came to mind and I got this session thinking, surely that’s already a thing. I’ve just stolen that by accident. I was expecting them to go, “No, that’s an Adele song.” But it hadn’t been done yet. So, I think I got quite lucky and just crashed into one that hadn’t been taken.
You can absolutely get your heart and soul out in three and a half minutes.
In the past few years, streaming services have changed the way that artists release music and engage with their fans. Singles and EPs have become far more prevalent and even the CEO of Spotify has said that artists need to release far more often to keep people interested. Do you see that affecting the way you write your music?
I don’t think about it consciously. But ultimately, I’m not writing songs that are generally longer than three and a half minutes, and I’m not writing big, long intros, you know. There’s no “Bittersweet Symphonies” or “Bohemian Rhapsodies.” It’s a lot of different things working together. There’s a writing process, then there’s the production process, and then you work with a label, obviously, and you have your A&R. It’s their job to help you release the song for the marketplace ultimately, and they help you pick them.
So yeah, I think about it subconsciously, and maybe it’s a conscious thing too. But it was probably always like that. At the moment, it’s Spotify. But there’ve always been technological advancements. If you listen to songs from the 50s, they’re all two and a half minutes long. In the 70s, a lot songs went on for ages, because that’s what was going on then. So, it’s no different in 2020.
I am trying to write songs that will work on the radio. That’s what I want to do. But if that wasn’t one of my aims, I would write songs that were seven minutes long. I also wouldn’t have signed to a major record label. I’m perfectly comfortable with it. You’ve got to figure out how to use what you’ve got. And you can absolutely get your heart and soul out in three and a half minutes.
In some respects, it’s a shame that albums don’t work the same way. But, you know, we just all have to adapt to it. And that’s how it always has been.
Watch: “Someone to You” – BANNERS
Eyes to the future. Do you have any new projects coming up?
BANNERS: There is so much time now. Everybody is in their houses, and everyone has Zoom. There is a way of using this time productively, but it’s hard. Personally it’s all about finding a rhythm and the opportunity to write with people in LA, which I have been doing. Then right the next day it’s somebody in London, and the next day somebody in Nashville. And there’s not a great rush to release the new song right now. I’ve just been trying to put out as many good songs as I possibly can. I hope that “Someone to You” has elevated me a little bit higher now, so that more people will listen to the next song.
But again, I do feel very fortunate for loads of reasons. When I think of all the sound engineers I’ve worked with, and the people that work in venues, and lovely passionate people, and they don’t have the same luxury I do with their job. Given how lucky I am, I just have to make the most of this opportunity. It’d be silly not to.
So yeah, I’m writing as many songs as I can. We’ve got a bunch in the pipeline, and we’ll just pick the best one or the best five or the best however many, and then hopefully release them over the next year.
You’ve said that “If BANNERS’ music can become the soundtrack to a moment for one person, that would be the dream for me.” Is there a BANNERS song, or songs that you think are the perfect soundtrack for this moment in time?
BANNERS: For this moment in time. I think “Where the Shadow Ends” is quite good because it’s about saying that we’re going through the storm. We’re in a great big cloud, but it gets better. And we will all get back together afterwards. We’re going to get through it.
© Meredith Truax
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