Tank and the Bangas on “Red Balloon”

May 12, 2022

By Ben Jardine

Photography by Jeremy Tauriac
Web Exclusive


On a Spring day in early April, Tarriona “Tank” Ball of the New Orleans funk-soul group, Tank and the Bangas, is driving to get some lunch. The night before, Ball was joined by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for a rendition of the National Anthem at the NCAA Men’s Basketball final between Kansas and North Carolina. “Right after the game, we went straight to the bowling alley to celebrate the birthday of one of the Bangas, Norman [Spence II],” says Ball. “And now we gotta go home and pack for California.”

From the very beginning of our conversation, it is clear that Ball’s life is a fast-paced sequence of one major event quickly rolling into another.

Tank and the Bangas emerged into the mainstream in 2017, when they won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, and performed in the station’s Washington, D.C. office. Of the group’s winning performance, NPR host Bob Boilen remarked: “What won me over about the band’s performance of ‘Quick’ were the interactions among lead singer Tarriona ‘Tank’ Ball and her bandmates, and the way they seemed to surprise one another. It all felt so organic and on-the-spot.” Their performance has been viewed 12 million times.

A lot has happened since that Tiny Desk show. The group has been on tour almost non-stop since 2017. They were nominated for a Grammy (Best New Artist) in 2020. Ball released a book of poetry, Vulnerable AF, in 2021, and soon after the group began work on new material for their third studio album, Red Balloon.

“I drive around listening to the album a lot,” Ball says. Reflecting on her favorite songs from Balloon, she speaks with affection for each of the album’s 16 tracks and is excited about sharing the new music with the world. “I love ‘Stolen Fruit.’ We all love ‘Stolen Fruit.’ Tens across the board. We love how it came about and we love the meaning of it,” she says, references one of the album’s initial singles, a song that is about the slave trade and whose title is a play on the Billie Holiday classic “Strange Fruit.”

But Ball is hesitant to pile all her affection onto just one song. “I think people do have a favorite child,” she says later with a playful seriousness. “They don’t want to make their other children feel [bad]. It’s all about the bonds, it’s all about the strong bond that you create with your child, the same way with the music.”

Like many musicians operating in the midst of a global pandemic, Red Balloon is the product of a reflex to get back into the studio after stretches of isolation. The album has an instantly recognizable freedom to it, a collaborative pulse and lighthearted strokes of genius that help alleviate even the darkest corners of the songs.

The band maintained an “open door” policy during the recording sessions, which were held in New Orleans and California. “No lie, California was really special because we were in Earth, Wind, & Fire’s studio and the vibes were heavy and special,” says Ball. “And we had everybody walking in and out of the studio, from Sheila E to Lalah Hathaway to Diana Ross’s son [Jamison Ross] and Austin Brown, who is Michael Jackson’s nephew. We were creating with a lot of people, and it was really incredible, really special.”

The list of featured artists is mouth-watering. In addition to the aforementioned guests, Ball and Co. (the band’s core lineup also features Joshua Johnson, Norman Spence II, and Albert Allenback) were joined by Trombone Shorty, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Jacob Collier, Masego, Big Freedia, Alex Isley, and The Hamiltones.

“To be around so many musicians, it was just awesome,” Ball says. “We just felt so lucky to be there. We could spend a lot of time just being there in LA. We could have done a couple of albums, if time had permitted, because that’s just how amazing it felt. We were not ready to leave.”

The result is suredly the group’s magnum opus, with songs that deal with anxiety, vulnerability, Black life, community, technology and our modern world, and climate change. Woven throughout are light touches, humor, and Ball’s incredible delivery, her voice taking on different character qualities. “[We’re] making the music playful, kind of like how America likes to joke around with serious matters, ‘meme’ everything out. Even the childishness of it, how the attention spans of children are. Now adults have the same attention span. You gotta keep things light, just to make sure that you’re paying attention.”

Red Balloon is structured like one long radio show, with guests Wayne Brady, Questlove, and New Orleans’ own DJ Soul Sister providing brief intros to tracks. Brady even voices an advertisement for a new pharmaceutical product, “Aintthatsomeshitsaprol.” These segments help to drive a playful energy to the album, whose heavy themes and lyrics can hit hard.

“We want to be your new radio, because [current] radio is lame,” Ball explains. “So if you could pick whatever you want to listen to, we’re going to be what you want to listen to. These special voices like Questlove and Wayne Brady and DJ Soul Sister [are] our DJs, our radio hosts: people that love music, and know the climate of what’s going on right now.”

One of the most alluring and magnetic aspects of Ball’s poetics is her ability to be vulnerable while maintaining a magnetic delivery. It’s a hallmark of her work, both with the Bangas and through her written poetry. She uses both outlets to process the pain in her life, to find that closure that she’s been pursuing for years.

“I just find it so funny and interesting that I can be vulnerable with a group of strangers and not with the person that I had loved for years,” Ball says. “But that’s always been the way I connected with people, just by being myself. It was fun to start being truthful about my feelings and emotions, because that was something from my life that was missing for a while.”

Ball speaks with a wisdom that only comes from lived experience: of processing heartbreak, pain, and confusion. She put in the work, and came out on the other side with invaluable perspective.

“People have to go through a lot of different things to get their closure,” she says. “You’ve got to realize that that person is not going to give it to you, you’re gonna have to go get that closure yourself. It’s not always going to be a big conversation, a letter, it’s not always going to be that with you. You’re going to have to go out and get it yourself so that you can move on. I always tell people that you need to write down all your feelings because one day hopefully you’ll be able to laugh at them. You’ll be able to say, ‘Oh my gosh, look where I was.’”

Realizing the conversation was getting heavy, Ball immediately cracks a joke: “Everybody wants to be SJP, but Big is not always going to come to Paris!”

Tank & the Bangas are on the road this summer, visiting cities around North America, before heading to Europe in August. Before we finish the conversation, Ball has a request: “Tell everyone that Red Balloon is the best album of—what year are we in?—2022.”

We laugh, and suddenly the world is a little brighter.

www.tankandthebangas.com

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