Published in Relix Magazine, November 9, 2022
For the first decade of Tank and the Bangas’ existence, lead singer Tarriona “Tank” Ball set a singular goal in her mind: She was going to buy a house. She wanted a place of her own, to exhale completely, to fill with music and art and poetry. It could be a modest house—she never dreamt of a mansion—a place in her native New Orleans that would tell the world, quietly and confidently: “I earned this.” That’s how she’d know she made it.
When she sits for an interview in late summer 2022, Tank is on a break from touring behind the band’s newest neo-soul masterpiece, Red Balloon. She is sitting in her kitchen, where the beauty of achieving that dream is co-existing with its day-to-day reality. And Tank is not in the mood for both. “Folding clothes and reading mail? I don’t feel like adulting today,” the 32-year-old says, her bright yellow painted nails cradling her forehead. She picks up an envelope and stares at it. “Why are you always sending me bills? Why?”
Tank bought this house last year, before Red Balloon was released in May 2022. She quickly made it hers while the band remained grounded during the pandemic.
“I’m always looking around my house and saying, ‘Oh, you’re so pretty! You’re a pretty girl!’” she laughs. “This is how I knew I’d found success. But really, there is this mountain I’ll never be done climbing until I’m dead. I’ll never be done. There’s always something to do.” Tank and the Bangas are indeed often looking at what’s next—which is all the more evident when you look back at what the band’s already done. Since whittling down their lineup from a larger collective of New Orleans musicians in the early 2010s, they’ve issued a series of well-regarded releases: 2013’s independent effort Think Tank, 2017’s label-backed Green Balloon and this year’s Red Balloon, as well as four different EPs between 2016 and 2020.
They’ve toured relentlessly—a word that’s overused in magazine articles but seems too modest here. Tank wrote and released a book of poetry, Vulnerable AF, in 2021. The ensemble were nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy in 2020. And they’ve become one of the most recognizable and beloved musical symbols of New Orleans.
They picked up immense momentum in 2017, when they won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest and became a viral musical obsession overnight, but Tank and the Bangas have been hustling from the beginning. As a band of best friends, they create a sense of home for themselves wherever they go—whether that’s their New Orleans rehearsal space Bangaville or studios in Los Angeles, Chicago and Louisiana. They proudly wave a freak flag that feels like a warm, comforting blanket. And they bring that inviting spirit to their fans, churning out deeply soulful songs about Black culture, joy and community that sound familiar and blazingly new all at once. ***** On paper, Red Balloon might sound serious, maybe even too serious. It’s full of songs about death, anxiety, doomscrolling and even the Jan. 6 insurrection. But that’s why music is meant to be heard, not just written about. With Red Balloon, Tank and the Bangas—the core of which also includes Joshua Johnson on drums, Norman Spence on bass and guitar, and Albert Allenback on horns—straddle a thin line, writing in depth about major social and human issues with such a playful, electric energy that listeners could be dancing, even as they’re being called out.
“Hey Mr. Bluebell with the soft white skin, even tone and your pretty blue eyes/ I’d like to bake a bit ‘bout ‘Merican pie/ Grab a chair, we’ll let you take a big bite/ We’ll have a conversation about the FDA/ The captive soul and how you got inside/ This conversation won’t go lightly/ If we refuse to look deep inside,” Tank sings on “Mr. Bluebell,” a bouncing, bright, horn-laden pop-soul song. She ends the song on a note that could strike us all: “When nothing has changed/ And the news is the same now/ And desensitized is the new wave.”
That’s the magic of Tank and the Bangas—at once soul music’s most serious social critics and magically playful weirdos. And it’s a role that they only fully stepped into with Red Balloon. For Joshua Johnson, the band’s de facto musical director and “man behind the vibes,” assembling this music “is all a game.”
He explains, “It’s like having a collectible toy—and you get to put all these extensions and new pieces on it. Like, ‘Look, now he has a Western hat and cowboy boots! Next season, he’ll go into outer space with a special space suit!’ “That’s what the band is for us—we’re playing and finding new ways to break it down and build something else,” Johnson adds. “If you take it that way, you don’t take yourself so seriously. Life is too short to be overly complicated and hard on yourself. It’s simple to us—that’s why this music touches people.”
Tank traces her playfulness with the Bangas to her childhood, when she’d give each of her dolls a different singing voice—a trick she still employs on record today. She calls her singing with the Bangas “going on a playdate with my voice.”
“I wonder which voice people think is my natural voice,” she asks. “My natural tone is an alto tone—like warm coffee, a Nina Simone voice. But my playful voice can be a cup of red Kool Aid. When I listen to this album now, I think I really was up there in space in the studio. Like, ‘Damn, you are a singer!’”
On record and in conversation, Tank is a presence who leaves an impression— all bright colors and sounds and energy and movement. She says that’s how she’s always been. As a kid growing up in New Orleans, her family would “let Tank do Tank things.”
Then, came Hurricane Katrina, and her family was forced to flee the city—first to stay with relatives in Mississippi and then, when it was apparent that they wouldn’t be going home anytime soon, to Indianapolis. It was there that a teenage Tank truly realized: She was different.
“People might think that New Orleans gave it all to me, but that’s not the truth,” she says. “In Indianapolis, my senior year could’ve been horrible. But I was brand new in a brand new world. I got to be whoever I wanted to be, and I became more comfortable with myself. And when we finally came back to New Orleans, that’s when I understood: Damn, this is like no other place.”
Back in Louisiana, Tank began singing at open mics and exploring her voice, her style, her soul and, for the first time with purpose, her city.
“We’re at the bottom of the map— with our own food, our own dialect, our own style and our own music. It’s very Bahamas; it’s very Jamaica,” she says. “New Orleans reminds me of Paris—of Tel Aviv, of parts of Spain. There’s so much culture and history here—you can’t change a doorknob without getting permission from the city.”
By the early 2010s, Tank, Johnson and Spence were all planets orbiting within the universe of New Orleans’ BlackStar Books and Caffe, where talented young musicians would frequent open mics and jam sessions—dubbing themselves, loosely, the Liberated Soul Collective. The collective was ground zero for musical fusion and experimentation; an anything-goes mentality reigned supreme. After a few years, and even some guerilla-style gigs outside New Orleans, the group boiled down to a few last musicians standing—Tank and the Bangas were born.
Then, in the most unlikely way imaginable, absolutely everything changed.
In 2017, the band unanimously won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest—and filmed their own entry in the feverishly popular Tiny Desk Concert series. The set concluded with the dreamy, levitating ballad “Rollercoasters,” with its refrain “Rollercoasters are for people who have never been in love/ They want to know how it feels to just fall,” pushing the NPR staff to tears. The video went viral immediately—today, it has nearly 15 million views.
Tank smiles remembering NPR’s Bob Boilen whispering in her ear, “Oh, life is about to change for you, Tank.”
He was right. Tank and the Bangas had hustled for years, booking their own short tours and self-releasing music. Suddenly, their manager was showing them a touring schedule that spanned months—and then stretched into years.
“Honestly,” Tank says. “It was nonstop like that until the pandemic.” ***** In early 2020, Tank and the Bangas returned home to New Orleans—and stayed there. Tank lived with her best friend, watched reruns of Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court on TV and ate homecooked crawfish everyday. She remembers riding her bike through the French Quarter, blasting music on portable speakers. She slept in her own bed, had time to exercise and rest.
“Things that were normal or boring to everyone were so exciting to me,” she says. “I was finally just staying put.”
Amid the chaos and panic of 2020, Tank found a sense of calm. But as 2020 bled into 2021, she and the band—along with the rest of us—began to get antsy. The group eventually started spending more time at Bangaville, the rehearsal space/ party pad they’ve had since the Liberated Soul Collective days. Tank remembers sitting on the porch of Bangaville, thinking to herself: “What the hell am I gonna write about?” And then came Jan. 6, and “Mr. Bluebell” poured out of her: “This conversation won’t go lightly if we refuse to look deep inside.”
Her lyrical mind was opening for business once again, and the words that emerged flowed from somewhere deep inside her. Soon Tank wrote “Black Folk,” a gorgeous spoken word epic celebrating Black joy and tackling Black trauma in the same breath.
The song, Tank says, “was so honest and beautiful and good. I mean, ‘crack and collard greens,’ who says that? But I just wanted people to feel love and pride and reflection in who we are. It was a long journey to come to the U.S. and survive. It is important to not only see the tragedy of slavery, but also the resilience that came out of it.”
“There Goes the Neighborhood,” which was released a month after Red Balloon, was similarly direct and honest— an indictment of the gentrification of Black neighborhoods—with Tank singing, “Here they come with their book stores/ They yoga mats/ They coffee shops and they bicycle paths/ Show themselves friendly/ And we so Black/ We couldn’t do nothing but wave and whisper/ But whisper, white folk coming/ Better watch Big Momma’s House/ Before they figure us out/ Aside.”
Simultaneously, Tank’s aunt Tina, who owns the Bangaville house, independently built the band a studio in one of the rooms—which became their spot to play and experiment with these new songs. Tank brought lyrics tougher than any she’d written before, and the band matched her with blinding creativity, nodding to classic soul music and forging into brand new territory.
The song “Where Do We All Go,” written in the dire early days of COVID-19, shows off that split crystal clear. It’s a meditation on where we go when we die, and what we’ve got to do while we’re here—with a bridge that borrows its iconic riff from Stevie Wonder’s “As.”
“That riff was dead-ass on purpose,” Johnson says. “I want you to feel like you’re going there, right into the sunset. The feeling saturates you. And you might feel like you’re walking right up to the gates and asking, ‘Where do we go when we die?’”
The band hunkered down at Bangaville throughout 2021, including sessions with Trombone Shorty, before packing up and setting down in Los Angeles to finalize the recordings—that’s where the laundry list of guests added their flavor to Red Balloon. Lalah Hathaway, Masego, Alex Isley, Questlove, Georgia Anne Muldrow and more all recorded vocals, creating a communal warmth on the record. Back home, the Bangas collaborated with New Orleans legend Big Freedia to create the frantic, bouncing hip-hop banger “Big.”
Explaining the song’s electric energy, Freedia says, “Well, Tank does everything big! Their music drips with New Orleans, and we’re all church musicians.”
The album kicks off in a surprising fashion, with the voice of comedian Wayne Brady, as a radio host, ad-libbing while unrolling the red carpet for Red Balloon.
“We sent him a message on Instagram: ‘Man, say you’ll be a part of our record.’ And he answered, ‘Of course.’ He recorded his vocals while on a family vacation. Shout out to that dude,” Johnson says with a laugh.
“The only person we couldn’t get was George Clinton. We opened for him before, but it just couldn’t be done,” Tank says. “Next time I see him, I’ll say, ‘George, what happened?!’”
Red Balloon—for all its weighty and emotional songs—came together with a lightness and playfulness that you can feel. It’s a party record and a record to meditate on. It’s a record for cruising through your city on a bike with a portable speaker—turning heads on the sidewalk, making eye contact and smiling together. It’s a record that speaks to the Black American experience in a way that makes you want to embrace your own community or whoever you consider home.
“I think people can find love for their own cultures—they see how we love our people. It brings an awareness for self-love. It’s the good and bad, it’s everything,” Johnson says. “The more we do it, the more I see who our music touches. It lets me know we’re in the book. We’re a part of the story that’s told. And I hope people continue to listen. Because we ain’t done yet—facts.”