There’s no prouder feeling for us at Liverpool Noise than seeing local musicians and artists succeeding in doing what they love. We managed to grab a bit of time with the wonderful Michael Nelson of BANNERS, currently located in Toronto, to talk over his current situation and experiences of being a scouser in Canada and how it’s shaped his music career after forging his way in Liverpool.
Liverpool Noise: Hello, Michael! So, making huge waves currently it’s brilliant to see, we know you’ve worked closely with Canadian producer Stephen Kozmeniuk and now you’ve been in Canada for 5 years now! What are you up to over there, and is he part of the reason you chose to stay there?
BANNERS: It wasn’t initially! I used to work alongside my dad quite a lot in Parr Street while he was a record producer, so I was helping out as his assistant basically. He got asked to do a session once right in the middle of Canada in Winnipeg and I went along last minute and kept in touch with some of the session musicians there! So when i got back around a year later I got an email off one of them asking if I wanted to come over and just do some songwriting and stuff. I hadn’t really gotten much going with music yet at that time I was just doing odd jobs trying to make time, so I just thought ‘why not?’
Then it was one of them, I came out for a month and we did some recording, some of them got played to some people that got played to some more people and it just sort of worked its way up the food chain a little bit! And then your reputation quietly starts to grow and I signed with an independent label in Toronto before then moving to Island Records in New York which wasn’t too far away.
Then before you know it you’ve got an American van, all your equipment has American plug sockets and it just sort of makes sense to do it from here really!
LN: Of course! Certainly with the likes of other Liverpool musicians such as Dan Croll who recently moved out to North America it seems to be a great move. Do you think that moving to Canada gave you that stepping stone being so close to the East Coast life where all this music is happening?
BANNERS: I think so, it’s just one of those. Really what it make you realise it that it’s all very much moveable so what felt like the other side of the world is actually just a 7 hour flight from Manchester. It’s actually all very close. With the Covid situation that’s been proven even more! But you can record from your apartment and send it to LA where someone will do the production or someone will record a guitar, then that will be sent to Nashville and they’ll do the next bit so more and more, the place where you are doesn’t really matter!
The thing that does help is that you’re just around and bumping into people.
LN: Exactly, so long as you’re making sure music is your sole focus!
BANNERS: Yeah, that’s the really difficult part. To really make it work it has to be full time but that’s what makes the first step the hardest bit because how do you pay for all this stuff, you know? It’s ultimately where you have to take advances for example of publishing deals, or where those things are useful. When I first moved here I didn’t have any credit cards or references which meant I had had to pay the first years rent in advance!
In Toronto it’s very competitive for housing so apartments go really quickly! Why are they gonna take me basically?
And then of course you’ve gotta buy guitars and equipment and amps and all that stuff…
So it’s the part of music where it’s the first step that’s the hardest and it all gets a little easier once, for example, if you have a publisher then there’s a little bit of money available there and then you get moving and can make it your full time thing. It’s a pretty difficult thing to get into and it’s hard to know how you would even advise somebody other than make your absolute best of it and be nice to people and then the bits start to fall into place.
LN: On the subject of you saying about the expense of it all, so starting off with your two EP’s, which is the route a lot of bands tend to take with the studio costs being so significant. DId you find that your own EP’s almost were a chance to set up your genre that you wanted to be a part of for the album Where the Shadow Ends that came afterwards, or would you say the album always had a clear vision for you in your mind?
BANNERS: I mean, ultimately there’s so many options of what you can sound like isn’t there haha? Quite often you need to meet somebody that sees that in you and can facilitate it. I think that’s another part of where you get lucky with who you collaborate with and then you realise, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I wanna sound like!’. So for me it was working with Stephen Kozmeniuk when I first moved here. We had very similar music tastes and sometimes you need somebody to hear what you sound like. So i’m very indebted to him really for helping me figure that part of it out.
Because it’s just hard isn’t it!? There’s so many options and so many things that make different sounds! Ultimately pop music is the one that everybody wants, and a lot of people want to write a pop hit with you because that’s the thing that’s going to make them the most money. It’s totally understandable but you do need to reign people back a bit and say ‘Can we put an acoustic guitar in this?‘.
LN: Haha 100%, because it seems you’ve been placed in this kind of modern pop sound which is exactly what a lot of people are craving for these days.
BANNERS: Yeah to your point about the album, it’s very hard to have an overarching vision of things. More often that not one thing is reactive off another so you put music out and then you start to get a bigger sample size of what people like and what they don’t like. I think then you start to unconsciously aim towards that a little bit which helps a bit, but it’s also kinda dangerous!
That’s where it gets tricky when you first sign to a big record label because you’re so new to it and it’s such a brand new thing that you went from your whole life just writing songs because you liked it, to all of a sudden you’re very aware there’s now an entire record label waiting to hear what you’re doing, then a publisher and a management company! Then you start to feel the weight of it as you’re writing songs in these sessions they’ve set up and you start thinking to yourself ‘Oh no, it’s not going very well‘ and you can get really stressed out about it.
After a while the nice thing is that once you’ve released a few things and they start to get moving then you get confident in your own ability to do it again and you fit back in.
LN: I was going to say, needless to say, your background in singing in Liverpool Cathedral Choir as a kid must have allowed you feel safe that your voice is always something you can rely on. Did you find that was good to know you could always bring this certain level with you that many struggle to hit?
BANNERS: To be honest, the thing that really builds your confidence the most with music is when people you don’t know start wanting to work with you. When people that have no vested interest in you feeling good about yourself think that there’s something here that they’re going to professionally going to benefit from, weirdly is one of those confidence boosters because you can say to yourself that they probably wouldn’t give me the time of day unless they think it can be really good for them, too. So you know weirdly it’s almost this inverse way in itself that you can take quite a lot of confidence from that.
With the choir, you have to join that when you’re like 7 or something and you’re doing it every single day, it just becomes the rhythm of doing it that just gets in your somewhere. Then it is just the thing that you do and all you know that it’s the thing that you love and you can take that love into the times when it becomes your job and the stressful horrible bits.
And that’s the slightly tricky bit is that your relationship with music changes when your sole focus is the thing that it the most stressful. It used to be your escape and you could just enjoy it purely as a consumer of it, in the way that it’s supposed to be! You have to learn to love it in a different way I think.
LN: Almost like you’re on the musical stock market!
BANNERS: Looking at the kind of 360 music publishing deals, you’ve gone from one of your first singles Shine a Light being on FIFA 2016, how important would you say this spread of your music is in terms of these new music contracts in terms of getting yourself on adverts? Especially looking at your 2017 single Someone To You which seems to have been pretty much everywhere!
Yeh exactly. I mean it’s all a trade off, you end up giving away some of your intellectual property, where your record label might take a certain amount of anything I write. So you are aware of the trade offs, the same with your publisher who have control of a some of what you write. The flip side is that they have the ability to just get it out to a different audience.
There’s always going to be compromise but when you go into it you’re aware of like ‘I’m doing this and I’m aware that they’re going to try and make money out of it because it’s a business‘ and the Shine The Light thing is a really good example as when that happened I don’t think we’d actually released that yet as a song. It will have been the record label who had just pitched it to them as an idea and we think it might work!
LN: It’s so interesting then that you’d said that Shine a Light was almost known before it was released, on the other hand then with Someone To You which you released back in November 2017, suddenly a social media platform, TikTok, which didn’t even exist back then, has managed to pick it up and relaunch it into the spotlight. How does it feel to have this song that’s now coming up to 3 years old continue to do so well after it’s initial release?
BANNERS: It’s funny really because it’s always been my most popular song, we very nearly got it to be a bit of an alternative hit in America, just needed a couple more stations to pick it up and we never quite go there. All the places that picked it up like Denver and San Francisco it went to No. 1 in those markets and was getting some really great feedback. But we couldn’t quite get it to catch in the other places. So it was already like my most popular one, and even before TikTok was getting known here it had around 80 million streams on Spotify. But there was always a bit in the back of my mind where I felt like it was so close!
It’s nice that it’s got a bit of a second wind really, and more than anything it’s a bit of a reminder to myself that none of this stuff happens in a straight line.
You can’t ever compare your trajectory to anybody else’s. A friend who’s a singer as well is just a bit earlier on in her career and she would always stress out because it wasn’t going on the exact same trajectory that I’d had, but it never does for anybody.
It’s definitely worth me remembering that sometimes a whole social media platform gets invented!
BANNERS – Someone To You Video
LN: Haha you never know what’s going to happen in 2021 at this rate!
BANNERS: At this rate terrible things!
But yeh, the battle now and the key is to keep the TikTok thing as a platform to get it working and there’s some really positive signs. I don’t know where it’s up to in US at the moment but I believe it’s up to number 30! It’s so weird though we had like number 8 in Belgium and The Netherlands too. We’ve just got to keep going with it really, hopefully it’s not only a TokTik thing and that’s just a launching pad.
LN: It is definitely refreshing, we talk about this projection that we expect, and you think we’ve released the EP, then another, then an album. And you expect this rise to keep building. Sometimes it’s great to see that this song is doing so well after it’s initial release and suddenly this huge reinstatement and an ‘I told you so’ to some of these stations that potentially missed out!
BANNERS: It’s all good isn’t it. Like I say, it’s important that nobody is calling favours in and that stations are playing it because they think it’s what works best for them. And if they don’t think that, then that’s absolutely fine because then it means that when they are playing it you can take confidence in the fact it’s not a favour and it’s actually worth their while!
BANNERS: Haha I know I do try to avoid that word as much as possible but it’s often the only one to explain it.It’s true yeah, you can never know what’s around the corner and there really are times where it just feels like periods of time where it just is like ‘Oh God, how do I do the next bit, what do people want?’ haha!My advice to people has always been that I don’t really have a formula. Not that I’ve really achieved anything, but it does seem to me that you just have to be the sort of person that people wanna hang out with, you know? You’d be amazed at the effect that going into a radio station, not even to play a song on the radio, just to say hello and be nice to them. You’d be amazed at how often that helps things!
It’s tricky moving to a new country when you’re not 7 or 8 years of age, trying to make new friends when you basically have gotten to a point in your life in Liverpool where you’ve cultivated such a boss group of mates to then have to start all over again to an extent! Honestly I’m just excited to see my friends and family.
The other thing is that it’s a very individual job so it’s nice like i’ve got an office that i’m going into everyday where you then get to know people over a period of time it’s just very much one offs of a writing session here or there and you try and keep in touch with people of course, but everybody that you know are musicians and the last thing they want to do is hang out in a bar!
So it’s always boss for me going back to Liverpool because almost all of my career so far has been in North America so going back to Liverpool is the place that music was never my stressful thing or my job except for when I worked in Parr Street which was boss! It’s just the place that I can watch music (not that there’s much going on at the moment) but normally you can go and watch music how it’s supposed to be watched.
That’s what’s so good about Liverpool actually in comparison to North America is that they take it very seriously as a business here. Like too much. And i’m not saying that doesn’t happen in Liverpool the amount of successful bands is testament to that but you get people playing gigs here where they’ve practiced all their moves in the mirror but they’re only playing to 10 people but pretending like it’s a stadium and you’ve got all the backing tracks and all that, like some weird level of fidelity straight away which is all very polished, because music is a big economy here. You’ve got the likes of Drake, The Weekend and Shawn Mendes and Arcade Fire just a bit down the road in Montreal. Whereas Liverpool, what I love about it and I think it’s true of Liverpool people too, we just like people having a go! We just like watching 4 lads turn their guitars up as loud as they’ll go and absolutely making a go of it!
And we’ve all been to see our mates do that and been in those supportive crowds of people just yelling “yeah go ‘ed!” and I think that’s a great breeding ground for building confidence. Then once you are signed or whatever you can then play your gigs and figure out the fidelity part but it’s not the most important part in Liverpool which is boss I think.
LN: It’s almost like in North America you jump straight into a higher level of how polished you are whereas in Liverpool got the beer soaked cables and starting out fresh at level one?
BANNERS: Exactly, and the reality is that that’s well better and that your first ever gig is just a load of messy noise because that’s what they’re gonna be anyway. Here, it’s just that you feel dead worried that you’re…it’s difficult to explain. I guess it’s just the attitude towards it and the attitude of like, i’m getting into this because I want to be a popstar, and in Liverpool I think it’s just people just needing to make music and they just wanna be up on a stage to make it!
Maybe there is a broader aim of ‘ooh i’d like this and that, but if it doesn’t then i’m on a stage with my mates‘. That’s forgotten here with the mentality they have.
LN: Coming to Toronto then with those levels ahead of the messy noise gigs potentially helped you then?
BANNERS: Actually the thing is I never really did gigs so much in Liverpool so it was still really hard to get going because I’d never played a gig before and then I was signed to these record labels and publishers. I honestly think the 10th gig I ever did was on Jimmy Kimmel! And it was horrible haha!
You just aren’t ready for it yet. I do wish that i’d had 50 of my gigs playing to my mates or cutting my teeth in the Zanzibar.
LN: Amazing! Well, Mike I won’t keep you. I know it’s 10am in Toronto so i’ll let you get on with your morning in peace. But, finally for 2021, i’m gonna ignore the rest of 2020, what’s on the agenda and anything you particularly want to achieve?
BANNERS: We just need to keep working Someone To You and keep building that, so obviously there’s quite a big radio campaign at the moment in America that I need to keep on top of and hopefully keep int building Spotify. I believe it’s in the top 150 most streamed songs on Spotify in the World! So we’re gonna keep seeing if we can keep building that and turn that into other things and then the key is to then follow that up basically!
BANNERS: Yeah exactly, it’s a great foundation and then trying to make the most of the opportunity really at the moment. So hopefully the next song does something too and i’ll be in quite good shape!Nothing ever happens in a straight line so we’ll see!
BANNERS: I can’t wait haha. I’m gonna rent a barge with 3 of my mates in Stoke so what could possibly go wrong!