How Kota Banks & Ninajirachi Are Changing The Face Of Australian Pop
And you need to pay attention.
“We’re both yes people. We never shoot an idea down. Nothing’s ever too strange or too cheesy,” says Ninajirachi, born Nina Wilson, on a Zoom call from her home studio. Banks, real name Jessica Porfiri, calls in from the car where she’s sitting next to her Italian Nonna, briefly pausing a day of chores to chat.
We’re discussing their recent collaborative EP True North, a triumphant release that perfectly paired the experimental leanings of Ninajirachi’s production with Banks’ bold, melody-chasing pop. It bins the heavy cultural cringe that’s surrounded the pop genre in Australia in recent times.
Separately, Ninajirachi and Banks have made a name for themselves within the Australian music scene. Ninajirachi was a finalist in triple j’s Unearthed High competition when she was just 17 and has gone on to release two solo EPs, Lapland and Blumiere. Banks, on the other hand, broke through with her debut mixtape Prize and has also laid down vocals for SOPHIE and Cashmere Cat.
Despite a hard pause being pushed on the world in the midst of a pandemic, it’s been a busy year for the pair. Ninajirachi released her second EP Blumiere, pairing her gentle vocals alongside production that dodges from the crystalline to the razor-sharp.
Banks also dropped an EP The Sweet & The Spice, continuing her exploration of the most experimental pockets of pop music. Teaming with regular producer Swick as well as new collaborators Xavier Dunn and Chunkluv, it’s some of her stickiest pop work to date.
Banks and Ninajirachi’s first official release came with a dizzying remix of Banks’ ‘Never Sleep’ but in the background, they had been working on something more extensive. Ninajirachi was tapped as a producer for Banks’ own solo material but their collaboration soon formed a sound that was the sum of equal parts — both artists constructing a unique sound rather than one creating in the background for the other.
So True North came to be — and suddenly, Ninajirachi and Kota Banks set a new benchmark for Australian pop.
A Sugar High Births An EP
“Initially we were doing sessions for Kota Banks and I was producing with that in mind,” Ninajirachi says, noting that they were subconsciously creating for the EP from May 2019.
They both loved what was coming from the studio but couldn’t see them attached to their solo project. “So much of Nina’s sonic DNA is on there. It felt random me putting it out when there was so much of her all over it,” says Banks.
A sugar high induced by “stuffing our faces with chocolate”, as she puts it, led to a light bulb moment that they make a collaborative EP together. It’s a simple idea on paper but historically, there are very few examples of Australian pop artists combining with electronic producers for a double-billed project.
It’s as if they’re duetting in different languages — Ninajirachi replying to Banks’ voice instrumentally with industrial beats and twinkling synths.
One trip through True North and it’s easy to see why both names had to be on the cover. The title track ‘True North’ is a testament to the chemistry. Banks lays down emotional vocals in the front half while Ninajirachi brings it home with thick, transcending production. It’s as if they’re duetting in different languages — Ninajirachi replying to Banks’ voice instrumentally with industrial beats and twinkling synths.
“We wrote the whole EP in a small studio with no windows and no outside influences. The possibilities felt endless,” says Banks.
It’s that freedom and comfortability together that makes the EP so transformative. One minute Banks is declaring, “pussy power, psychosis,” over cocky beats on ‘Opus’, and the next they’re building a utopian world on the glossy ‘Leaf In The Wind’. It’s as if they’re egging each other on to go weirder, go harder.
“You definitely push me,” Ninajirachi says to Banks. “If I was working on my own there are ideas that I may not have given the time of day.”
“I need to be on your level,” retorts Banks. “It’s like I need to stay on Nina’s innovative, creative level.”
The Hyperpop Frontier
As far-reaching as the whole EP is, it’s bound together by an appreciation for pop music and its possibilities. In recent years, the genre has been blown open, thanks to its collision with niche pockets of electronic music.
Charli XCX has carved her futuristic pop sound by working with PC Music’s A.G. Cook and SOPHIE. Caroline Polachek has done a similar thing by creating her debut solo album Pang with Danny L. Harle. The partnerships of Charli and Cook or Polachek and Harle are reminiscent of Banks and Ninajirachi — a pop artist colliding with a producer from a different musical world.
These polar opposite partnerships have been fundamental in carving out pop’s new sound — a new sound that’s being classed as a new genre known as ‘hyperpop’. The Spotify playlist for the genre was officially started in August 2019 and has since amassed close to 130,000 followers.
On that playlist sits Banks and Ninajirachi’s ‘Middle Of The Night’ — the glossiest, most accessible cut of the EP. ‘Middle Of The Night’ is a perfect pop song, shimmering with radio-ready hooks wrapped up in adventurous production.
Australia’s Pop Cringe
Australia has had a turbulent history with pop music, stemming from a cultural cringe surrounding the genre. The gap between pop and alternative music has been wide and divisive thanks to the vast difference in programming between commercial radio and youth radio giant triple j.
In recent times, however, that’s been changing. The top 20 of the triple j Hottest 100 of the Decade was largely a rock and alternative affair with the exception of Lorde’s ‘Royals’ and Flume’s ‘Never Be Like You’. It’s a different story when you look at the top 20 of the Hottest 100 of 2019. There’s a strong showing of pop artists, particularly female, with Tones and I, Billie Eilish, G Flip, Thelma Plum, Mallrat, and BENEE all making the cut.
Ninajirachi admits that, despite growing up adoring records by Lady Gaga and The Veronicas, she developed a distaste for pop music in high school. “When I was 14 or 15 pop had a bad name. I was like ‘pop music is trash’,” she says, echoing many others’ feelings towards the genre at the time. It took someone pointing out that a lot of her favourite songs were actually pop for her to reconsider it.
“When Flume put out ‘Never Be Like You’ my friend made a comment about how that was a pop song and I was like ‘OMG’. After that, I started making pop music again consciously. Then a year after that, there’s an Australian artist called Kota Banks started putting out crazy pop songs. And Charli XCX is doing Pop2.”
Banks has been making pop music since she arrived on the scene with the saccharine ‘Holiday’. She admits, however, that she feels like she has to work harder to shed stale thoughts that pop artists don’t write or produce their own music. “Because I’m a pop girl I feel like I have something to prove in the studio,” she says.
It’s worth noting that pop artists writing and producing their own music is not confined to experimental pop. Mariah Carey has had production credits on all of her records since her 1990 debut and Taylor Swift has been producing for herself since her second album Fearless.
Power In Community
A growing appreciation for pop music in Australia comes with shining a light on the work of these artists too but it’s also reliant on communities. Australian pop music has often been confined to major labels but there are now a number of smaller labels taking risks on the genre.
Banks and Ninajirachi have worked closely with DJ and producer Nina Agzarian, known as Nina Las Vegas, who runs her own label NLV Records. Banks and Agzarian have been working together since ‘Holiday’, while Ninajirachi has released two EPs under NLV Records.
“It’s seven forward-thinking pop songs,” Agzarian says about the True North EP continuing, “It’s like what 100 Gecs is but with two women making it. It’s incredible and wild.”
She says that the two of them have been so busy and excited about this project that she has to ask them, “When are you having a rest?”
The three of them push each other, not only in their music but in their visual output. The ‘True North’ video is dizzying — the idea was born from a biking video using a 360 go-pro that Agzarian’s Dad sent her. Banks and Ninajirachi took that and ran with it, making something both serene and off-kilter.
Banks and Ninajirachi are a creative force — refreshingly unrestrained and unwilling to hear any opposition. “I just want to make the music I want,” as Banks puts it bluntly. “I don’t care, I just want to make dope music.”
Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Tiff Williams