Arts & LifeMusic

Q&A: BANNERS releases EP, says pandemic was most creative time of his life

Nov. 4, 2021, 7:13 p.m.

Michael Nelson, also known as BANNERS and for his hit song “Someone to You,” sat in a Toronto hotel room with dodgy WiFi for his interview with The Daily. Meanwhile, his music has over 1.5 billion streams worldwide and plays in numerous television shows, commercials and movies.  

Nelson recently left Liverpool — his childhood and pandemic home — to head back for rehearsals with his Toronto-based band in preparation for their tour, which will stop at The Chapel in San Francisco on Nov. 5. The tour follows the release of their new EP, “It’s Gonna Be Ok.”

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: How has your time in the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral Choir influenced your musical work?

Michael Nelson [MN]: For some reason, they needed somebody in my school play to sing a solo dressed up like an ox. That must have been a bit of the Bible that I missed; the part [laughs] where the ox gets up and has a nice sing. But they auditioned everybody, and I don’t think my parents knew that I could sing. I mean, I don’t know how good any 6-year-old is, but I think I could hold a tune. So I was this lovely little angelic singing ox, and the music teacher there said that I should audition for the Cathedral Choir in Liverpool. 

The Cathedral Choir is quite a dedicated thing. You can’t ever let your concentration drop, and you have to be very, very professional even from a really young age, but it’s also unbelievably beautiful music that involves singing with a choir of 36 people in this great big, vast building. You really learn the beauty of music, but you also learn a real sense of dedication to it, and also there’s something really beautiful about getting to do it in that building. Because building the cathedral took 80 years, and that’s generations of builders that built that, and now you’re the custodian of it, and it’s your job to fill it with every piece of dedication that you can give it, so when you go to the gigs later on in your life, you turn up with the same mentality: just doing your best and dedicating yourself to it.

TSD: At what point did you decide, “okay, let’s pursue this professionally”? 

MN: Yeah, well, I’m really, really fortunate because my dad is a record producer. So at the same time that I was in the Cathedral Choir, I was also spending a lot of time in the recording studio. I was a little kid, I wasn’t working there or anything like that. 

The quality is so amazing that when you’re little — I’m not sure how to describe it — it’s a very visceral experience to be in a recording studio. You don’t really know what’s going on, you just know that it sounds amazing and it’s really loud, and there’s all this equipment that lights up, and you’re hanging out with these bands, who are just the coolest people. I remember standing there when I was little and just thinking, “I just need to spend my life here because this is amazing.” 

TSD: So you’re in the industry, now you’ve launched this career, would you talk about a challenge that you faced along this journey?

MN: Music is my main passion in my life. But there have been times where it’s been the reason for every piece of stress in my life, too. When I first started out with it, things sort of accelerated very quickly. You go from a point where you were just writing songs in your bedroom to impress the girl or really just to do it because you’ve got it somewhere in your soul to then all these record labels expressing interest in you, and then you get signed really quickly. It’s all crazy exciting, but there’s no real preparation for it. It’s a really steep learning curve. 

TSD: What stands out to you as one of your proudest accomplishments?

MN: If you would’ve told me eight years ago that I’d be paying my bills, that I could put the heating on in my house, and I’d be doing it all by playing music, I would imagine that eight-year-ago Michael said, “Right? Well, you must be doing cartwheels all the time because that’s amazing.” Now, I’m trying to work more on appreciating all of this and reminding myself, “You’re okay; you’re paying your bills, and you’re doing music, and that’s an unbelievable accomplishment in its own right.” Especially because I know that in five years time if everything collapses, I will regret not living in the moment. I think it’s an unfathomable thing to me that making music is my job, and I should appreciate that a lot more. 

TSD: Your tour in America is coming off of your recently released EP, “It’s Gonna Be Ok.” Can you walk me through this: the pandemic, the EP and now this tour?

MN: The EP basically was the product of a year of Zoom writing sessions. And because I had all this help from my record label and from my publisher, I was able to do writing sessions with people from all over the world that I hadn’t met yet. So actually, it was somehow the most creatively productive time of my life because I didn’t need to fly to Los Angeles to write with people in Los Angeles. From a personal perspective, I’m quite proud of myself that I made that work, and I think everybody, whatever their profession, had to make it work over this pandemic. And not even professionally, just life — anyone that got through it, and is continuing to get through it mentally, is doing alright.

TSD: I was scrolling through your Instagram, and I saw a bit about a story where you remembered an octopus being at the dock in Liverpool, but nobody else seemed to remember this octopus. What’s the story behind that? 

MN: So three of my best friends back in Liverpool — my friends Ben, Tim and Paddy — I’m not really sure why they’ve ganged up on me like this, but they won’t be swayed. I once told them that there was an octopus at this dock in Liverpool called the Albert Dock — it’s this really beautiful old kind of warehouse from the early 1900s; it was brilliant. And when we were children, there was an octopus there. I remember there being a news story, but my friends have decided that there was never an octopus, and they won’t listen to sense. So our friend Rory somehow found the archive for the local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, going back to the 60s. In the archive, he found the article that said that there was an octopus. Unfortunately, Ben, Tim and Paddy are determined that it’s some sort of photoshop, so I think this is gonna rumble on, to be honest with you, mate. I think this is going to be my life’s work, and I don’t think I will ever, ever emerge victorious from it, but it’s good to have a good project.

TSD: Is there something that you always want to talk about but never get the chance to?

MN: We have a bit of a cultural thing in England where footballers aren’t allowed to be unhappy, and they’re not allowed to talk about their mental health issues because football is the dream job for nearly everybody from England. And I think that’s really, really unfair, and it’s quite ridiculous.

My job isn’t quite the same, but I do find it quite hard to talk about having any issues. So doing things like this is very therapeutic. I appreciate you talking to me at all, man.

Nikolas Liepins ’25 is a photojournalist and staff writer with The Stanford Daily. Contact Nikolas at nliepins 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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