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Meet Forward-Looking Singer Banners

The artist offers bright beats and loveable lyrics on his sophomore EP Empires on Fire

With his Liverpool accent and soothing tones, Michael Joseph Nelson’s speaking voice suits his taste in small talk; he starts our interview by weighing in on the weather between Toronto and New York, adding that he quite enjoys hat and scarf weather. Nelson, who performs under the stage name Banners, currently resides in Toronto, where he’s gearing up for a U.S. tour. Despite his easy demeanor, he’s currently dealing with some tour-related stress—namely learning how to configure stage lighting, which he’ll be doing in addition to performing. “It might be a total disaster, so don’t get too excited,” he warns me. “I just couldn’t be bothered to pay someone for something that I could learn and do myself,” he says.

I quickly learn that this ambition is typical for Nelson thanks to his upbringing. A midwife for most of his childhood, Nelson’s mother pursued an education later in life. “She decided to go to University and it turned out she’s basically a genius,” Nelson says. “She earned her PhD in Fine Arts, learned the clarinet and piano to a really high standard. She just quietly does all this amazing stuff,” he gushes. Meanwhile, his father, a celebrated record producer responsible for the first Coldplay record along with tracks by Ray LaMontagne, Snow Patrol and others, instilled in Nelson a taste for music early on; his first record, passed down by his father, was Hunky Dory by David Bowie. “It feels like my dad knew if I ever was a musician and I ever got to do an interview, I could always say my first record was something cool. He had good foresight,” Nelson says.

Despite Nelson’s musical roots, he always considered a singing career a long-shot. “It’s hardly a plan. You can try your best at it, but it’s never guaranteed,” he says. “I was concentrating on being an engineer and a producer even though I always truly wanted to be a singer.” But eventually, after singing in the local choir in Liverpool and sitting in on enough studio sessions, Nelson got in front of the mic.

Still, it took time for Nelson to fully find his sound. It wasn’t until he released his sophomore EP Empires on Fire in late 2017 that Nelson says he filled in all the gaps he’d found in his live sets. “When you play a bunch of gigs, you realize you need certain types of songs. You want to have peaks and troughs for the audience,” he explains.

With a full spring tour schedule lined up starting in late March, including appearances at Hangout Festival and Firefly Festival, Nelson is bubbling with energy. “I’ve been lucky enough to play a bunch of festivals in the past but with this new EP to play, I’m excited to go and be a bit more full-throttle.” He adds that he had always been enamored by music festivals, but performing at them has only augmented that love. “There is a feeling of such positivity and the crowds are part of a bigger thing, a collective spirit,” he says. “When you’re there for a whole week you get the sense of community and even if it was to torrentially rain, everyone’s in it together, no matter what. When you’re on stage you can really feel that.”

Hear Banners—and see his stage lighting—at his upgraded live show this spring.