Ninajirachi and Kota Banks are no strangers to collaboration. The former has dropped official remixes for Deadmau5, Hermitude and Anna Lunoe, while the latter has written for the late icon SOPHIE and Cashmere Cat. And in each other, the two Australian musicians found something like a creative soulmate. It’s fitting they titled their 2020 collaborative EP ‘True North’ – as the pair tell NME, a legendary team-up that will help define their musical journeys going forward.
“It’s nice to be able to showcase what you can make with a best friend,” Ninajirachi, real name Nina Wilson, says. Kota Banks – aka Jess Porfiri – agrees: she has a desire to “show young women what they can do when they join forces”.
On April 16, the pair are releasing an expanded version of ‘True North’. The additional three tracks further explore their carefully created yet dynamic world as the pair show off their ever-tightening bond. The punchy pop of ‘Secretive!’ was written in the same week as ‘Nice Girls Finish Last’, ‘Opus’ and the unreleased ‘Pep Talk’ – “a great week for us,” grins Kota. Though she can’t pinpoint a specific inspiration for it, she still adores its vibe.
The bubbly, swaggering ‘Kissing U’ began with Kota on the piano and is one of the only tracks the pair didn’t write together in the same room. “I was feeling really sweet and romantic at that time,” she remembers, “and I just wanted to write a song about how kissing is super relaxing. I love to kiss.” The brash, sex-positive ‘Slytherin’ was prompted by a discussion about which Hogwarts houses the pair would be in (they ultimately turned to Pottermore for an authoritative decision).
Lyrically, Kota was going for something similar to the unhinged energy of Eminem’s ‘Slim Shady’ LP and wanted to paint “a crazy story” that championed girl power. Giving her friend Debi some relationship advice, she snarls, “You give that motherfucker way too much power, just shove his head into your flower.”
Kota Banks and Ninajirachi first met in 2018 when NLV Records label boss Nina Las Vegas put them in a session together. Kota was feeling rough and nothing came of the session: “Maybe it wasn’t meant to be yet,” she suggests. But the pair kept in touch and eventually fell in love with each other’s music. They had their first productive meeting in 2019 where they made the twinkling pre-breakup anthem ‘Vice Versa’. The next day, they produced the hyperactive ‘Middle Of The Night’. From that point, the pair knew they had something special.
The original idea was that Ninajirachi was going to produce tracks for Kota Banks. “She’s a genius. She’s a prodigy,” raves Kota in one Zoom window, as Ninajirachi blushes in another. “Kota Banks is an artist that I’m so proud to share a record with,” she proclaims. “I’m such a fan and I only ever want to collaborate with artists I’m a fan of.” This mutual love-in was reflected in the music they were making together – which eventually started to feel like a project of its own.
“Ninajirachi’s sound choices are very futuristic and avant garde. They’re really distinct,” Kota explains. “No one is doing it the way she does, so it didn’t feel right to put it out as my record when it felt like she was just as much a collaborator as me. It made sense for us to do it together.” Ninajirachi adds, “Collaborating is such a skill.” Typically, you “have to mould who you are to accommodate other artists that you’re writing or producing for. We didn’t ever have to do that with this collaboration. There was no creative or artistic compromise.”
“We were in this little studio with blacked-out windows and it felt like we could literally do anything,” Kota remembers. “That’s why the music came out sounding so cool, because we just felt totally free.”
So many times in the past, Kota would find herself in a session that felt like hard, awkward work, she recalls. “Let’s make a smash!” her collaborator would declare, only to lay down all these weird rules. “There was no real passion or incentive to create something exciting. I want to encourage people to break the rules when they’re creating because that’s what makes it fun. I don’t know why you would do music otherwise,” she remarks. “Nina and I both knew what we wanted but neither of us is domineering, so it works really well.”
Ninajirachi and Kota Banks were on fire, caught up in the excitement of finding a new partner in crime. They didn’t think about what they were working towards – until a crucial conversation with Nina Las Vegas, who’d brought them together in the first place. She pointed out “‘you’re two young women doing all of this on your own. You guys should consider how cool that is and make it a part of the project.’ It defined the ethos of the whole collaboration,” says Ninajirachi.
“We’ve been working together so much that our brains have just fused together and we have the same thoughts because that’s exactly what I was going to say,” grins Kota. “That conversation set the tone for this to become a vessel for female empowerment.”
Armed with a scrapbook to help them visualise their world, the pair started to shape their EP. They both “like music that transports you somewhere else. We wanted to make a world where we could lose ourselves in,” Ninajirachi says.
The result is ‘True North’, which is charged with sensual feminine energy and creative liberation. “With tracks like ‘Opus’, we were really feeling ourselves as young females and young creatives doing something new in the scene. We loved the idea of banding [together] and it definitely set the tone for the project,” explains Ninajirachi.
“Even when we’re not talking about it lyrically, that empowerment still comes across in the energy of all the songs. The general vibe is girl pride,” beams Kota.
With every song they made, they became better friends and bonded over shared experiences and common goals. Feeling safe in each other’s company enabled them to push their music further than it had ever gone before. “There are certain subjects that you can only really go there with, with a close friend and still feel comfortable,” says Ninajirachi.
“It also felt safe from a gender point of view,” adds Kota, who’s done a lot of work with male producers. “Just having a female collaborator, especially when you’re in a confined space and working on an ongoing basis, removes the stress, the worry, the uncertainty. You just feel like you’re on the same page. That feminine energy really added to this collaboration.”
“I want to encourage people to break the rules when they’re creating because that’s what makes it fun. I don’t know why you would do music otherwise” – Kota Banks
The duo’s shared love of the music of Charli XCX and SOPHIE can be easily found in the DNA of ‘True North’, but an ever-changing pre-studio playlist meant that each song on the project was inspired by something different. ‘Opus’ took influence from Skepta and the London grime scene while ‘Nice Girls Finish Last’ came after listening to a lot of Ariana Grande. “We love futuristic stuff, club music and big pop stars like Cardi B, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry,” Kota says. The pair are fans of “everything flamboyant, camp, fun, interesting and exciting,” so it’s no surprise they want to help push pop music forward in Australia. The key, she says, is “not being afraid to take risks”.
And from the sounds of the solo EPs they released last year, the pair have been taking their own advice. Written after they’d created ‘True North’, Ninjarachi’s ‘Blumiere’ is a lush collection of thumping dance music, while Kota Banks’ ‘Sweet & The Spice’ is a fierce, dynamic clutch of club-ready bangers.
Ninajirachi “felt really confident making” ‘Blumiere’, she remembers. “It was the first time I sang on my own tracks. It was scary but I wouldn’t have been able to do that without ‘True North’. I just wouldn’t have had that confidence without meeting Jess, who’s made me feel so empowered.” She’s even got her own wireless mic, ready for their upcoming headline tour in May. “You’re a pop star now,” grins Kota.
Has this experience made the pair long for a life in a band, though? “We have essentially been in a pop band with ‘True North’ but then we’re also free to fully indulge in our solo creative visions as well,” Kota says. “It’s like a Hannah Montana stitch. Best of both worlds!”
After the release of the deluxe ‘True North’, the pair are going to return to their solo projects. It’s definitely not the end of this relationship, though. “Well, we have a lot more songs together that we hope will see the light of day in some capacity,” says Ninajirachi before explaining how even when solo, “we’ll be very involved in each other’s projects. Even last year, we were sending each other demos for those solo EPs. I don’t think I could ever send something to my team before sending it to Kota first.”
“We will forever be intertwined, no matter what,” continues Kota, “just as two besties and two creative souls.” Together, they just might be unstoppable.
Ninajirachi and Kota Banks’ ‘True North (deluxe)’ is out April 16