Guordan Banks says he's never fought for attention. Not as the second-youngest of eight children growing up in North Philly. And definitely not in the music industry.
"I feel like you truly have to stand in before you stand out," he says, sipping coffee in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel during a recent interview.
The singer-songwriter's smooth hit single "Keep You in Mind," from his 2014 EP A Song for Everyone, has stood out, though. This year, it hit No. 1 on the Adult R&B Billboard chart after 30 weeks. The music video has broken 3 million views on YouTube. It's been remixed by Chris Brown and Bryson Tiller and was featured in Issa Rae's hit HBO series Insecure.
Banks, who has his own label, Bank on It Entertainment, is passionate about maintaining his artistic independence to maintain creative control over and the integrity of his music. "It's important to let people know real music still exists," he says. He attributes some of the success of "Keep You in Mind" to his belief that few artists working now sing honestly about love and being vulnerable. "Love is the greatest gift we've been given, but everyone wants to be a savage," he says.
He's worked with Meek Mill, John Legend, Keyshia Cole, and 50 Cent, and he's back in Philly after a 13-state tour with Fantasia.
The North Philadelphia native grew up in a musical household and is the son of two preachers. He stuttered as a child, but his mother found that when he sang, his stutter disappeared. So, Banks had to sing for everything. He remembers when his guidance counselor in elementary school would ask him to sing to her when she was feeling down.
He also recalls giving her marriage advice, saying, "You got to listen to your husband." "I don't know where I got that from," says Banks, who celebrated his 30th birthday Dec. 21.
There's no question where his talent comes from. He says his siblings can sing, too. Then he pulls out his phone to show a video of his 6-year-old nephew singing Mary J. Blige's "I'm Going Down," hitting piercing falsettos and riffs that flow like a river.
When he speaks of Philly, there's a clear pride in family, culture, and lineage. From Teddy Pendergrass to Patti LaBelle, he says, Philly has "a lot of great culture." But Philly doesn't get the recognition it should, he adds.
Banks moved to Virginia Beach, Va., as a teenager. At 18, he decided to pursue music full-time and returned here. For five years, he traveled with his former manager, Kay John, carrying his belongings in plastic bags and lending his voice and songwriting talents to artists around the country, building his reputation.
It was a struggle, Banks says, but "it was epic."
He met Mike Knox, who connected him with Knox's friend 50 Cent. In the studio, Banks started riffing for 50, who showed his love by handing Banks a bag filled with $5,000 as a deposit for his services. "That was the moment," he says. "That was the moment I knew I could do this."
The result of their collaboration was 2012's "Definition of Sexy." You can hear Banks crooning throughout the song. He also remembers a night he was sleeping on somebody's floor when he got a phone call: "Do you want to work with John Legend?" The two ended up writing "Who Do You Think We Are?" and "Caught Up" for Legend's 2013 album, Love in the Future.
One of his most supportive collaborators has been fellow Philadelphian Meek Mill, who featured Banks on "Use to Be," on 2012's Dreamchasers 2 and "Heaven and Hell" on Dreamchasers 3. They also teamed up for the Dreamchasers 4 cut "Two Wrongs," featuring Pusha T.
As he talks, Banks remembers yet another key collaboration – he wrote "Mirror" for Lalah Hathaway Live, which just received a Grammy nomination. "Wait, I'm a part of that," Banks says. "It's crazy that I'm here."
After years of working in the background, he's standing out. That change is the inspiration behind his forthcoming album, Unpopular., which he describes as "cosmic R&B." The album, "coming soon," Banks says, will also mark the debut of his new clothing line. On Christmas Day, he'll release a new song, "Hug," featuring Power's Omari Hardwick.
Though he's still in awe of where he is, he doesn't seem surprised. To artists on the rise, even those who, like him, have had to live as nomads, crashing on friends' floors, he says don't ever give up. When the struggle feels too hard, "bury that moment," he says firmly. "It's not you. It's a thought. Ask yourself, 'Do I really want to give up?'"