Alex Banin found this papier-mâché bunny head, which appears on the cover of Did I Imagine (and in the video for “Forget About It”), at Rogers Park vintage store Lost Eras. Credit: Nathan Valencia

Alex Banin interlaces pop melodies and R&B vocals with an intuitive grace that seems to transcend her 23 years. On her new debut EP, Did I Imagine, she uses past relationships as an entry point for reflection, unpacking old connections in an attempt to move on. The songs are a study of memory—of how distance, time, and emotions can warp the past.

Born in London, raised in New York City, and now based in Chicago, Banin says songwriting was always “in the background” as she grew up—something she did alone. Self-taught except for a few childhood piano lessons, she viewed it purely as a private creative outlet. It wasn’t until late in high school that she started sharing her work with others—and it still took her another few years to begin pursuing music in earnest. By that point, pretty much everything else in her life had taken a back seat to fencing.

Banin says she started fencing when she was seven because she thought “swords were cool.” She began college in 2016, arriving at Northwestern University in Evanston as a fencing recruit. The team became the center of her world for almost four years, and its demands—frequent traveling and early-morning practices—meant she had little room to polish her music or learn to get comfortable performing it.

Banin found herself stealing moments during fencing practice to jot down lyrics. She also found community with other musicians at Northwestern, she says, which transformed her formerly solo songwriting process and ushered her into Chicago’s music scene “pretty naturally.”

In some ways, she explains, the way she got into fencing mirrors the way she got into music. “[Fencing] got out of hand at some point,” she says. “I just liked it. And I started competing locally, and then it just grew from there. Kind of like how music started too—I liked it, and then you start meeting more people and doing it more seriously. And now I’m here.”

Late in 2019, before Banin had played a single show, she signed with Chicago music management and artist development agency Loop Theory. Did I Imagine is self-released, but Loop Theory helped her produce and release some of her early singles, as well as create the accompanying art and videos. The agency’s current roster includes Brittney Carter, Dre Izaya, and Heir Porter.

  • Alex Banin released her debut EP last month.

Banin quit fencing in January 2020, two months before what would’ve been the end of her final season. She says she’d been “battling” with the decision, but she was able to use those two months to give her first public performances—at Soho House in the West Loop and at SPACE in Evanston—right before the pandemic hit.

“I’m glad I made that decision, even though it felt hard in the moment,” she says. “I didn’t feel like an artist before. Now it feels real. It was always fun, but it feels more purposeful. I guess the difference is we’re making songs—before it was ideas.”

Being in community with other musicians has also been eye-opening for her. “I’d never really been with creatives, and this makes so much more sense,” she says. “It’s really freeing. It’s definitely what I want to be doing with my life, especially right now.”

COVID-19 promptly derailed her fledgling career as a performer, of course, and graduating during lockdown confronted her with its own set of questions: “Where am I gonna live?” she asked herself. “What am I gonna do? How am I gonna make money?” She’d been planning on playing more shows. “I went back to just writing songs by myself a lot,” she says. “A lot of music came out of it.”

Banin wrote two of the singles that preceded Did I Imagine, “About April” and “Hawthorne,” back-to-back in lockdown isolation. On the melancholic “About April,” released in June 2020, she speaks to a past lover about their relationship hitting the rocks. Over a delicate guitar and tapping synths, she sings about the breakup as though it’s a waking dream: “There’s nothing underneath all of the peeling tape / Entire pools could hold our weight / You bought your shoes to fly away.”

  • The video for “Hawthorne” draws on Banin’s background in fencing.

“Hawthorne,” which came out in November, shares the hushed tones of “About April,” so that Banin’s voice rings out with quiet intensity. Accompanied by subdued keys, she describes an untrustworthy love: “I don’t really care / Yeah, body languages speak / Guess that our love’s insincere / But it’s all that I need.”

The material on Did I Imagine departs somewhat from the restless interior monologues and gloomy beats of these singles—its four songs are bigger, brighter productions, both in sound and spirit. While she was finishing the EP this spring, she was finally able to leave the house, travel, and connect with musicians in real time—people she’d become used to working with virtually.

The recording process was liberating for Banin. Though she recorded most of the vocals in Chicago, other parts of the EP she crafted on trips to Los Angeles, where she worked with Chuck Inglish of the Cool Kids on opening track “Closure.” She also visited Minneapolis to work with frequent collaborator vlush, whom she’d met in Chicago; he assisted on “Closure” and produced “Rolling,” whose verse from Pivot Gang rapper Saba is the only feature on the project. Chicago bassist, DJ, and producer Timmy V made the beat for “Forget About It,” and most of the mixing and mastering happened here too: Elton “L10MixedIt” Cheung of Classick Studios and Matt Hennessy of VSOP Studios lent Banin their talents, respectively.

Banin worked on the songwriting during quarantine, when she was thinking a lot about old relationships and trying to put herself back in years-old situations. “Forget About It,” where she faces up to her longing for a past lover, had its beginnings in 2019, but she revisited it for the EP. The closing song, “Brooklyn,” focuses on a mercurial relationship from four years ago.

As its title suggests, Did I Imagine hinges on the imagination: to write these songs, Banin decluttered her memory, even amid uncertainty, and pieced together her recollections in sometimes abstract shapes. She uses songwriting to channel her frustrations—she uses the word “venting” to describe the process, and for her it’s the root of her music.

Right from the outset, against the house- and funk-laden rhythm and snappy, propulsive bass line of “Closure,” Banin censures a former suitor. “Baby, that’s if you noticed / You’re out here bogus,” she sings. “Maybe you need to focus / On your emotions.” The feeling is pure in its simplicity: a love that was once nourishing is now draining.

The wistful “Rolling” opens with a dissonant, off-putting, heavily processed voice, then recalls a story of possible heartbreak. On “Forget About It,” Banin’s burning vocals make the case for shaking off the past—but the old sentiment she’s feeling is cavernous: “Miss you like a lover would / Missing you so damn good / I’ll just roll this Backwood / And forget about it.”

“Brooklyn” is the only song given a real-world location, but it still leaves us in a dream state: “And you were too broken / I couldn’t relate to you when we were in Brooklyn,” she sings. “I tried but I can’t replace you / Everything you said to me / Disintegrates in memories.”

  • The video for “Forget About It,” like the one for “Hawthorne,” was directed by Michael del Rosario.

So far Banin has made one video from Did I Imagine: a bizarre visual story for “Forget About It.” At Rogers Park vintage and costume store Lost Eras, she found several oversize, wearable bunny heads à la Donnie Darko or Alice in Wonderland and became obsessed. “They’re like these handmade heads from the 50s—like, this lady made papier-mâché bunny heads,” she says. She bought one and rented six more for the video.

Directed by Michael del Rosario, the video surrounds Banin with people wearing bunny heads or snug full-head masks of blank white fabric; they’re at what looks like a birthday party and in a movie theater, where the bunny people make out and eat popcorn. At one point, she puts on one of the bunny heads herself in the middle of the street, interspersed with mundane footage like a phone conversation.

The cover art for Did I Imagine, shot by photographer Nathan Valencia, shows Banin seated against a green backdrop beneath a spotlight, a bunny head at her feet. The prop, she says, goes “along with the imagination theme and people living in a fantasy world in the real world.”

She admits that some of the memories she revisits on the EP may be more fantasy than reality. “Did this happen the way that I remember it? When you remember and you’re painting a better picture than what was there, you don’t really remember,” she says. “You’re filling in the spaces, and it’s so nice, but it’s not necessarily real. That’s how I wrote this—I was very retrospective and introspective.”

In her effort to move on, Banin lets her intuition guide her. Her investigations of past relationships push her to accept and welcome those memories—either for what they are or for what she’s remade them to be.

Banin feels kinship with Chicago’s music scene, and making Did I Imagine only deepened it. “I started here. Everything I know is here or people that I met out of here,” she says. “It’s accessible. There’s a lot of creativity here.”

Moving on is a theme of the EP, though, and Banin herself plans to move in September. She’s headed to LA, she says, to explore some opportunities that have come up there. She’s not sure how permanent it’ll be—but then again, that’s true of everything she’s done so far.  v