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Banks’s Shot: The Unsteady Rise of an Uneasy Pop Star

‘I don’t feel like the internet is my natural habitat whatsoever’

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Getty Images

Freckles. Fly-away baby hairs. An over-the-shoulder gaze, leveled in our direction, vaguely citing Rooney Mara or Natalie Portman’s honed, exacting stare. The black-and-white portrait of Banks on the cover of her sophomore album, The Altar, is decidedly softer than her red-dipped 2014 debut, Goddess. Softer but altogether steadier. Her face is no longer half-concealed by a curtain of bangs. Now, like a dancer executing a turn, she’s staring directly at us. The fixed, cooled but dialed-up look of a woman who has, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter tells me over the phone, resolved something in herself. “What I want is what’s going to happen,” she says. “It’s my face, my music, my work, my diary entries.”

But when we start speaking, I find it hard to hear Banks’s voice. I assume it’s my connection, and instead of asking her to speak up, I suggest I switch spots in my apartment. Realizing it isn’t me, a strange tic of mine surfaces. Instead of asking Banks to talk louder, I ask her if she can hear me. I struggle to make out her words. I ask once more, “Can you hear me?” Whenever she says “yes,” near-inaudibly, I repeat my question as though I don’t know how to ask her to raise her voice. She seems reluctant to be interviewed at all, though I am her last of the day; more so, in the past, she hasn’t made herself the most available to social media’s perennial demands. Voice is a funny thing to understand. Who an artist is when she performs has nothing to do with who she is after a day-long press junket. Hushed and halting, she seems most at ease when talking about how she creates.

Born in Orange County and raised in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, Jillian Rose Banks started writing songs when she was 15, teaching herself the piano after receiving a keyboard as a gift around the time her parents got divorced. At USC, where she studied psychology, her friend, the actress Lily Collins, began passing along her music to anyone who would listen. In a short span, she went from uploading music to a private SoundCloud account to having her song “Before I Ever Met You” aired on Zane Lowe’s BBC Radio 1. Come fall 2013, Banks was touring with The Weeknd.

Goddess was released in the fall of 2014, and capped by her television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Performing on a stage outside the studio, in front of an audience of cheering fans, and washed in red light, she wore a cape-cut dress with slits for her arms. She strode the length of the stage, ambivalent, it seems, to the camera trailing her movements. Lit up behind her in white letters, her name appeared in the artist’s custom stick ‘n poke–type lettering. She looked the part. Goddess, though, peaked at only no. 12 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Albums chart and the trendy goth-pop moment that seemed to orbit her release — a seriate of Grimes’s success, twitchy and lilting and with a direct link to Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope — never quite reached a fever pitch.

Meaning, her sound — heavily influenced by R&B, motored by synth pads, tempered by the occasional acoustic ballad and earnest, poetic lyricism belted over digital quakes — became … let’s call it usable. Soon, it was functioning atmospherically. During a time when mood-modifying, low-key zone-out anthems (think: Lorde, Charli XCX, Halsey) were being released, Banks’s music could be found scoring a scene in Grey’s Anatomy, or showing up on the Divergent soundtrack.

As a consequence, Goddess skewed anonymous, sounding like someone, though it wasn’t clear who — it has a specific lack of strangeness, redundant despite being a debut. That often quoted Lauryn Hill–Fiona Apple Rosetta Stone of influence, singular to a whole generation of women singer-songwriters and particularly Banks, sometimes loses its implication even it if lies in the DNA.

So why aren’t more people listening? Banks is big in the U.K. That must be it. Bad timing? That could be it, too. Nowadays, unless everyone is listening to an album together, gridlocked on our Twitter timelines, reacting with quips and all caps, it feels like nobody is listening. Unexpected album drops or long-awaited album releases have created a permanent state of anticipation or panicked, riddled excitement. The in-between sometimes feels like a chasm where albums don’t necessarily get lost, but live somewhere beyond the culture’s purview.

Critics also noted that despite Banks’s vocal range, which wonderfully threatens to topple her music into some weird and accelerated, dusky space, her songs rarely deliver on that promise. She rushes to some verge, but stays safely on the middle ground. Pitchfork, which gave the album a 5.0, described Banks’s aesthetic as “far too cultivated” and faulted her music for “inciting boredom.” While other reviews were more generous, there was a sense the album as a whole registered as a drag. It didn’t eject the listener into a galaxy of vivid feeling, instead eliciting the kind of introspection that sounds like it’s being sung into a two-way mirror. It seemed as though what critics were responding to was how Banks’s then-fashionable sound appeared trapped in its own sonic crawl space.

I liked the album. It wasn’t a letdown — it was a debut that I didn’t rely on to take me anywhere, but rather accompany me places. Goddess was the woman who’s never shed the girl alone in her bedroom. She takes her to parties, in cabs, to work, and into relationships. The woman forever in her head, sitting in the same room as her best friend, not speaking. It wasn’t dark dark, barely eerie actually. It wasn’t a revelation. Neither was it too intimate — I could continue reading or writing while the album played in my apartment. I could hear myself think.

Goddess wasn’t some big epiphany either and definitely nothing to dance to. It got me out the door, though, issuing just enough attitude every second track or so. Introvert horsepower for the plan canceller about to cancel her plans. Fourteen tracks tapering into each other, gifting its listeners with those diet-fictions devised by pop music. Sometimes you just need something that forces you to grab your keys and just go. To make you feel dynamic. Or music that encourages you to walk alone and into rooms unaided by the extra confidence provided by a phone call or friends.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Banks’s follow-up, which will be released Friday, does not stray far from her debut, which can be frustrating but also reassuring. The Altar is not a departure for Banks, but a sinking into, further mining the ground she harvested for Goddess. I get the sense that The Altar is not so much a coming out, but a standing up.

“I’ve felt like it was hard to get people to listen to me in the past. I’ve felt like I had to be my own caretaker in the past. It’s all learning. You don’t know how to do this until you do it,” she says. “I had never been on tour, I had never been in front of cameras. I had never done that before. I never had people working for me before. It doesn’t come naturally, unfortunately, for women, I think, when you have people working for you. It’s a little bit harder for you to be respected.”

Nearly each track on The Altar feels like it has a companion on her debut. That’s her, I caught myself thinking, the moment I heard the first 10 seconds of “Fuck With Myself.” In the chorus, she sings, “I fuck with myself more than anybody else / It’s all love.” Which can be read as a declaration of self-love just as much as an admission of self-sabotage. The way Banks sings it, dipping deep as if impersonating someone only to rise up again into a faint whisper as though she’s sharing a secret, only adds to its supple meaning.

In the video, she’s singing at a bald bust of herself. Smearing red lipstick on her bald double. Licking her bald double. Encroaching on her bald double’s space. She’s treating a version of herself as if it were a prop, manhandling and caressing it, overtaking her Ex Machina–type sci-fi form. Mirrors, ballet, a warped dystopic mood furthers Banks’s performance of herself. You can tell she enjoys moving through the dark; that she might even come alive in it and that this album involved, it’s possible, burning things down. “Confrontational” is a word she uses to describe its temperament and in anticipation of its release she tells me, “It’s like I gave birth 13 times. It’s like sending your children away to be judged by the world. And at the same time it doesn’t matter what people think.”

In interviews, she’s cited Missy Elliott’s videos as a heavy influence. “I’m excited to create tour visuals,” she says. “I’m salivating. I’m chomping at the bit. The world is my oyster. ‘Fuck with Myself’ was the first time I was like, ‘me me me me.’”

In the video for her second single, “Gemini Feed,” she sits on a throne. She pulls and yanks at rope, moving in a manner that looks both freed and trapped. Like she might be climbing out of a hole or wading through a marsh. Her experience of whatever internal tensions she conveys through her music, is now, in these two videos, being explored in her movements, too.

Despite her minimal social media presence — “I don’t feel like the internet is my natural habitat whatsoever,” she tells me — Banks does feel close to her fans, having even shared her phone number publicly on Facebook in 2013. The gesture was no gimmick. Banks enjoys connecting. Her concerns with the internet lie mostly with the unyielding pressures it imposes to stay relevant and how it obliges artists to reveal, perhaps too quickly, what might be still undercooked. “I think the immediacy of the internet … it becomes hard to develop my own ideas,” she says. It reminds me of a tweet Lorde composed this year to her fans: “spending all my waking minutes at the studio and all words go into songs instead of tweets — hope u understand (but of course u do)”.

I ask Banks about her influences outside of music. She cites Georgia O’Keeffe and Francesca Woodman. The writer Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting “Christina’s World,” which features a woman crawling through grass — the painter’s neighbor, who was crippled by polio, Wyeth once explained, “limited physically but by no means spiritually.”

“Everything I do is 100 percent me. There are different forms. I could be living the aggressive side of a thought. Sometimes if you really dive into one layer of yourself, then all of sudden, you are that layer of yourself,” she says before pausing to think of an example to explain just exactly what she means.

“You’re not your whole entity. If you take green, and you want to dive into green, then it’s yellow and blue. And then you dive into yellow, because your song is yellow, but yellow doesn’t look like green, yellow is a different color but it came from green. Yellow is green but different. That’s how I feel like my songs are.”

Durga Chew-Bose is a writer living in Montreal.