Banks Offers Her Emotions Up At ‘The Altar’
Her second album is an avalanche of feelings. And Banks wouldn’t have it any other way.
There’s something quietly commanding about Banks when she enters a room. As she emerges from the stairwell of a hip East Village sushi spot, she’s dressed in all black (including a satin baseball jacket) in the heart of a New York City summer. It’s as if not even temperature can shake her. That demeanor isn’t lost in translation through her music, either, as “elusively pensive” has become something of her trademark.
The 28-year-old singer (real name: Jillian Banks) has had one hell of a ride these past three years. Banks first came into our periphery in 2013, when she quietly dropped her London EP that autumn, her first release on the indie imprint Harvest Records. The four-track project yielded two singles — “Waiting Game” and “This Is What It Feels Like”— which pushed Banks further into the buzz-worthy current. Early comparisons with The Weeknd led to the two frequently touring together. (Banks even recently supported the Canadian singer during his Fall Madness Tour.) Then her full-length debut Goddess arrived in 2014. The project was a tiny behemoth in that it solidified Banks’ place in the pop-adjacent stratosphere, with four singles (“Warm Water,” “Brain,” “Drowning,” and the Gold-certified “Beggin’ For Thread”) that all revealed a different side to the artist while still suggesting she’s something of an enigma. And she likes it that way—especially when at the heart of it all, the music isn’t for us. It’s for her.
“I got into music just by needing it, because I needed an outlet for me,” Banks says. “So that’s still what it is.” The Altar, her follow-up project (due out September 30th), picks up right where she left off with Goddess. While there was a two-year gap between projects, the new album defies any sophomore curse to deliver musically.
“I had so much to write about!” Banks says, reflecting the LP. “I finished Goddess in December, and this album…I dove into it then. And for eight months straight, it was like every day, all day.”
While The Altar is an extension of Goddess in many ways, its lead single “Fuck With Myself,” followed by “Gemini Feed” and “Mind Games,” all suggest Banks went through some shit even while climbing the road to fame. “I’ve grown a lot and I had new things to write about — new feelings that I had never felt before that I had heard about, but I never really experienced,” she admits. Other cuts like “Trainwreck” have Banks delivering vocals in a newly rhythmic way, almost rapping. And while her debut was packed with an array of emotions, The Altar is arguably a more confident project. It’s here that the siren pushes herself vocally while also belting thinly-veiled tunes about everything from depression to heartbreak.
Despite her admitted growing pains with fame, Banks is still doing her thing. In November, she’ll perform at the 2016 Guggenheim International Gala styled by Dior. What she doesn’t find comforting about stardom, she channels through her fashion and art. Her video for “Gemini Feed” is sheer proof of that, where in one frame she’s rolling over coiled ropes and in another she’s seated at an altar with bejeweled eyelids. The success also has its travel perks, as the artist plans to hit some countries she’s never dreamt of touring.
“I wanna see everything, and my biggest fear would be looking at my life and thinking that I held back. I just want to go everywhere and experience it all,” explains Banks. Two spots on her to-do list include India and Colombia, the latter holding a more sentimental value for her. “This woman, Patty, who helped raise me is Colombian, and she’s like my second mom, and I just feel strange that I’ve never been to where she’s from. So I’m gonna go with her to Colombia.”
While some artists drown when it comes to their own discomfort with fame, Banks seems to have hit her stride, dividing and conquering what feels right to her. She sounds more excited about the future than she ever has, but when your first album is a modern classic, it’s not hard to be cautiously optimistic. “I worked so hard on [The Altar] and I finally get to see it come out,” she says with a smile. “I really care; it’s every single pore of my body in this album, so it’s a million different feelings, but I’m excited to put it out.”
With The Altar on the horizon coming and a tour arriving in tandem, Banks has a lot to look forward to. She takes Idolator on a little journey of how it all happened.
There is a lot going on lyrically with The Altar. Were the feelings on this project in hindsight or were they feelings that you went through while Goddess was happening? What I went through [while Goddess was happening]… I needed to write, and I wasn’t really able to. Because when I write, I’m not that type of person who can write on the road. I do because I have to, but my preferred way of making music is blocking out an amount of time. It can’t be a rushed thing, and you need to have the right environment. You need to be calm. It’s almost like a meditative process. You can’t have a lot of noise going on. You have to sit with yourself and it needs to be quiet and like, “What melody is going to come out of me? What do I feel like I need to get out today?” That takes a certain atmosphere, and it takes space from things and it takes time. If you don’t have those things, you don’t get to the guts of what you need to say.
When you recorded the London EP, you went to the city of London and it was this inspirational, life-altering experience. Did The Altar have any specific locations like that? I actually made most of it in L.A. It was really interesting for me because when I first started touring, I wanted to move out of L.A. I hated it! I felt stale. It just felt so uninspiring, and then after being away so much and not really feeling like you have a home base or seeing any familiarity, I had this new love for it. It’s my home. So being able to process everything that’s happened to me while in my home was really special. I worked with Tim Anderson and DJ Dahi and SOHN — who’s actually from Vienna but lives in L.A. now — and all my people were in L.A. It was really cool.
When you say The Altar, is it the altar of worshipping someone? The wedding altar? An altar is like a place of sacrifice, honoring something in the most pure, holy place. It’s also “alter,” a-l-t-e-r, and I feel like I’ve gone through this transformation. I’ve altered myself. Music is my religion; it’s where I make my sacrifices and the place that is my most holy and pure. These songs are like my altar; they represent who I am.
That’s pretty deep. There is a lot more of an emotional roller-coaster feel to this project. You touch so many different feelings this time around. Number one, I felt less afraid. Well, not less afraid; I don’t want to say that because both my albums are one-hundred percent pure and one-hundred percent me. This album, I went through something in these last few years that made me want to open up more and confront myself even more. I experimented with my voice on this album more. I belted; I wanted to be big. I wanted to feel big and in some parts, I felt really empowered to be confrontational and authoritative and powerful and take up space. It’s like really unafraid and me in your face like, “I don’t fucking care what you think of what’s happening, because this is what’s happening.” I’ve never felt that before, and to want to get that out – to be screaming to get that out – was important for me.
Why do you think you didn’t feel that with Goddess? You develop in your life and you change and you think different ways. I don’t know why, I just maybe didn’t feel as strong? I also just inherently wasn’t used to this life. I wasn’t used to singing my diary entries in front of millions of people and having people listen to the most intense things. Like, “Waiting Game,” that’s about a really traumatic experience. Not traumatic in a bad way, but it was like a life-altering situation. That was the first time I had ever experienced that. And I’m so open in my music and I used to write it just for myself, just to function, and now all of a sudden all of these people are hearing it! So, it’s just getting used to that and making the decision that I’m not gonna change how I write, just because people are hearing me. I’m not gonna sugarcoat things. I’m gonna get in there and still get grimy with it.
Early on you discussed how the idea of fame isn’t a comfortable thing. It’s not natural for you. Have you gotten any more used to it this time around? I don’t think it’s natural.
And even in L.A. where everyone thinks they’re famous, it’s kind of interesting… It’s funny. I feel like an alien sometimes. But I grew up there, I didn’t move there wanting to be famous. I was born in California and I grew up there and my mom is from L.A. I wasn’t one of those transplants who moved there to fulfill some sort of entertainment dream. I really just happened to grow up there. But, yeah — I find it strange.
What was childhood like in Los Angeles? I loved it. It was normal for me. I grew up in the Valley too. I had a big backyard and a great family. I didn’t even think of it. I didn’t even notice that type of stuff. But I’m still getting used to it. I’m such a private person. I’m really open in my songs, but outside my songs, I’m not. I’m still learning how much I like to share.
You don’t talk to a lot of media. No. I don’t.
Do you feel as an artist that shielding yourself in that manner is good in a sense, because you can reserve it all for your music? I feel as though some people are introverted and some are extroverted, and some people are introverted extroverts and some people are extroverted introverts. I feel like I’m an introverted extrovert, and I think what happens when you’re both of those things, they kind of battle each other and it breeds anxiety and that makes you more introverted. So it’s like this cycle. For me, I love people and I love being social but I’m quite introverted still and I gain my energy from being alone. I don’t get energy from going to parties and talking to people.
The most important thing in life, I think, is to stay inspired or else your skin turns gray.
That can be exhausting, right? Some people get energy from being social, where I’m the opposite. I think that I’m still in the process of learning how to get used to talking so much about the most intense parts of who I am.
Do you have any particular way of decompressing? How do you manage to get back to this Zen state with everything flying at you? You know what’s really helped me is walking, walking, walking, walking, walking! I’ll walk for four hours. I’ll walk until my legs hurt. I’ll have mornings — especially when I go through those stages where I’m having, like, depression — and walking is just the best. It really centers me, and that’s something that I learned on tour was important, because I would take mornings to walk. Sometimes it feels like you get so inside your own head and then you go from interview to interview and performing and it’s all a lot to digest.
What was the best part about making this album for you? Just making it! There are certain songs on my album that were really life-changing to me, like “Mother Earth.” That’s a song I feel like I needed to write since I was born, and then “To The Hilt” is the first song I wrote before I was even ready to process something. That’s never happened before. Usually I write when I need to confront something and I need to get it out. “To The Hilt” bounced out of me. I wanted to keep it down and I was angry, angry, angry. Then all of a sudden it was like you’re not angry, you’re sad. Then I made it, and I got sick for two weeks after I made it. I got a really bad sinus infection and I couldn’t get better. I had to go on antibiotics. It was from making that song, really. I remember at the beginning of the day I felt fine, and then when I left the studio, I felt sick. That has never happened to me before, where I was mentally not ready to confront something. I hated making that song. I hated it. I even said to someone, “I don’t want to fucking sing this. I don’t want to say these things, but I knew that I had to because I knew that I had to get this out because I know it’s real.”
Were there any songs you recorded that made you think, “I can’t release this”? On the first album, it would have been “Someone New.” I was so scared to release that song. I felt bad about releasing [it], because it’s my life. But every song, they’re all real, so you just have to decide. If this is what you’re gonna do and this is what you decide that you’re gonna do, then you have to do it. You do it zero or 100, and I do it 100.
Do you think you’ll collaborate with any artists? I always feel like there’s a rap remix waiting to happen for you. There are so many people that I’d love to collaborate with! But for me, collaborations need to be a natural thing. I was in the studio with Tyler, The Creator last week and it was super natural. It wasn’t like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a song with Tyler, the Creator?” It wasn’t like that. It was just so dope. I’m a fan of his and he loves my music and it was just natural. I don’t think I would ever be like, “Yo, get on this song!” It needs to just be really organic and it can’t be like, “There’s a space here. Fill A with B.”
You’re also a hip hop head too. Yeah.
Especially on The Altar track “Trainwreck,” I feel like you’re kind of rapping. Yeah! You know, I wrote those verses when I was 14.
Wait, what? Those were some of the first lyrics I ever wrote! So I knew that there would be a home for those lyrics at some point. I was like a trippy little girl and that’s what music does to me. I felt like an alien and it was like a place for me to be an alien.
Was “Trainwreck” written down beforehand, or did the lyrics just live in your head? They stayed in my head! It was like a chant. I do remember writing it — I wrote it down in a notebook. I always remember those lyrics, though. There are some lyrics that I’ve written that I always will remember.
Were you in band in high school? No, nobody even knew I was a singer.
I was in the studio with Tyler, The Creator last week and it was super natural.
Did your classmates come back to you later about it? Yes! I actually saw someone a month ago that I knew when I was little, and she was like, “Oh what are you doing now?” And I was like, “I’m a singer! I’m a musician.” And she was like, “Oh, are you signed? Are you doing well?” I felt awkward…but I’ve had a lot of things like that because I didn’t talk about it when I was younger. I remember I played this SNL thing a few years ago — some special thing the cast threw — and I did a little acoustic thing. This guy happened to be there that I knew when I was younger and he was like, “I didn’t know you were you until like last week when I saw a picture finally.”
Does music ever start to feel like a job? I think the reason I decided to put my music out is because I wanted to, so I understand what that takes and I want to do it. I embrace it. If you don’t embrace that side of this business, then it’s just like you’re banging your head against a concrete wall the whole time, because that’s what it is. It’s all really amazing. I feel so lucky that I get to create something and that is what I do. I get to travel and perform it, and I get to create visuals that represent what I hear and what I feel. I think you die when you’re not inspired. The most important thing in life, I think, is to stay inspired or else your skin turns gray.
Banks’ second album The Altar is out this Friday, September 30.