Music

Banks on What It Takes to Be a Savage

Story by Michael Love Michael / Photography by Brian Ziff

When California native Jillian Banks first emerged in 2013 on the music scene at 25, she had a handful of haunting, genre-blurring R&B songs circulating online, and not much was known about the mysterious singer beyond that.

She had also posted her phone number online. Should someone want to connect with her about her music, they'd be able to.

"You'd think that putting yourself out that much you'd get a lot of gross shit," Banks says. "I remember I got a bunch of calls from prison at one point — really random. There must have been a feature on me in a magazine that had the number on it or something that they had in prisons. Because I was getting a lot of calls from prisons all over the place. Other than that, it was getting love, having people express their connection to my music."

Following her 2013 debut EP, London, Banks, whose performance moniker is her last name, soon found herself with a devoted fanbase as the opening act that fall for The Weeknd's tour. Likely as Banks' profile grew, the calls, both personally and professionally, became too much to keep up with. Now 31, Banks maintains a close connection to her fans, though her number is no longer available. The contact info section of her Facebook page now reads: "UPDATE: It's been getting tough to keep up with calls and texts so BANKS is now running her instagram," including a link to her Instagram account.

On the surface, it may be strange for a rising musician, whose star has only grown in the last six years now that she's toured the world twice with two EPs and three full-length albums, to seem so readily available. But really, Banks was opting out of a ubiquitous social media presence in favor of a more intimate approach.

"One of the things about social media is that it's not as pure because so many eyes are on it," she says. "I didn't have Instagram or Facebook at first and I didn't want to. When you're talking to one person, you can be more honest, open, and vulnerable."

The singer's more reserved, public-facing persona leaves plenty of room for her open-hearted lyrics to shine. From the beginning, Banks' songs have been preoccupied with exposing the messiest parts of human behavior, whether she's examining herself or her relationships. Considering Banks blew up shortly after earning her psychology degree from the University of Southern California, her music's subject matter isn't surprising: tumultuous songs about longing, trauma, and violence. Her singing is often raw, expressive, and even a little "ugly" on occasion, not unlike the vocal stylings of singers ranging from Fiona Apple to Nina Simone, whose passion informs their music far more than a tired need to appear perfect.

Banks' music can also be considered restless genre experiments, flitting effortlessly between soulful grit, hip-hop's edginess, and pop's endless reinventions. Visually, Banks has always embraced her inner darkness, wearing slip dresses or flowy garments in earthy tones, moving like a serpentine witch, bearing a pensive pout or a haunted gaze. On III (pronounced "three"), her recently released third album, which deals largely with the universe's cycle of threes (birth, death, reincarnation; the beginning, middle, and end of a part of her life), these qualities are more intact than ever.

There is also a renewed sense of confidence on III. Banks has at least a few anthems from her back catalog dedicated to ferocious self-affirmation ("Fuck With Myself" from 2016's The Altar, and "Goddess" from her 2014 debut of the same name). But III feels like a product of more streamlined internal processing, resulting in an album that is, like past releases, fresh and genreless, while being her most cohesive artistic collection to date.

Contrary to popular belief about her past work, Banks navigated her most brutal relationship while making this album. Therapy and taking time away from the business of stardom and constant touring helped her "dig through the mud," she says. "Relationships are messy whether they're unhealthy or healthy. [On] my other albums, I've never had abusive relationships. I don't want to go into it, but it was the most toxic relationship I've ever been in, which is what a lot of these songs are about. But I learned so much that I was like, 'Nah, get me the fuck out of this.'"

Banks' music has always navigated the complex tension between being the powerful woman she knows herself to be and an inclination toward self-destruction that threatens to diminish it. She's all fucked-up about it, singing through rage and gritted teeth on III's intense opener, "Till Now:" "Something 'bout the way I miss you kissing me over and over/ But you've been messing me around 'til now/ And I let you push me around 'til now."

She's also not interested in stroking any fragile male egos (see: "Contaminated" and "Stroke"), unless it's a psychosexual dynamic that leaves her feeling empowered. "Gimme," the album's first single, is a savage call-to-arms about being fiercely, unapologetically woman, or as Banks says, "Going for what you want and owning it." She sings, "Gimme, gimme what I want/ What I deserve/ Gimme, gimme you," commanding the sensuous electronic grooves that surround her.

Elsewhere, on "The Fall," she freestyles over heavy industrial clashes. Banks balances her usual heaviness with more tenderness this go-round. On "Sawzall," which features nostalgic piano riffs, Banks sings about neglecting a lover in his time of need, asking, "Why didn't you say you need me?" While the overall tone is hopeful, is there room for reconciliation? In Banks' complex, dualistic world, there's space for every range of emotion.

PAPER caught up with the singer while she was on a tour bus leaving New Orleans and headed for Tallahassee, Florida. She opened up about III, being freer than ever, and what it takes to be a savage.

I, like many, first encountered you with London, back when you had your phone number online. What are some things you remember about the calls you got?

One of the things about social media is that it's not as pure because so many eyes are on it. I didn't have Instagram or Facebook at first and I didn't want to. When you're talking to one person, you can be more honest, open, and vulnerable. [The calls] actually got really personal. I didn't even feel comfortable sharing them with anyone because I felt like it was such personal information about people. You'd think that putting yourself out that much you'd get a lot of gross shit. I remember I got a bunch of calls from prison at one point — really random. There must have been a feature on me in a magazine that had the number on it or something that they had in prisons. Because I was getting a lot of calls from prisons all over the place. Other than that, it was getting love, having people express their connection to my music.

With this album, you seem wiser and more powerful than ever. What are some things that have helped you get to that place?

It's hard to say, because I'm myself and I live inside myself so I can't really see myself from an outside perspective. For me, I know where I am at and I know the things I've been working on. When I think of this album, I went through a lot when I was making it and songs like "Sawzall" or "What About Love," those all feel really soft to me. I guess there's a new comfort in my own skin, I would say. Just being more at peace with myself has made me freer.

"Sawzall" has a nice gospel touch, and you've said in the past that gospel inspires you. What role does spirituality play in your music?

It just naturally comes through for me. Music is holy to me. It's the most pure, honest thing in my life. When I make it, I really honor it. I'm so grateful that I have music, so I think that comes through in the lyrics sometimes. I feel so lucky that I have this outlet because I would probably be some sort of drug addict on the street without it.

You've always embraced a darker aesthetic. In thinking about Halloween season, are there certain works of art that influence your visual style?

I'd say that I prefer psychological thrillers to gory horror. I always have to look away when there's someone hacking through a face or something. But let's just say I love Hocus Pocus [Laughs]. That's an all-time favorite Halloween inspiration, if I had to pick one. How could it not be?

Movement seems to be more important to you these days, as seen in The III Experience, a triptych of dance-based videos you recently released.

Movement is a form of freedom on stage. I write all of my own music, so when I'm moving in a way that feels really expressive in terms of what I'm singing about, it's just another way to express myself. It's been really fun for me to explore that connection to my body because it's helped me be more present during shows. You feel freer when you're moving around. You're not thinking as much, you're just in the moment. I actually fractured my spine recently and I couldn't move for two months. I couldn't even get out of bed. It was traumatizing, and the fact that I'm able to tour and able to dance during every show... my body comes through for me so hard. I feel really grateful for it right now, in particular.

When "Gimme" came out, you described it as being powerfully female, savage, and about going for what you want. What sorts of things does Savage Banks do?

For me, it's unapologetically doing what feels right for you. Sometimes that simple act feels really hard in a world where everybody's watching, feeling like you have to appease other people. Sometimes what feels true and what you need to do would upset other people or make other people uncomfortable and judge you, but you do it anyways. That's what makes you savage.

That comes through in certain parts of the album, too. On "The Fall," you're rapping, which we've never heard from you. When you were making that song, was that always the intent?

No! Oh my God. I'd been sitting on this idea for like two years. I actually wrote another bridge on it that was very melodic and I just didn't feel right about it. I had been writing a lot of poetry and wrote this poem called "Slippin'" the day before and it went, "Slippin, trippin, soccer sickin, sick, dirty fingers dippin someone's stale leftover chicken." I was fucking around with that when I was in the studio with BJ [Burton], who I made most of the album with, and he was jamming at the mic and we were like, "That's kind of tight," so I just went for it. I love rapping and I think it's not that far away from singing, in a way. For me, when I write, even my melodies are really rhythmic and sometimes there's way more syllables than you would think would be in one phrase. It's like making these phonetic puzzles. But yeah, that shit is fun to do live [Laughs].

You have a pretty protective fanbase. I know people who listened to the lyrics in your first two albums and said, "Who did her like this? Somebody did her so dirty." When listening to this album, it seems like you flipped the script on that.

Relationships are messy, whether they're unhealthy or healthy. [On] my other albums, I've never had abusive relationships. I don't want to go into it, but it was the most toxic relationship I've ever been in, which is what a lot of these songs are about. But I learned so much that I was like, "Nah, get me the fuck out of this." It's funny you say that it came off like that because sometimes people are like, "Who is 'Change' about?" and who is "'Waiting Game' about?" "Who is 'Gemini Feed' about?" When you think about someone who's being passive-aggressive, I could be passive-aggressive if I'm missing someone and feeling insecure in a long-distance relationship. Everybody has their moments, and I think that my first two albums were about my life and my relationships to an extent, but it's funny because everyone's like, "Who the fuck did you date? What an asshole."

So you've heard that feedback before?

Definitely. Like people must think I date complete fucking trainwrecks, no pun intended. [Banks is referencing her single "Trainwreck" from The Altar.] But this album is the first album where I think I actually dated a trainwreck. [Laughs.]

It sounds like you processed this particular trainwreck in a really healthy way.

I honestly just chalk that up to being in a different place now. You make decisions and it's interesting to look back and think, I saw that one coming. I must have been drawn to some dark shit. I took a break from everything other than writing music for two years and I think that was really healthy and necessary for me. Everything that was really hard for me about this business that made it less fun for me. I think I've had an incredible life, and that I could've had a lot more fun touring my first two albums if I had adjusted certain things that were holding me back mentally. In those two years off, I got a chance to dig in the mud and really work through some stuff, and I think it was really beneficial because now I just feel a lot more at peace with myself, I have less fear, I'm having more fun, and I don't care as much.

You sing from three different parts of your throat on this album. There can be the risk of "sounding ugly" when you do that. How have you become so fearless as a singer?

As a singer, I am so playful. I feel like I have so many different layers. I can be really soft and sweet and I can be at the place where I'm really vulnerable and I want someone to take care of me, but I can also feel like I'm a monster or an animal, but in a good way. I'm not afraid of taking risks. Though, I can be a perfectionist, too. But I know there are some voices that are really trained, and on paper, they can hit every note perfectly and have a perfect vibrato and they take care of their voice and they do warm-ups.

Of course, you need to take care of your voice and do warm-ups. I've lost my voice on tour and I really understand that. I've never really been attracted to the perfectly trained voices without the pain or the humanity in them. I like hearing some grit and emotion. Perfection in general covers up individuality and emotion. That's why it's good not to want to be perfect. It's perhaps a good metaphor for how you should live your life. I am attracted to those gritty, raspy voices that push so hard they crack, but you can feel where it's going. That feeling is what stands out most to me. I want to embody that when I sing.

Do you believe in laws of attraction? If you project a sense of personal power, you become that, and vice versa for projecting a lack of power. Does that resonate with you?

For music that I'm singing, when I'm writing, I don't think, Oh, I'm feeling weak. I'll write something strong so that I feel strong. Everything I write is what is there and is what I'm feeling that very moment. There's a world of creation that lives in my mind, but there's also this normal world in my mind where I live, drive a car, I communicate, I have a family and friends, I go out to dinner, and I order food from a waiter. I think that the creative mind, for me, has been the foot that I've always led with. So if I am somewhere and all of a sudden I'm writing, it's like the voice that I write from is an inner, wise woman and it leads the rest of my life. Somewhere in my body, I'm singing from this place of wisdom. Then, my body follows that wisdom.

Stream Banks' III, below.

Photographer: Brian Ziff
Stylist: Karen Levitt
Stylist Assistant: Bre'jon Golden
Makeup: Brooke Hill
Hair: Paige Pelfrey

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