"Can you follow me out to the water? I can show you we're sinking deeper," BANKS writes in "Drowning," off her 2014 debut album Goddess. The track is melancholic — detailing the aftermath of a relationship gone awry — and yet, it's intoxicating. The video's comment section is proof; there are posts as recently as weeks ago, with such ravings as "hauntingly perfect" and "goosebumps... I keep coming back."
The "goosebumps" are warranted. They've become almost expected from BANKS, whose signature sound can be described as "ghostly" and "dark bluish black." It's R&B with a downtempo, dark edge — a noir akin to Fiona Apple (one of BANKS' own musical lodestars) that evades any sense of orthodoxy or categorization. This, however, is quite alright because, as she's previously demonstrated, BANKS prefers the unpredictable — or perhaps the provocative. She's a self-described "savage," and unapologetically so.
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If someone doesn't like her sound, she'd probably have them call her (BANKS released her phone number online in 2013; she doesn't "do" social media). She previously told PAPER the decision was an attempt to be more "honest, open and vulnerable" — and while her number has been taken down, her aims remain much the same. It's no wonder she's accumulated an almost cultish legion of fans — since Goddess, the singer has only continued to cultivate a profound intimacy through her work, cemented through 2016's The Altar and then 2019's III.
Indeed, BANKS has even been labeled as the "priestess of pop" — perhaps the result of her macabre wardrobe or the fervor with which she performs. She assures us that she's not religious, though making music does seem to be "some sort of religion." Her most recent work is also embedded with the divine, though not in the traditional sense. "Skinnydipped," released this week, attempts to reach a "divine feminine" energy — something "ferociously female," as BANKS explains.
The single follows June's "The Devil," in which BANKS is a seductive femme fatale, along the lines of Zemeckis's Death Becomes Her. She is, quite literally, doing the devil's work, conquering her inner demons in the process — and she's only just begun. The music video for "Skinnydipped," directed by BANKS and Michael Stine, is similarly subversive, seeing BANKS and her close friends embody sirens.
"I've always been so obsessed with sirens and the idea of these women who lure people in," BANKS says. "They're so beautiful and untouchable, and yet so dangerous, and you can't tell if they're good or evil. My music is a siren — I feel like a siren making it."
She's certainly no stranger to the subject at hand, having worked overtly with water since Goddess' "Drowning" and "Warm Water," and again on III's "If We Were Made of Water." She's even done the background reading — Homer's Odyssey, no less (she chuckled while telling us she stumbled through Homeric verse in the fourth grade). This time around, she's not drowning. Instead, she's "cleaned out the salt in [her] wounds," and watches her lover "swim away" — while wearing Bvlgari Serpenti jewelry, naturally.
BANKS' forthcoming album is something of a rebirth, both personally and artistically, as she takes full control. "I co-produced pretty much every song on the album," she says. "I'm just excited for everybody to hear it. I hope it makes them feel how it makes me feel."
PAPER caught up with BANKS a few weeks prior to the premiere, discussing sirens, serpents and everything in between.
So much of your work seems inspired by an otherworldly element. What draws you to it?
To be honest, I don't know exactly what draws me there. My first album was called Goddess, the second was The Altar. I'm not a religious person, I'm more spiritual, and I'm so deeply empathic and sensitive that it can feel like witchcraft at times. My music often feels like it comes from another place, too. I don't think about lyrics when I write, they just come out, and somehow at the end of the session I'm like, "Wow this is exactly what I was going through."
You've described yourself as a "vessel." I'm thinking of "Poltergeist," the lyric of receiving messages from "deep waters."
That's exactly what that line referred to — not knowing where the wisdom comes from.
"Deep waters" seems to be a recurring theme, too. There's the poem, "Be Like Rainwater," and then, "Skinnydipped." What weight does water hold in your creative process?
Every album I've had, I've almost named it something with water. It's such a theme in my music, from "Drowning" to "Warm Water," one that just comes out. That says something. Water is the most natural thing in the world — it can kill you, but you still need it to survive. It's all-consuming. I'm not religious, as I said, but making music makes me feel so close to myself, which is some sort of religion.
The video for "Skinnydipped" also seems tied to the natural world, particularly its more eerie elements. What was the experience like?
In the video for "Skinnydipped," my best friends and I are playing sirens. We're all naked in a body of water, which felt really special. One of my best friends just had a baby, which comes with a lot of loaded body image issues for women, of course. I had her hold her daughter in the video. Having all of my soul sisters around me, in nature, listening to the song that I wrote — it was powerful. We kept saying to each other, "I feel like this was really good for me." It felt liberating, that by the end of the shoot you're comfortable hanging out on the rocks, naked. It makes you realize it's just a body. Something about being close to water helps to relax you, too.
Could you take us through the process of writing the track?
I really love rhythms, obviously. There's so much art in rhythms and the way you sing something, even just finding offbeats within a beat. With "Skinnydipped" I was really playing with that, and with the smoothness of how you can express something and then change it up within one sentence. You can play a lot with mood in how you deliver a line. I played with that a lot in this song. I made it with Shlohmo, who I wrote "Brain" with off the Goddess album. We hadn't worked together in so long, but he's so involved in this new album. It's funny because "Skinnydipped" kind've reminds me of "Brain" in that way — it starts off singing in this slow groove, almost like honey. Then, in the second half, the beast comes out.
There's the recurring motif of beasts, particularly serpents — from the license plate featured in "The Devil" (reading "Serpentina") to the Bvlgari Serpenti jewelry in "Skinnydipped." What's the significance?
Bvlgari is such an amazing partner for me. Their art is jewels — making a woman feel enchanted and like a goddess. You feel otherworldly when you're wearing such beautiful art on your body. The Serpenti collection is all based on snakes and that's such a huge theme for me, in this chapter. They represent rebirth and shedding one's skin. I've had so much pain in my life caused by going over the past and this love-sickness for nostalgia, and I think that a snake represents being present. You shed your skin and keep moving. They're also really sensual, and dangerous. Everything I want to feel as a woman is represented in Bvlgari's Serpenti collection. Being able to wear it while singing "Skinnydipped," feeling all slithery in the lake, was so awesome.
You've been much more involved in the production of this album than in the past. What's that transition been like?
I'm making every decision, doing everything how I want to do it, and it's been absolutely wonderful. I'm so happy right now. I have definitely struggled in my life with depression and anxiety, as most of us have. The past year I had the worst anxiety I've ever had in my entire life. I started having panic attacks. Making this album has made me so calm. I was with my mom recently and she was like, "You just seem so calm." I feel really at peace right now. I am a big energy, I have so much inside me, just letting it all out is leaving me calm.
Stream "Skinnydipped" by BANKS, below.
Photos courtesy of Williams + Hirakawa/ BANKS