“I just needed to take some space to digest how much my life has changed since everything started,” Jillian Rose Banks explains. “It had been five years of touring and I just wanted a little break. I needed to be in a grounded place to be able to dig deep and confront certain things.”
At the height of a flourishing career, when most ambitious young artists would be cranking up a gear to capitalise on their success, the American singer and songwriter made the bold decision to take a two-year breather.
In July, she returned with Banks III. Her third album, it reflects the beginning, middle and end of a painful chapter of Banks’ life, a cycle of processing – and coming out the other side, stronger and emboldened.
The California-born artist is reluctant to dwell too deeply on the specifics that inspired the songs. She confesses that she has always found speaking with journalists anxiety-inducing, not least because she uses songs to express that which is difficult to articulate: “When I write it’s usually because I don’t know how to say it.”
Songwriting for Banks is a catharsis, giving form to a feeling: “You can have this weird feeling in your stomach, where you are a little bit anxious or unsettled. And then I can sit at my piano and all of a sudden I wrote a song about something that I wasn’t even thinking about – but I feel a lot better.”
She was making music for 10 years before releasing anything and was eventually discovered via the music-sharing website SoundCloud: “The first seven years, I didn’t even tell anyone I was doing it. It was this weird secret that I had, but that I just loved so much.”
She will always be ambivalent about sharing that secret with the world, although her growing confidence helps her to open up more: “I think it’s probably something every artist deals with: how do I go about sharing myself? What’s the boundary where it feels like too much? I think I’m learning what that boundary is and because of that, I’m able to share a lot more.”
A key theme for III, the psychology graduate tells me, is the “grey zone”: “how life isn’t just black and white”. Each track has a different sensibility, capturing the emotions she went through, moving from blissful naivety to wisdom via pain, or “high highs, low lows, messy in-betweens, slap-you-in-the-face lessons” as she put it in a handwritten letter tweeted on release, asking her listeners to “sing, dance, laugh, feel sexy, feel cocky, feel seen, feel heard, feel angry, feel right, feel wrong, and feel understood”.
Minimalist album opener “Till Now” sets the tone with a purging of a visceral rage, while lead single “Gimme” delivers a brazenly unapologetic punch, with the line: “You can call me that bitch.” “Stroke” takes us on a wonderfully euphemistic deep dive into a toxic yet addictive relationship with a “narcissist”. Meanwhile, gospel-infused “Look What You’re Doing to Me” is an unbridled celebration of being high on love.
As with its predecessors – 2013 EPs “Fall Over” and “London” and albums Goddess (2014) and The Altar (2016) – III sits within a left-of-centre pop realm. Grungy R&B and electro beats add edge to personal musings that vacillate between a roaring energy and a tender vulnerability, harnessed with the help of producers Hudson Mohawke, BJ Burton and Kito.
She credits a trio of female artists for shaping her as an artist: Tracy Chapman, Lauryn Hill, and Fiona Apple. She was struck how the latter “was just so herself and so openly flawed and sexy and empowered and raw. Through her, I learnt about writing, not just on the grand subjects, but the nitty-gritty dynamics of life.”
‘I’ve gone through things that I had never gone through before. It was hard and confusing, but I think that just made music that sounded different’
Though Banks hasn’t consciously reinvented her sound, her music has evolved in tandem with her own life and experiences. “It’s kind of like saying, ‘How are you different from when you were 24?’ I’m 31 now. I’ve grown a lot, I’m attracted to different things. Especially in the two years I was working on this album – I’ve gone through things that I had never gone through before. It was hard and confusing, but I think that just made music that sounded different.”
On this record she harnesses a sense of “young romanticism”. “I wanted to incorporate a hopefulness because I think there’s something really pure about being a kid and being super wide-eyed and unaware of certain things.”
The voice of innocence is made literal in the children’s vocals that appear on tracks such as “Alaska” and “What About Love”, which features a sample from her four-year-old niece Georgia.
But it is the track “Sazwell” she points to as “a breakthrough in writing… because it’s about a break-up, a really heavy subject matter which is questioning, ‘Did this not work out because you were depressed? Because I didn’t know you were depressed, was it my fault?’ But rather than falling into anxiety and self-hate, there’s a kid’s voice on it saying, ‘I told you I’m sorry.’ Like, let’s move on.”
The juxtaposition of these innocent voices against her typically dark choice of subject matter offered a balancing force for Banks: “It’s really easy to become jaded as you get older. So I feel like in order to not become bitter, you have to become wise. Because if you gain wisdom from pain, your ability to love is greater.”
It’s also driven by the desire to find an antidote to the modern-day condition: “It’s the time we’re living in, with social media etc you’re just more connected to the dark shit in the world now; it’s easier to see it. And so I think it’s important to remain light.”
She resists the notion one has to create within a sole medium. Released alongside the album was a book of poetry, Generations of Women from the Moon. “The voice that I write from in my poetry feels really playful and young,” she explains, “which is different from how I write music. But they definitely both funnel into the same thing that fulfils me – which is making me feel powerful and able to express things that I need to.”
And despite the critical acclaim for her work, she’s also determined not to find herself at the mercy of the industry or public favour. “I want to focus on making what I love because it’s dangerous when you start taking in others’ opinions too much, the good or the bad. Like a feather drifting in the wind, wherever the wind blows you, you’ll blow that direction.”
Her most cohesive record to date has propelled her on a US tour of explosive performances featuring thigh-high PVC boots, blood-red lighting and inhibition-free dance routines, something she has been relishing: “I like touring a lot. It’s like a weird routine that you get into that feels like you’re in this little family, like a summer camp for adults.”
Now she’s gearing up for the European leg, kicking off with gigs in Manchester and Glasgow ahead of a sold-out show in London, a city she feels a special connection to. “My first EP was called ‘London’ –it’s pretty much where I feel like my music was first embraced.”
After a summer of sharing festival stages with a range of female talent, for Banks now is a “beautiful time to be a woman”. “It was so dope. There was Cardi B, Lizzo, Rosalia and Billie Eilish and me. It’s like you can just feel it in the air. It’s a little less scary to be fearless. It feels like people are more accepting of differences right now, which is amazing.”
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on 29th October 2019 in print and online in The i Paper.