BANKS’s sophomore record is a gripping artistic experience. Stretching past the seduction of 2014’s Goddess, BANKS explores a quietly explosive tension with The Altar. In a fury of songwriting, she laid her fears, doubts and contemplations on the altar to be confronted, shed and reincarnated. Another cocoon to crawl out of and observe as the past. Another body of work that reflects her signature sound of shadowy electronic soundscapes. That lingering darkness woven into all of BANKS’s songs is at the forefront of The Altar from the disarming chorus of “Fuck With Myself” to the vulnerability of the closing track “To The Hilt”. Her raw, fearlessly unguarded lyrics are the backbone of her albums and what her listeners clutch to. She is this generation’s model of a female songwriter who embraces her pain and transforms it into poetic melodies that mean something. But her fearless and unguarded lyrical approach is a stark contrast to Jillian Rose Banks in person. Jillian is soft-spoken, humble, genuine, shy and a self-proclaimed highly sensitive person. She gives off a sweet, approachable energy while quietly, her guard is up, protecting her emotions that ripple under the surface.
The day I met with BANKS, part of me was afraid I wouldn’t get my interview. She was suffering from jetlag, was an hour-and-a-half behind schedule and had just been pressured into an impromptu photo shoot by one of the other media outlets there to interview her. The last thing I thought she’d want to do was her last interview of the day. As I was preparing myself for disappointing news, the door to the studio’s control room opened and she walked in with a slightly weary but kind smile. It took less than ten seconds for us to connect over her music and suddenly a wide smile and emphatic tone took over her body. It was immediately obvious how much her music and its connection with other people means to her. As our conversation grew deeper, she opened up about feeling overwhelmed and lonely, how it feels to have songs start pouring out of you, and how she felt mute after the album was finished. She was exposing herself and I was so grateful that she was sharing her honesty with me. Knowing our time together was running out, I began to thank her when she softly interrupted me with the offer, “You can ask one more.” From an artist who was exhausted and feeling overexposed earlier that day, that sentence was such a gift. That is the sweetness that floats through the lingering shadows of her music and makes it so enthralling. That is the dichotomy of BANKS.
First of all, I’m thrilled to be talking with you today because I’m a big fan of yours. I included Goddess as one of SBTS‘s best albums of 2014 and I love The Altar.
BANKS: Ohhh thank you! Thank you!
B: It feels crazy. I’m super overwhelmed right now. It feels… crazy. I think I’m realizing more right now, than even when I was promoting Goddess, like, how exposed I feel doing all of this stuff. I really am starting to feel strange talking about such intimate things.
B: I never know what something’s going to be until it’s done. It became itself while becoming itself.
B: Yeah. It was kind of like eight months of constant studio life. Just everyday coming home completely empty because I had said everything I needed to that day. Towards the end I was like, “I don’t have anything else to say right now.” I felt mute. Or, I felt illiterate or something. [pauses] It’s like when you say so much about so much at a certain point you have nothing else to say. That’s when you know an album’s done.
B: [pause] I had a lot of songs that aren’t on there. That’s the hardest part. Deciding which ones go on. It’s hard because all of my songs are like my children so I didn’t want to leave any of my children out. But, there will be a time for them to play.
You’ve said that this record represents a metamorphosis of you coming into your own in a different way. Do you feel comfortable talking about what was going on when you were writing the album that brought you to this new phase?
B: I think it was like a culmination of everything. I just had new things to write about. [pause] I came into my own just by being able to write about them. Sometimes you don’t know how much you’ve gone through until you actually sit down and address those things. It’s like you’re running, trying to just get through life and keep up with everything and then all of a sudden it’s like giving yourself however long it takes to make the album and all of a sudden time stops and rather than make new experiences, you get to just process what has happened. The act of doing that was really intense and necessary for me because I had a lot to say and I didn’t even know it. I didn’t even know what I was going to write about and then all of a sudden I got in [the studio] and I had so many things to write about that I’d never written about before and so many new experiences that I had had that I had never had before. It was like this new vocabulary that I used in the songs because I never had to use those words before.
B: Yeah. I work in studios that feel like home. I don’t come to corporate studios. I don’t like those types of studios where you walk outside the room and there’s like 30 other artists lined up that came from their other sessions and it’s like a social thing. For me, that’s not a space that I’m my most pure artistic self in. My favourite studio is Tim Anderson’s studio which [has] become one of my homes in L.A. That’s where I made most of the album. It’s like you’re in The Matrix. When I’m in the studio, time stands still. You’re with your family, whoever you’re working with, and you’re just exhaling. For me, it’s like my form of meditation, writing music. It’s like you could be feeling really like… [pauses] It’s like your whole body is made up of words and it’s just filled to the brim and you have your mouth shut and then… it just comes out.
The last song on the record, “To The Hilt”, reminded me of a secret song. Like back in the ’90s when people used to do secret songs on their albums so that the last track finishes and you think the album is done and then, out of the quiet, an unlisted song starts playing. And usually scares the hell out of you [laughs]. It kind of reminded me of that because it’s the last thing you hear of the album, it’s the only song with just piano and vocals for instrumentation, and it’s so vulnerable.
B: That’s so cool, I like that. A secret song. It is special to me, that song. It’s sacred to me. It just feels… [pause] It felt like it needed to be the last thing you heard from me. It’s a bit gentle. It also doesn’t fit in between songs. It needs space because it’s so emotional. It needs time to breathe and to be digested.
You’ve talked about the Hindu goddess Kali and how you believe in the connection between creativity and destruction. When you’re working on an album and it’s all creativity bursting from you for a period of time, do you feel any destruction in any form after that in any way?
B: [pause] You feel light because you got so much out but at the same time, that’s a very insular thing, to be able to write an album and process it. And then going out into the world showing it and talking about it, it’s a different world. It’s kind of like a come-down after a show. When I first started performing, I would get this strange come-down where I would feel really super alone and sad after shows and I didn’t understand it because I had just started performing. So I called one of my friends who’s a musician and I was like, “I feel insane. I just got offstage and there were so many people there and there was so much energy and now I’m in my dressing room and I feel kind of like, sad and really lonely and weird.” He told me that it was because you give so much energy and the audience takes up that energy – which is supposed to happen, it’s like a beautiful exchange – but then you walk offstage and you’ve just given all of your energy out and so you feel like, really empty. And then you’re alone with your empty body and you feel really lonely. But if you know that, it becomes part of your process and it’s kind of this beautiful cycle that happens and it’s normal and a healthy thing that happens.
It’s funny that you went there with that response because I was going to ask you about how you’ve mentioned that performing requires you to give all of your energy to the audience and I wanted to ask you what you go through afterwards, so that’s really interesting that you just brought that up! I also wanted to ask you about the song “Mind Games” because you’ve said that writing that song was an important step in making the album and also that it made you feel exposed. Can you talk about that song?
B: Yeah, it was like one of those memories that you can look back on and know that it was an important day, it was like a benchmark of a time. The day that I wrote “Mind Games”, oh my god, I was so happy. The melody just made me so happy and I knew that it was going to be on the album. The verses felt like they came from one certain perspective and then on the chorus I went to this new perspective. It felt really exciting because it’s like, I dare you to see me now. I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, it’s just everything about making it was just a special day. It’s funny because my sister loves when I send her songs that I just started. “Mind Games” is her favourite song on the album. She’s not remotely in the music business whatsoever so she doesn’t really know how anything works, and to be honest, neither do I, at all, it’s all so strange, but she would say, “When is ‘Mind Games’ coming out? When is ‘Mind Games’ coming out? When is ‘Mind Games’ coming out?!” [laughs] She loves that song.
B: Oh GOOD! That makes me really happy. That’s like, my heart. Can you imagine? At shows?! Like, everyone singing, “IMMA NEED A BAD MOTHERFUCKER LIKE ME!” When I wrote that, that’s all I was thinking was, I’m just going to hold the mic out and have everyone sing.
BANKS has been featured in the Stories Behind The Songs Playlist Series. Listen to BANKS on SBTS Standouts – The July Collection, SBTS Standouts – The August Collection and SBTS Standouts – The September Collection.
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