Image: Banks in Dior, photographed by Jack Grayson for Catalogue Magazine.
“My album is called The Altar. It is my altar. The things I create for me represent who I am; the holiest place that I have. When I write things – certain lyrics, certain melodies – they’re like my mantras.” As grossly literal as it seems, it’s a coincidence that I meet Banks, alias Jillian Banks, or maybe it’s the other way around, in a church. It’s cold, the way churches always are, and we’re tucked away in a snug backroom. Neatly prepped for the shoot, Dior hangs alongside choir gowns and every sound is amplified by the high beamed ceilings and wooden floors. During our chat we’re interrupted at various moments by the vicar’s indignant representative as she updates us on what problems she’s presently upset about, from the position of our make-up table, the access to the bathroom, to the noise of the hairdryer, without requiring us to solve any of them. At one point a cute kid wanders through from the playgroup next door, pausing, mesmerised by Banks who asks her about the small toy she’s carrying. I think it has something to do with Frozen. Doesn’t it always.
The kid, stare only broken by her Mum’s hand pulling her away, and I have a few things in common; not just a love of Frozen, but the human instinct to want the most from the people who don’t know how to give it. Banks’ new tracks pull at the seams but never rip, full of feeling but still restrained, like the artist herself. There’s such careful consideration that you’re left lusty for what motivated each lyric – a desperation to glean the ‘emotional authenticity’ of the songs. And when you’re a female musician, it’s worse still: you have to negotiate this spectator impulse to unpack your ‘mysteriousness’ rather than just let it be, especially if there’s a dark undertone to it. Banks knows; it’s in her music, in her mannerisms – each answer she gives is peppered with thoughtful pauses as she turns over what I need to know, and what I don’t. “That’s why these interviews are sometimes uncomfortable for me. It’s just strange. It’s like you have to tell somebody that you don’t know the most ‘you’ things about you”. To her, music isn’t an outlet, it’s a necessity. A kind of therapy. And when it comes to PR trails, “who the fuck wants to dissect their own therapy sessions.”
Image: Banks wears Dior.
Banks is the champion of the addictive refrain. Gemini Feed, the recently released track from Banks’ new album The Altar, throbs with the repeated line ‘passive aggressive’. For me, it’s this minutia of Banks’ songs that makes them so alluring. The seemingly small beat, word or tonal shift that pricks your ear. I still go back to Waiting Game – from Banks’ debut album Goddess – just for the intimate tension of the lyric ‘don’t tell me listen to your song / because it isn’t the same’, that hot suspense before the bass. I get it when, mid getting her hair done, Banks talks me through the chronology of her creative process “it’s very fluid. It starts with a chord progression, a word, with certain syllables that fit into a melody that I like. Sometimes it doesn’t even start as a real word…” she suddenly pauses to softly sing, sounding out loose, lilting vowels – big Ohs and sultry Ahs. “Then it will turn into a sentence,” she concludes.
Give a journalist emotional inch and we’ll take a mile but Banks would rather open everything up for an album, not me. Bringing up the track Weaker Girl, and its lyric ‘I think you need a weaker girl / kinda like the girl I used to be’, I ask the obvious: does she feel stronger since starting out in the industry just a few years ago?
“Sometimes I get nostalgic for my past even if I’m in a better mental space than I was…That song isn’t insulting who I was in the past, I think it’s important to have a really kind and gentle love for yourself even when you feel like in the past you were less empowered.”
It’s physical, the Banks process. When she finished To The Hilt, an intense, lo-fi ballad, she “ended up getting super sick after I wrote it because my body had confronted all that stuff.” ‘Stuff’ is, in reality, a good word for it; not demons, but inevitable build-up.
Image: Banks wears Dior.
Banks is, after all, into journeys, not closing chapters. Finishing The Altar wasn’t about reaching a conclusion so much as an addition: “I think that when I felt it was done was when I didn’t have this feeling that something was missing”. The rawness of a song’s conception can still resonate an entire album, or decade, later. Speaking to The Altar’s Trainwreck Banks quickly reels off the most potent lyric verbatim “‘ears that have been deaf for as long as I can remember /self-medicated handicap’”, telling me that she “wrote that when I was fourteen or fifteen. There were some of the first lyrics I ever wrote. I’ve always had them in my head. For years and years. I always knew I would find a home for it.” I guess she probably isn’t the type to compulsively take notes, which so often commit ideas to nothingness, she just remembers. Trusts, even.
Image: Banks wears Kate Sylvester.
I get predictable and ask about ‘being a woman in music’, and Banks is OK with question. She pins the comparison to other successful, alt artists on an industry need to “contextualise” femaleness rather than just letting it be. Emotional labour, an essential component of any artist’s work but something that’s both relentlessly judged and undervalued when it comes to female output, is a factor she’s learnt to value in herself. “People sometimes have this subconscious idea of a woman, that she’s kind of out of control and emotional, and it’s so not the case. It’s so frustrating when you say what you want and people almost immediately as a defence say ‘oh she’s difficult’.” We know the stereotypes: the lazy language of diva, sassy and ethereal in more recent times. After spending time, as we all do, worrying what everyone else is thinking, Banks figured she invest energy where it really matters: “This is my face. This is my music. This is my heart,” she emphasises.
Image: Banks wears Dior.
Image: Banks wears Issy Miyake pants and Y-3 turtleneck from Poepke
This article originally appeared on Catalogue in September 2016.