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Nine Songs

Banks talks PJ Somervelle through the pivotal songs in her life, and how they helped to patch together her deepest empathy and raw storytelling.

06 May 2022, 08:00 | Words by PJ Somervelle

Jillian Banks has woven many lives through her discography. From yarn built out from her pain to the lessons learnt and the subsequent healing, which in the process has brought her listeners intimately tied to her.

From the minute Banks fell in love with music to where she is with her songwriting today, the keystone songs in her life hold the key to her fascination with chords, melodies and vulnerable explorations.

Her Nine Songs selections are a mixture of songs that were released years before she was born, and others were written before she was 10 years old. Most of them are etched into pop culture’s conscience.

There’s a sense of mystery and childlike wonder to which Banks holds these songs tightly with. They uniquely fit into each page turned in her career and through a musical education initiated by her parents, both of whom loved music but never made their own.

Banks calling was a different road, a path that would see her create that was music authentic to her. With this latest chapter of Serpentina, she flexes even more creative control than ever before, producing and mixing her own vocals and choosing to release without a major label.

Blazing trails unashamedly, the artists and songs that inspire her take in a range of musical stories and ages. From the timelessness of Fleetwood Max, to the pioneering songwriting of Fiona Apple and the IDGAF attitude of Missy Elliot, Banks catholic tastes hold up a brilliant mirror to her own songwriting.

“Never Is a Promise” by Fiona Apple

“She’s obviously a legend and when I was growing up she was one of the voices that I felt I understood, just the fact that she felt so fearless in saying how she felt in a very graphic, straightforward way. I feel that gave me another sign that said you’re allowed to do that in your music - you can be graphic and gritty, and you don’t have to be buttoned up.

““Never Is a Promise” is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It’s one of my favourite songs, how the piano swells, how it comes in in the chorus. I love the build in it, and I think there’s a key change at one point which is always exciting to hear, it’s always a little bit of magic when it goes up.

“She was one of my first concerts that I went to. I saw her at The Wiltern in LA and then on my first tour I played two nights at the Wiltern, on the Goddess Tour. It was so surreal for me, I remember that night so vividly.”

“Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac

“This was one of my favourite songs growing up and I would always sing it. I remember going to my friend’s house when I was 14, she had learned to play the guitar and I sang this song and she would play. It’s one of the most incredible songs ever made.

“Everybody has a few songs that really affected their view of music, for me this was one of the songs that made me realise the connection I feel to music. The melody and the lyrics, Fleetwood Mac are just so legendary. I felt really connected to it, even though it was not made in my generation.

“You can’t help but feel a million different feelings when you listen to it, it feels really magical too because it’s not from this time. There’s a timelessness to a lot of songs, and that’s what’s special about a really good song. It lives forever. It’s relevant no matter what time you listen to it or when you listen to it. Humans are humans, technology develops but human emotions… at the core were just animals. It’s pretty cool that something can live forever like that.

“I think wisdom is the deepest form of intelligence, mixed with empathy and understanding, and you can’t get wisdom without going through some shit and pain, and different obstacles. As you get older you get more confident and at peace with who you are.”

“Walk Away” by Ben Harper

“This song is heartbreakingly beautiful. I love Ben Harper and his voice. When I was younger, Ben Harper was one of the first male artists that I discovered who was that vulnerable. His voice is just unbelievable. It’s just got that raspy grit in it that I love. I’ve always felt that Ben Harper was like a fairy or something. He’s just this angel on earth.

“I think was 12 or 13 when I was listening to him non-stop, and the internet wasn’t really there. I didn’t really know what he was like, but he’s just so special. I remember the CD I had of his, I think it was Live From Mars and it was a double CD, one was red and one was green. I remember the green side had all the soft and delicate songs that I loved, and the red had the harder songs. I remember asking myself ‘Should I do red or green now?’ I loved both, but the green was my favourite.

“I think I’ve always been drawn to human vulnerability, where you can see their soul and they’re not hiding anything, like they’re an open book. It’s funny because no matter how open an artist is, they make you feel something that is so special that it almost feels magic and mysterious.”

“The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” by Missy Elliott

“Missy! The GOAT.

“I think she was one of the first to do big budget, freaky visuals. Missy would have found my “F*ck With Myself” video – with that silicone head being burnt – normal!

“She’s the coolest, her production is crazy, her rhythms, her ideas. She’s so ahead of the game. Really amazing. All of her songs are dope, she’s just fresh. She writes her own story. She’s one of a kind, as the best artists are.”

“Ex-Factor” by Lauryn Hill

“My first tour was when I opened for The Weeknd and I didn’t even have enough songs out to have a whole set, so I covered “Ex-Factor” as one of the songs that I sang. It was a special one, there are some special memories there. Her voice is not of this world.

“I feel like writing music is the antithesis of shame. Like if you feel guilty… I’m thinking of my song “Someone New”, when I made that I felt so guilty, and scared, and I didn’t know if I had done the right thing. There’s something about making those emotions into something beautiful and special, it’s like a subconscious message that you’re OK, that you’re not a terrible person.

"It’s like a maternal type of energy, I’m someone that has dealt with so much guilt and shame in my life, and that probably comes from generational trauma. It doesn’t make sense to my life, but I feel music helps me escape that. It’s like writing songs, if you feel in pain, it feels like it gets it out of your body. It makes you feel better.

“With Lauryn Hill, I just connect with her through her music. It’s so special. With my songs, I don’t like saying what they are about. If they mean something specific to somebody, I wouldn’t say ‘This means this to me’ and then they’ll feel belittled and feel that this song can’t mean that to them. Lauryn Hill’s music is so special, I just get the magic from that.”

“Layla” by Eric Clapton

“This song is a classic, it’s just a really good melody. Every time melodies like that are written… for me, whenever I write a melody that I think is really strong, I think, ‘Did this exist before?’

“I think for this song, he probably wrote that and a million people thought that, like ‘how is this melody?’ It’s recognisable and cinematic. It’s just crazy.”

“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman

“I remember hearing this song for the first time, I think I was like 7 or 8. I was in my mum’s car. I said ‘Who is this? I love this so much!’ I just loved the voice. She said ‘Tracy Chapman’, and I thought it was a guy called Tracy. And then when I saw the cover, I said, ‘She’s a woman? I couldn’t believe it. (Using your voice in different ways) it’s fun! It doesn’t need to be one-dimensional whatsoever.

“I think when you’re younger, gender roles are put in you in such a straightforward way, and it was really eye-opening to see that a woman can have this voice. That’s so interesting, I remember being young and thinking ‘That’s so cool’. I wanted to know more about her and listen to that album, because she was so interesting to me.

“After I found out she was a woman, I listened to her from a woman’s perspective, and she seemed so layered and complex and beautiful. I think I’ve always been into complicated people, you just want to solve the puzzle. I like puzzles.

“There will never be another song written like “Fast Car”. It’s so special, the storytelling in it is so simple and the melody is so timeless.”

“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel

“My parents love music but they don’t make it, which is interesting, and then I came along and I have to make it. My music taste is definitely growing up with parents who loved music, but also finding my own. I remember going to the record store and it was so fun. You always remember discovering those artists when you were young.

“This song is one of my dad’s favourite songs. He’s just retired from being a Neonatologist, which is exciting. But his job was helping premature babies and it was so high stress. Whenever he had days off, he would always have a beer in his hand and he would always play Peter Gabriel. There were a few go-tos that he would always blast, and this was one of them.

“The song is just so dreamy; the melody is like it’s technicoloured or something.”

“What You Need” by The Weeknd

“I’m just such a fan of his. It’s the beauty and the sensuality, the softness in his voice and his music. His music is so masculine and I’m so feminine. There’s masculinity and femininity in everybody.

I covered “What You Need” for the BBC when I was touring with him. It was so fun to cover. This song is so good, it’s so sexy. He’s such an incredible artist, he’s done so much. Creating this whole world. It’s unbelievable!

“I’m so grateful for those experiences touring with him. I went on tour with him twice. His team were always so supportive, and they believed in me. It was a really great experience for me, and I will always be grateful for that time because it was the beginning for me.”

SERPENTINA is out now via AWAL
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