Empress of Empathy
Almost three years after the release of her sophomore record The Altar, Jillian Banks continues her courtship of both the monstrous and the divine on its successor. The resultant LP is a supple beast, of which the first taste appeared in the form of taut, bristling lead single “Gimme”.
With chopped, distorted vocals harking back to earlier Sohn-produced efforts, “Gimme” boasts a brashness first heard on The Altar’s “Fuck With Myself”. Where “Fuck With Myself” glittered with self-assured malevolence, “Gimme” is anything but subtle – in fact Banks describes the track – which features the lyric “you can call me that bitch” – as “a punch to the gut, covered in neon light.”
The single’s tectonic production comes from a star-studded team comprising BJ Burton (Bon Iver, The Japanese House, Sylvan Esso), Hudson Mohawke (Kanye West, Christina Aguilera), and Kito (M.O, Mabel, Jorja Smith) and is bolder and more immersive than ever before. It’s full of breathtaking moments, but the sudden bark that closes the bridge before a final chorus swings into action sits amongst Banks’ strongest ever creative choices. She describes working with “one-of-a-kind” Hudson Mohawke as instrumental to the song’s forthright sound, crediting him with the “growl” and “energy” it needed to come together – “his beats are hungry!”
In spite of all of this, Banks struggles to elucidate on her reasoning for her choice of “Gimme” as the introduction to III:
“It’s funny – for me it’s always an intuition thing,” she explains of the selection process. “It’s hard to chose which part of me I want to lead with. That’s a weird thing: what part of me do I want to put out in the world? Usually when people respond to that question, it’s something that they find their best characteristics in – like how people use social media – but for music it’s different.”
The rawness of Banks’ music could not be further from the neatly curated self-expression of an Instagram grid. On III, perhaps even more so than on her previous records, Banks makes no attempt to soften each emotional blow. Whilst she’s never shied away from a sound as forceful and discomfiting as befits her lyrics, III sees her pushing her style to even further extremes.
Album opener “Till Now” provides a vivid illustration of the record’s coiled potential from the off. Despite heading up III’s tracklisting, it was the final song Banks wrote for the project, in collaboration with the aforementioned BJ Burton.
“I thought I was done writing, and then I had more to say,” she reveals. “I’m so addicted to making music I was actually just writing for fun. This song just came out. It started as this midnight, future, weird, overt, sexual thing. We took that melody a few days later, and it turned into something completely different that I had to express and hadn’t let out yet.”
“Till Now” opens with a simple, wordless vocal refrain; one that’s built on in vocoder-drenched layers as it builds in a manner initially reminiscent of Bon Iver’s “715 – CRΣΣKS”, becoming super-charged as the track reaches its gasping climax.
“A lot of the time when I’m making music and I think of melodies I’ll record something into a voice memo. The beginning [of “Till Now], I took the voice memo from used it straight from my phone,” Banks explains. “That song is pretty sparse, but it’s hard. It starts out with a voice memo, and it’s an ode to how I make music and where I am and where I’ve been. I have a certain process. It feels like a good opener for me.”
It’s true that “Till Now”’s magnetic, undeniable presence sets the tone for III as a whole. Despite its minimalism, it has a fiery edge lent by its distorted instrumentation and the authenticity of Banks’ one-take vocals.
“My albums make a whole human. One song is a finger, one song is an arm, one song is a leg, one song is my stomach, one song is my neck. They’re all the innards of who I am."
“You can’t beat the first time you sing something,” she agrees. “When I write a song, I like recording without headphones, ‘cause it feels vibier. Usually I get so used to hearing the take that I did the first time, I’ll try to do it properly with headphones and I won’t like it, so I’ll end up having to use the take that has all the mud and the bleed from the room in.”
The irreplicable truthfulness of feeling captured in her original recording explains the inclusion of “Till Now”’s lo-fi first take in the final track. Banks describes the process of recording those vocals as “so emotional,” adding:
“When I sang it, you could feel it. I was angry in some of those lines, and I got emotional when I sang it. I went through something pretty painful, and that was me announcing ‘I’m done with it. You’ve been messing me around ‘til now. I won’t let you push me around.’ It’s a declaration of strength, and of where I’m at now, that’s referencing where I’ve been.”
Whilst it might be most evident in “Till Now”, Banks feels that the entirety of III – and indeed of every full-length she’s released thus far – reflects her mental state at the time of its creation. Loath to tease out each song as a separate facet to her artistry, she is clear that their existence within the ecosystem of each record provides a better mirror to her experiences than that of any song standing alone. It’s easy to pick apart each song in turn, but she has always aimed to convey the complexity of each track’s emotional narrative coexisting within a greater whole.
“They make a whole human, and that’s always how my albums are,” she explains. “One song is a finger, one song is an arm, one song is a leg, one song is my stomach, one song is my neck – but I don’t fragment my body up like that in terms of how I think of myself. My music is part of my body – it’s just me, and it’s just what I make, and it’s a very fluid process. They’re all the innards of who I am. I have so many different layers to me, and every song is so different and represents a different part of me.”
These themes of wholeness; of multiple unique components existing symbiotically within the framework of an album, are further illustrated in the record’s title, III, which perhaps surprisingly has little to do with the fact that it is Banks’ third LP.
“Every whole life cycle is represented in threes: birth, life, death; beginning, middle, end; past, present, future,” she explains, with a compelling sincerity that verges on pseudo-religious. “I feel like all those wordings of three end with a theoretical period. A period represents the ability to put an end to a thought; a closing of a chapter.”
III was not always how Banks had intended to christen her record. In a recent interview she revealed that Eros had been a previous front-runner. With Eros being the ancient Greek God of love and sex, it would certainly have been a name befitting a record that so explicitly confronts these themes. However, there’s more to III than these somewhat mainstream leitmotifs; something Banks feels a mononymous title struggles to capture.
“I wanted to call it this whole poem,” she says, pulling out her phone and reading aloud from its screen. “It’s called ‘Ode to the Grey Zone’.”
Ode to the grey zone.
Now I know that it exists.
I’d heard stories long ago
One woman entered its abyss
She said that the road was messy
Steps were crooked
Signs were wrong.
I heard myths that front was back
And white was black
And short was long.
I asked how could someone know where they were going if alone?
I asked should I wait to enter till I feel I’m fully grown?
“Child, silly girl. You were born already whole.
You’ve been fully grown since the beginning,
Life just took its toll.
You need to remember that whenever one road seems too long
Answers to unanswered questions lie in your unwritten songs.
Solace lies inside the soulless when they see they’re fully souled”.
“For me, that poem is about ‘Ode to the Grey Zone’ – the messiness; accepting that you’re fully souled; you’re a circle, and you don’t have cracks. You don’t need people to fill that crack with validation, or a boyfriend, or this or that – and what’s the full circle?” she asks, her question triumphantly rhetorical. “The life cycle. Life cycles, threes, that’s why I called it III.”
Whilst “Ode to the Grey Zone” may not have made it as an album title, the poem has found a place beyond the notes in Banks’ phone in a forthcoming project, due to coincide with III’s release.
“I’m releasing a poetry book!” she exclaims, almost giddy with enthusiasm, before adding: “I’m just as excited about this poem book as the album! I’ve always been a songwriter, and therefore a poet, but now that I’ve embraced writing poetry, I’ve noticed that the area that my music comes from and the area that my poetry comes from both feed into the same funnel that helps me heal and function.”
Whilst their function as both an outlet and as a tool for therapeutic processing may be similar, Banks feels that poetry and music fulfill different niches within this sphere. To an audience this may seem complex – or even irrelevant – but as Banks elaborates on the origins of these works, the distinction becomes clearer:
“Every song is about the graphic, gritty details of my life: resentment, guilt, love, lust, jealousy, missing my mom, whatever; it’s about little things,” she explains. “Whereas my poetry comes more from this wisdom-voice – this more full-bodied, old wisewoman I’ve discovered that lives inside of me. I can write poetry like ‘Ode to the Grey Zone’ and it’s almost like my own mother – things that I wish my mother had said to me. It comes from a more maternal place. I read ‘Ode to the Grey Zone’ to my sister and she was like, ‘oof, that’s from the depths!’ And yeah, it is! It comes from somewhere different. I’ve been trying to overcome some things that have been really hard for me, and you have to dig so deep when you do that; you discover this guttural wisdom inside of your stomach.”
Banks’ “wisdom-voice” will not be unfamiliar to fans, with whom she has shared her poetry in the past. Earlier this year, the singer tweeted a sweetly rhymed narrative about her grandfather, prompting such heartfelt responses as “i love when u share ur poetry cuz ur the reason i write mine [sic]”. A further offering drips with apiaristic metaphor, but Banks assures that not all of her forthcoming book will be quite so serious.
“I have some fucking funny poems,” she asserts, reading aloud from her arsenal once again.
In the middle of the circle
You can hear a grumpy duck
In the middle of his backside
Maybe half way to his butt
There’s a mark from where I slapped him
Out of awkwardness and such
Cuz I thought he’d try to kiss me
So I slapped him as a clutch
It wasn’t meant to hurt
But my right arm did all the work
And I think maybe it scared him
But that’s fine he was a jerk.
Where “Ode to the Grey Zone” was met with an awed silence from those present, “The Jerk” prompts chuckles as Banks elaborates on this contrastingly Edward Lear-esque verse.
“It’s got that ‘Fuck With Myself’ energy,” she laughs, “like, ‘ugh, fuck off! I didn’t mean to, I just slapped him! I thought he tried to kiss me! Get outta here!’”
Banks’ poetry is an exercise in juxtaposition; her rhyming couplets feel predictable and singsong, even while their content is more left-field. Tales of adult womanhood are given a nursery rhyme air that is very different to the mature sensuality of her music. The same themes spill into III, and Banks admits that, for the first time, she experimented with a similar childlike romanticism in her music too.
“A lot of songs [on the album] that have that youthful tenderness to them,” she says, citing “What About Love” and “Alaska” as prime examples. “’Sawzall’ was the first song that I wrote with that and I was like –“ she gasps dramatically “–‘what’s this new energy!?’
“It’s singing about something that’s quite heavy; looking back on a relationship and thinking ‘maybe we didn’t break up because we weren’t right for each other, maybe you were depressed. Why didn’t I see that?’ Rather than this dark, jaded feeling, it’s beautiful, and tender, and pure, and real. There’s no self-hate in that song. I’m so heady, and I’m a perfectionist too – I’m working on that – but I’m really hard on myself. I think kids aren’t so hard on themselves. Before you’ve experienced anything hard like pain, or someone lying – there’s a naïveté and hopefulness before you become a little bit… I don’t like the word jaded! It’s more just real. I wanted to capture some of that tender, naïve romanticism on this album. That’s such a huge part of who I am. I like that this album has a lot of heaviness, and it also has a lot of that really tender, hopeful feeling.”
In few tracks is that youthful wonder captured more obviously than on “beyond special” album closer “What About Love”, which features a vocal sample from Banks’ four-year-old niece, Georgia (who is credited as a co-writer).
“It’s a really guttural song about love, that ends with my little pure, perfect niece saying ‘I love you’,” Banks confirms. “I wanted to end on that note: no matter what happens, you’re going to go through so many ups and downs, you’re going to dig deep and have some pain to get over. Life happens, but no matter what, I always want to feel hopeful and I always want to have a little bit of that romantic naïveté. I never want to be jaded, or bitter, but I also always want to feel like I’m learning and becoming wiser.”
These ideas of cyclicity and growth; of openness both to new experiences and to closure, underpin III in ways that aren’t always immediately obvious. Our conversation gravitates to a track titled “Godless” (an unexpected name, given the religious undercurrents of both Goddess and The Altar), and Banks can’t help but laugh sheepishly as she reveals the “twisted” manner in which the song came to be.
“I dated someone during the Goddess era,” she begins. “We broke up. He’s amazing, but we had quite an intense relationship. I wrote about him on The Altar, hadn’t spoken to him in years. I know he heard it – I was super anxious about it, didn’t warn him, blah blah blah – all that stuff that probably most musicians and writers feel! Didn’t talk to him for a few years, and then met up with him years later. It was all good. We became friends again, but he was like, ‘I wrote this song about you, but I never finished it. I couldn’t finish it.’ It was a verse – and it was ‘Godless’.
“I write all my own music, of course, and I’m kind of a psycho about it. People try and tell my a lyric or a melody, and I’m like, ‘who are you!?’ But I heard this verse, and it really messed me up. It’s so beautiful. I was about me, and I was like, ‘give it to me! I wanna finish it!’ So I finished a song that my ex wrote about me, and I called it ‘Godless’, because of a million different reasons. Isn’t that so twisted? I mean, twisted in a really serendipitous way. It’s the most closure you could possibly get from a relationship! Let’s separately write about each other, then let’s come together and put a bow on it – we’re friends now! That’s crazy shit.”
When Banks revealed III’s tracklisting via Twitter, she also posted a handwritten note revealing more about the journey its creation had taken her on. Acceptance is a particularly prominent theme, and one that crops up readily with regard to “Godless”.
“It’s crazy that song is on the album,” Banks says, “because for me the concept of letting go has been really hard: learning to accept, let go, have closure, and move on – not hate yourself for decisions you’ve made but believe in and trust yourself and your decisions."
Whilst youth has played an important role in the creation of III, the singer admits that, on the emotional front at least, some things are becoming easier with age, adding, “When you grow up and you get to a certain point in your life, all of a sudden you have a few ‘aha!’ moments, or a few experiences that really force you to dig deep and change the way you think. I was going through that whilst making this album.”
The making of III coincided with a timing most people find transformative, even when not in the public eye. Along with releasing a third album, Banks has turned 30, putting quite some distance between the present and the person she was when her career first took off. Whilst this has imbued her with a familiarity with the mechanics of the music industry, she’s unsure she will ever sit fully comfortably with its realities.
“This business, and the nature of putting yourself out there as an artist, is very strange and foreign,” she admits. “I don’t think anyone will ever fully get used to that. It feels great to put my most vulnerable parts out into the world, and anybody could say anything, but that’s not something I think I’ll ever fully feel like I can sit in the pocket with. It’s a little uncomfortable. I do know that, where I’m at, I’m starting to let go of this tight hold on perfectionism that I’ve always had, that has caused quite a bit of pain. Different things have happened that really make you realise, wow, life isn’t black and white – what if I changed my thought patterns?”
“I have to make music, but it's so painful sometimes, putting your children out there – dangling them off a cliff and being like ‘slap ‘em, punch ‘em, say what you want, eat ‘em, digest them, love them, do whatever you want with them!’”
A part of the process Banks has found particularly demanding over the years is, to my chagrin, exactly what we’re doing now: the seemingly never-ending cycle of interviews and promotion that come with each new project. It is a relief, however, to hear that this time around she is finding her feet more easily.
“It feels less draining to me now,” she says, reassuringly. “It used to be really hard for me, constantly – constant anxiety – just ‘cause I am such an introvert. Because of where I’m at, I feel like I’m accepting myself more than ever. I’m more chill. I just don’t fucking care!”
This attitude – one that Banks has taken three album cycles to dredge to the surface – certainly seems more in line with the powerful, chaotic, matriarchal figure found both in her music and in her poetry. When she’s not occupied with baring her viscera and sinew to an audience, how does “that bitch” reckon with the dictatorial commercial side to distributing her craft on a global scare?
“I’m never really thinking about that,” Banks responds, a little tersely. “I don’t care about that stuff – truly, I don’t. I just make what I want to make. It’s a weird thing, art and business: making a career off of art, knowing that really it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks – but wait! Will people buy my music?”
Whilst the financial viability of a music career is not something that particularly occupies Banks’ thoughts, she acknowledges that the core drive to unleash her music on the world is still extremely potent, if difficult for her to fully understand.
“Sometimes I don’t know why I do this,” she admits. “Why do I do it? I have to make music, 100%, but why do I [release] it? It’s so painful sometimes, putting your children out there – dangling them off a cliff and being like ‘slap ‘em, punch ‘em, say what you want, eat ‘em, digest them, love them, do whatever you want with them!’ I don’t know why I fucking do it, but I do it. I’m addicted to doing it, but I hate it sometimes! I’m sure every artist says that, though.
“Is this a need that I have to put out music? To have people listen to my music? ‘Cause I just make it for myself, I truly do. I make it ‘cause I have to make it, and it makes me feel so powerful. It truly fulfills me. Without music I would not even have a purpose. It gives me purpose, every second of the day. Sometimes I think, why do I put it out? What is the thought behind that? Why do I care if people hear it? But I do, I guess, ‘cause I do it.”
A self-described empath – a highly sensitive individual attuned to the thoughts and needs of those around them – Banks also confesses she feels particularly sensitive to the response of her audience.
“With every empath in the world it’s like that,” she explains. Whether you are in the public eye or not, you’re constantly dodging energies. You have extra tentacles as an empath that are pointed towards the negative [responses].”
Despite this innate vulnerability, Banks feels her heightened awareness brings pleasure as well as pain. Whilst she may not be an artist who is particularly active or engaged through social media, her live shows provide an opportunity to connect directly with her fans; something she describes as “the most beautiful thing in the world.”
“When you write something from an experience you’ve been through, and it’s helped a person who has heard it, or they connected to it, or they feel less alone ‘cause they have gone through that, or they can sing the lyrics and be like, ‘I needed this right now,’ – that’s why I do it! I answered my own question.”
“If I feel like I’m in a box, I want to take a hammer and fucking smash it.”
Banks’ fascination with the human mind manifests not simply through her music – the singer also completed a degree in psychology that she notes was motivated by “the same intrigue” as her songwriting. Her experiences as an empath permeate III, though in few places surface more than “fucking weird” fourth track “Stroke”. Hair-raisingly distorted and peppered with unnerving, graphic vocal samples, it’s a track that confronts a difficult, almost dangerous relationship dynamic over twanging guitar and crunchy, penetrating beats.
“I dated a narcissist,” she states simply, when asked from which well the inspiration for “Stroke” first sprung. “As an empath, that combination is fucking deadly. It’s toxic, but could be very sexy too, in that really dark way, which makes the best music. That song, when you’re feeling like you’re drowning in something and you can’t escape it, that’s what I love. I feel like that was really captured, and that’s why I wanted to keep so much distortion on it – to make it feel so heady at the same time as pure.”
“Stroke” is an emotional deep dive – something to which Banks is no stranger – but as evidence from its name it’s also thrillingly sexually explicit.
“Sometimes I do that movement [like handjob] when I hear it and I’m like, what the hell!?” Banks laughs, miming a handjob. “That’s fucking gross! But that’s what it is – kind of graphic!”
Somewhat unexpectedly, for an artist who bares her soul on the regular, Banks confesses that writing in this forthright manner still requires a certain girding of her loins – though she doesn’t think that’s a bad thing.
“In this business, it will always be a bit foreign and will always be a bit unnatural for me to be my full, pure self and take risks in front of all these people,” she explains. “Every time I do it, I need to give myself a pep talk – and I do it a lot! I do it in every song. You can feel that energy from someone, and I think it’s really powerful. That’s why I always take risks. Every time I do it, I like that people can say, ‘oh, she took a risk,’ as if it’s new. That means they can feel that energy, that anxiety that I had to do it. That’s what art is.
“Definitely I know the energy that I was feeling when I wrote it – I was feeling whatever word that song is! It’s like an addiction – not good for you! That’s sometimes how a sexy toxic relationship is, or how dating a narcissist can be.”
As art goes, pop music is one of the most accessible – if unusual – vehicles Banks could have selected to convey her screeds of hesitance, discomfort, and sexuality. It’s now a medium, however, that she feels confined by, or even particularly attached to. Indeed, genre feels somewhat meaningless when applied to her music, which comprises large swathes of electronic elements and R&B stylings within a format broadly labelled as alternative pop. Banks disagrees with the suggestion that she’s expanding the concept of a pop song, rather that her soundscapes spring uncontrived from a reflection of who she is at the moment of writing. By chance, they happen to fall somewhere within the sphere of what we know as pop.
“It’s more like not putting a box around myself,” she explains. “I have a really heavy nature to my energy and my personality, and a really tender nature to who I am. I’m very sensitive, and that will always come through. Sometimes in this business, especially in this age that we live in, where everybody has an opinion, it’s quite easy for artists in particular to feel stuck into who people think they are. For me, the second I start feeling that is when I just want to punch someone. If I feel like I’m in a box, I want to take a hammer and fucking smash it. For me, I don’t ever want to feel like I have to be something because people think I’m something – and then you have to be careful not to make music to prove something. For me, it’s a constant trying to stay centred and be like, ‘what am I trying to say? What am I actually feeling?’ Just tune out the noise. Whatever inspires you affects you, and then it becomes a part of you, and it goes inside of you. Throughout my life, I’m not sure what exactly led me to each moment, but there are obviously millions of little things that have happened that have led me to the inspiration for each song.”
Our interview coincided with the release of sparkling new single “Look What You’re Doing To Me”; a central component of III with a vibe that’s very different to much of the looming, distorted walls of sound surrounding it.
“’Look What You’re Doing To Me’ is quite bright for me,” Banks agrees. “It feels loud. It feels like I’m not hiding. It feels fun. My music has always been very therapeutic for me, and it’s something that has helped me process things that are pretty painful, but ‘Look What You’re Doing To Me’ is a celebration! For me, that’s new. I’m allowed to do that! I feel like some people will probably have a problem with that, but those people can go listen to my shit seven years ago – bye! I don’t care.
“People are people; they’re not one thing,” she continues. “Sometimes in this business. people have this idea of who they think you are, and if you don’t fit that idea then they think you owe them a certain façade. I never want to do that. I’m just myself, and I’m always going to be doing that. This album is not set out to try and make the music sound a certain way: it sounds how I want it to sound in this moment.”