7.41am, pre-coffee, on a Thursday in August, Jillian Banks greets with a friendly, albeit feeble handshake. We’re meeting mere days after her video for magnetic single Gemini Feed has been released and slow-burning track Mind Games dropped just hours earlier. Being privy to an early listen of her new album – her best to date, The Altar is out September 30 – Banks takes her alt-pop and RnB sound to electrifying new places, her lyrics laying her soul bare, the most nude and exposed we’ve heard her. It’s this vulnerability and bravery in crafting this personal cache of music for the world that you would presume the singer-songwriter would be really open in person. I was wrong. Instead, she’s fiercely guarded, almost unsure of your intentions and very wary of her image. But it’s easy to see why. Once one to avoid social media and instead opting to give her phone number to her fans so they could call or text her anytime, Banks’ burgeoning career is on an upward trajectory at such pace, it’s meant she’s at a point where she can longer do that and journalists have taken a keen interest in everything about her. She’s been burnt in the past and thus it makes sense she shields herself at the media’s attempts to delve into the complicated love, pain and self-doubt which propelled her new album.
“In interviews it’s almost like you have to analyse yourself so much which is sometimes hard,” Banks says, her gaze across the room. “The answers are in the lyrics.” The Altar, a follow-up to the wildly successful 2014 album Goddess, showcases a new kind of strength for the Los Angeles native, one she’s now embracing in full gear. “I have definitely changed since I wrote my last album,” she says.
“I feel stronger and less afraid to address certain layers of myself.”
“I just know I have changed a lot and it’s hard to put into words but I feel different when I walk down the street. When I do interviews, I feel different. When I do photo shoots, I feel different. When I’m writing I feel a little bit different…but the same.” The proof as Banks has already told me, is in her lyrics, a prime example being her reflective track, Weaker Girl. Tell me what you want from me/I think you need a weaker girl/Kind of like the girl I used to be. “Sometimes I feel like I become really lovesick for my past,” she smiles. “I have this certain yearning and addiction to this nostalgia that I get. So Weaker Girl is the reaction to not wanting to feel lovesick because the way I’ve changed is a good thing. I think sometimes you have to be almost aggressively confident with development because of that nostalgia you feel for your past even if you weren’t as strong as you now are.”
The Altar has strong, purposeful religious references throughout; biblical chanting, organs. Gemini Feed opens the album, Bank’s voice reverberant as if she’s being recorded singing in a church. And to think you would get me the altar/Like I’d follow you around like a dog that needs water/But admit it you just wanted me smaller/If you woulda let me grow you coulda kept my love. When questioned what/who inspired this track – a passive aggressive and seemingly toxic relationship – Banks cautiously pauses. “Loving someone pretty much,” she replies. “It’s about everything that comes when you’re with a certain type of person and you are a certain type of person. Kind of like if you drink too much water, you could drown or something. Two bombs going off, that type of thing.” It’s the perfect prelude as to what to expect on the album, a series of admissions which have become not only cathartic to Banks, but “holy.” “Altars are a place of sacrifice and it’s the most holy, pure place for confessing your sins,” she says.
“For me, music is like my religion, the most honest, truest part of my life. I think my songs are holy to me.”
As we begin to shoot, Banks surprises again. You would presume a person so guarded wouldn’t necessarily be so comfortable in front of the lens. I was wrong a second time. Never have I seen a musician (read: non-model) move like she did; her Chanel-laden limbs angelic, her movement feline-like, her creative spirit very free. It’s an elusiveness that fuels the Banks enigma. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just an energy vessel and I open myself up to let out whatever I need to let out,” she explains. And then, there’s the eyes; part vulnerable, part “don’t mess”.
For Banks, music was – and still is – her therapy. Discovering it at 15-years-old by mindlessly playing around on a toy keyboard as a means for reportedly dealing with the anger she felt over her parents divorce, the melodies and experience of creating became cleansing. She went on to study psychology (and wrote a thesis on children of divorced parents in the interim) but music called her back. From here, her career took off. Two EPs deep Banks’ music (read: her swirling inner dialogues in the form of four-track offerings in Fall Over and London) were gaining serious traction when Before I ever Met You and Change featured on TV show Grey’s Anatomy. Waiting Game – my favourite next to Gemini Feed – featured on the Divergent film soundtrack and in 2013, she opened for The Weeknd. Publications and music editors were likening her to Fiona Apple, Lauryn Hill, PJ Harvey and the late Aaliyah. To this day, she doesn’t set out to create just anything. “Music is so natural to me. Whatever was created in The Altar, was something that I needed to create subconsciously, that I didn’t necessarily plan,” she says. Banks has talked about a deep depression she experienced while making her latest album. When asked which track may be the hardest emotionally to perform live, the singer responds bluntly, “To The Hilt”.
There’s another poignant track which is worth special mention: Mother Earth. “I just think this society is set up to breed self hate for women and it’s disgusting,” says Banks. “It’s designed to rip power away from women and how they feel about themselves and I don’t even mean in terms of just looks, I mean in terms of knowing you can do anything you want to do just as well as a man and it doesn’t matter what gender you are. I’ve felt that since I was born. It’s not an angry song, it’s not even a sad song, it’s a really uplifting and empowering lullaby. It’s like, ‘We can comfort each other and come together and we can change [society].’”
And there it is. Strong, opinionated and fearless. This isn’t a new Banks. This is a woman embracing all that she is in full. She’s unexpected, she’s complex. When we say goodbye, we thank her for being incredible in front of the camera and honest in her interview. And I’m wrong a third time for there is no handshake transaction. Instead, a rich embrace.
The Altar is available now.
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Location: Primus Hotel Sydney
Photographer/Videographer: Lester Jones
Beauty Editor: Sara McLean
Entertainment Editor: Jessica Bailey
Fashion stylist: Emily Gibb
Hair: Michael Brennan
Make-Up: Elsa Morgan
Music label: EMI Australia
Cover image: Lester Jones Photography