“If I creep you out or turn you on, I’m down with it…” hmv.com talks to Banks
It’s impossible to overstate the vulnerability and emotional candor Jillian Banks displays on The Altar, the hugely anticipated follow-up to 2014’s smash debut Goddess. Not that Goddess was an emotive cake-walk.
On The Altar, Banks takes on ex-lovers, society’s misogynists and, most strikingly, her own self-destructive tendencies with an unvarnished ferociousness her biggest inspiration - 90s-era agony queen Fiona Apple - would applaud.
With her voice and lyrics front and centre, Banks invites listeners into her oftentimes uncomfortable world. Witness the searing first single, “F--k with Myself” and its admission that “I f--k with myself more than anybody else” and you begin to get the picture.
There are moments of light too, and the palpable sense of hearing an artist writing straight from the heart. It’s thrilling stuff, with clear-eyed production from Sohn, Tim Anderson, and DJ Dahi bolstering the dynamic effect.
At once experimental, angular and baroque yet weirdly accessible, The Altar is a must-hear for fans of Banks’ debut and just about anyone looking for an art-pop outlier.
hmv.com caught up with Banks in Toronto the day after a showcase performance that drew tears from onlookers. We’ll say this about the 28-year-old California native: she is fearless.
What kind of songwriter are you… where does inspiration fall?
“I record Voice Memos on my iPhone if I’m desperate but I prefer going into the studio and writing. Love the studio - it’s my preferred space. You set time aside, clear your mind and go. The exception might be when I am on the road and need to get something down quickly but that’s not my preferred method.”
Can you isolate a song on the new album that was really hard to get right versus one that seemed to write itself?
“All my songs seem to kind of write themselves although I suppose ‘Poltergeist’ took a bit more time.”
So much of this album seems highly personal. Is there a danger in that kind of candour?
“When I first started writing, it really was just diary entries so I didn’t think about it that much. Once I put my first record out, that changed and I had to ask myself if I was going to change the way I work. It is strange, to be honest. This album – more so than the first – feels so purely me. I mean, the first album did too. But something about this album… it’s even more uncomfortable for me to do interviews about it because it feels like it documents a really, really important transformation that I had.
“Transformations are usually the most fragile periods because you are opening yourself up to change. So the mushy, putty version of yourself is there and being transformed into whatever you’re turning into. When you unzip yourself, you don’t have that hard shell around you. That’s how this album feels. So doing press behind this record is quite daunting. I feel such vulnerability.”
Sorry to be a part of that construct…
“No, no. It’s OK. I am comfortable right now. But sometimes when you spend a whole day talking about what the song ‘Mother Earth’ means to me – and that song is my bible – it’s hard. My music is real, so real to me, and necessary for me. So when people are asking what ‘Gemini Feed’ is about and ‘To The Hilt’ is about it’s like, ‘F—k! It’s about my real life and the people that I love.’ It’s an intense thing to talk about which is why I write about it. ‘Gemini Feed’ is a song I had in my stomach and had all these feelings about how I loved this person but they weren’t good for me. So many complicated feelings. You end up feeling defensive.”
Plus, there is a natural tendency for people to project their own feelings on art and music…
The video for “F--k with Myself” is intense and a bit creepy. What was the mood on the set?
“That video is not creepy or silly at all to me. It’s a real serious thing. Not that I take myself so seriously, but that song is really empowering to me. And what I wanted to convey in that video was the different layers of how I treat myself. When I met with the director, Philippa Price, who I collaborated with, I told her this was the first video for this next chapter of my life. I’m usually indecisive about how much of myself I want to show because I feel so exposed. And my music is already so revealing. So I tend to hide behind visuals. At least in the past.
“With this video, I am so out there and empowered that I wanted my face to be everywhere. I want masks of myself, a prosthetic version of myself, I’m interacting with myself. I mean, I f—k with myself in a really negative way more than anyone else, too. I am hardest with myself and my own biggest bully. What you see me doing to the prosthetic me embodies all the different relationships I have with myself. So that wasn’t creepy to me. It was beautiful. And it has a sensuality to it which is inherently me. So yes, people have said they find it creepy but also that it turns them on in a twisted way. I’m fine with that (laughs). It kind of sums up who I am. If I creep you out I’m down with that and if I turn you on, I’m down with that, too.”
In any medium – art, literature, music – who do you see as a kindred spirit?
“Kindred spirit as in: their art is coming from the same place as mine? In that sense, there are so many. Fiona Apple. When I was first starting to write, she gave me strength to write. I was stunned that anyone could be that honest and show their scratched edges… something not wrapped up in a box and tied with a bow. Also the amazing painter Georgia O'Keeffe. I have this amazing coffee table book that my grandmother gave me years ago.
“My grandmother is so cool. Her art is in gardening, she always says. Her mom died when she was really little so she never had mothering. She had to mother herself. She had to support herself, and then late in life became a lawyer. But her art is in gardening. She has cherry tomatoes and strawberries and plums and zucchini. I just did a documentary with NPR where they asked me to visit really special places and I took them to my grandmother’s garden in Santa Monica. And she’s so kooky. For a long time, her house was pale blue. Then one weekend I went to her house and it was bright pink. Confrontational pink. She saw the colour at the paint store and just bought it because it suited her mood. That’s a kindred spirit.”
So what will success look like for you with this album?
“It already feels successful. I’m proud of this record, really proud of it. The press side can be stressful, as I mentioned, and sometimes I’ll find myself wondering if I am really cut out for this. And then I listen to my record and think, ‘Yes. I am really f—king cut out for this. This record means something to me. So how do I measure success? Just keep making music I feel connected to. And I hope others connect to it, too. But it’s hard because rule one of this business: you’ll kill yourself if you listen to other people’s opinions. You just can’t care what other people think.”