Alt-Pop-Star Banks on Finding Her Way in Fashion

Photo: Courtesy of Harvest Records

You may recall singer-songwriter Banks’s first single, “Beggin for Thread.” Released on her debut album, Goddess, in 2014, it made her a global alt-pop star — the Hype Machine even determined that she was that year’s most blogged-about artist. Two years later, Banks is back with a new album, The Altar, coming out this September. She’s toured internationally with the Weeknd and her sound has been compared to the likes of a darker mix of Erykah Badu, Aaliyah, and Ellie Goulding, but she’s set on forging a path that’s all her own.

For the 28-year-old Banks (real name: Jillian Rose Banks), music is an intensely personal endeavor. “I could never write for other people,” she says. “My songs are incredibly autobiographical and they’re about me. It would feel super strange to have somebody else sing my songs, my words, my heart, my experiences, my lovers, my breakups, my jealousy, my everything.”

She started at the age of 14: “I just needed an outlet,” she says. “I was going through a hard time, and it fulfilled that void. I felt unheard and the music made me feel heard.” Ten years later, when she decided to dedicate herself to music full-time, the challenge was learning how to write lyrics — a skill that has now made her famous.

Complicated love songs like “Gemini Feed,” “Fuck With Myself,” and “Lovesick” off her new album describe the visceral power of love, pain, and possession, with a whiff of nostalgia. “I’m as open as I feel like I need to be in order to get something off my chest; but in terms of calling people out, I just think that’s unnecessary,” Banks says. “Whoever it’s about, I know who it’s about in my heart. I don’t need to sing somebody’s name.”

One theme that can be traced throughout her second album is empowerment. “I’m less afraid to be seen in this album; less afraid to be powerful, less afraid to take up space,” she explains. “It’s almost like maybe I was keeping this sheer piece of fabric on top of my features before, where you could see me but you couldn’t see my freckles and the details of who I am. With this album, I think I took that sheer piece of fabric off.”

In the song “Mother Earth,” she sings: “I know I’m Mother Earth, I see the weather / So I’m not gonna cover up the freckles on my faces / I covered all the bases … But I know I’m Mother Earth, I see the weather / So I won’t let you pull up in all of my safest places / I covered all the bases.”

Of all the songs on the album, that’s the one that means the most to her personally. “It has a big message that I believe in and I think women need to fucking hear. I wrote that because I needed to hear it. There was this weight on my back, and sometimes the best gift to myself is to write songs that I wish somebody would tell me. It’s almost like if you could make up the most maternal, nurturing being, your own goddess. I needed to say those things in order to believe them even more, and now every time I listen to it, it brings me back to that center.”

And on “Weaker Girl,” she warns a lover: “Tell me what you want from me. I think you need a weaker girl, kinda like the girl I used to be.” That spirit of strength has filtered into her fashion choices. Like Lorde before her, she avoids the bright, poppy look of many female entertainers in favor of unapologetically moody looks.

“I think it’s so cool that people can get up in the morning and be like, ‘I feel like wearing dark green today because I’m just feeling like a little earthling and I want to feel like that.’ I love being able to put stuff on and walk around feeling like I’m visually representing who I am mentally, and what I’m feeling like emotionally,” she says. The fashion world seems to have picked up on this: Dior chose her to perform at its annual Guggenheim International Gala this November, following in the footsteps of Grimes.

But she’s as interested in critiquing the fashion world as she is in participating in it. Her new video for the single “Gemini Feed” features clothing by Vivienne Westwood and opens with her seated on a throne. “It’s about messaging that I think breeds self-hate for women and makes you feel like you have to fit into this certain shape that you’re supposed to fit into, and nobody should fit in that shape, because that shape is powerless.”

She goes on: “Every form of womanhood — whether you want to be a doctor, whether you want to teach soccer to kids, whatever you want — every form of womanhood is as equally female and is as equally able to do things and is as equally deserving of respect and power and confidence. Sometimes I think that there is messaging that says otherwise. And that upsets me.”

Alt-Pop-Star Banks on Finding Her Way in Fashion