“I just want everyone to feel empowered. You are your voice. You are your words. You are your movement, and nobody else can define who you are.” Musician, muse, seductress, champion of female empowerment …these are only a few of the descriptors that come to mind in attempting to pinpoint R&B break-out siren Banks. In a few short years she released two EPs and a hugely successful full-length that catapulted her into the mainstream, breaking the blogosphere along the way. By fall 2014, she had paved her way toward domination of the pop-crazed Tumblr generation, which she rules with a new world order: sultry, moody R&B from the lips of a moodier star. “It’s hard to take charge and not be called a bitch, and not be called a diva,” she admits. “And, at the same time, I’m very nurturing and I’m very sensitive and I really care how people are feeling. Sometimes it’s constantly a battle of, ‘Should I care less?’ You feel the weight of it. There’s been things that have happened to me in the layers of this career, and sometimes I think, ‘If I were a guy would this have ever happened?’”
The seeds that formed Banks into the complex woman and vibrant artist she is today took root in her early years. Growing up in Los Angeles, she turned to music when she was a teenager, learning how to play piano in attempts to achieve respite amid the chaos of adolescence. “Going through so much – not just with my family but in life – I was weighed down, I felt like gravity was one hundred pounds. I had a lot of anger and sadness. I felt like I could scream and no one could hear me. I needed an outlet, so I started writing songs and it just saved my life.”
The hardships she faced at a young age soon became fodder for her emotional growth and thus spawned her foundations as an artist, further inspiring her to study psychology in college. “I’ve always been really intuitive and interested in the dynamics of relationships and how they grow and start from point A and end up at point B.” Her commitment to lead the examined life – to explore the deepest nuances of her emotional landscape – helped open the artistic floodgates for the burgeoning young musician. “I write whenever I’m in a really emotional state. But I don’t really have a process; the most natural thing in my life is songwriting. I can’t plan it. I don’t even plan my lyrics, they just come out…Sometimes I won’t even know what I’m feeling or why I’m feeling it, and then a chord progression will come out, and a word will come out, and the way I say it will inspire a sentence, and then all of a sudden that sentence will kind of be a metaphor for one layer of why I’m feeling a certain way. And then that will become the song.”
Her first two EPs, Fall Over and London put Banks on the radars of critics and fans alike, as she began to accumulate press on every outlet under the sun as well as score nominations for awards from BBC and MTV. However it was her release of debut full-length, Goddess, that pushed her over the tipping point into the world of pop stardom. In describing the inspiration behind the name and the concept of the album, she points to her feminist roots. “Every woman is a goddess. I wanted to feel empowered and be empowering. I’m always developing and growing as a person. At that time the album tapped into every layer and every emotion that I was feeling. Those emotions are imperfect and they’re scattered and they’re angry at times and fragile and weak and jealous and strong… Every layer and any moment, I feel, is in that album and that’s what a goddess is: just a human.” The songs on Goddess reflect her inner search and constitute a body of work that feels at once piercingly deep, and unwaveringly organic. “Honest and crunchy,” she laughs. “I always want my vocals to feel crunchy. It’s like a chunky, thick, crunchy beat under a crunchy vocal. Like you can munch on it.”
Her inspirations include powerhouses Lauryn Hill, Fiona Apple, and Tracy Chapman. “It wasn’t necessarily a sound that influenced me, it was the soul behind the music. The honesty. I wanted to feel fearless. They were great. Fiona Apple in particular. Listening to her album I’m like, ‘Wow it’s okay to be completely fucking open and honest and weak and angry.’ I always felt like an alien.” However, it’s not just musicians who nourish her creative motivations, but the casual interactions of everyday life. “Every person in my life [inspires my work]. That’s where my music comes from.”
Now, having truly arrived in her career, she has much to show for herself, including a few battle scars. Coming up as an aspiring songwriter she suffered through what is becoming an increasingly publicized and shamefully commonplace plight for young women breaking into the industry. “I remember a friend of my family had introduced me to this producer and they were like, ‘You should go meet with him’, and I hadn’t worked with anyone before – I was private about everything. So I met with this guy and he told me to stand up and pull my dress – I was wearing a really baggy dress – he told me to pull it tight against my skin and turn sideways because he wanted to see my body underneath it…I was itching out of my skin. I felt sick and I wanted to kill him! Fucking disgusting old man…it was just despicable, and I was like, ‘How could you even ask me that? I just played you this song of mine.’ I left and I cried the whole way home and I called my best friend and was like, ‘I feel really dirty and weird.’ And that’s just one example of what happens. I feel like sometimes this society makes you objectify yourself and you don’t even realize you’re doing it because it’s such a norm.”
Sexual harassment in the music industry is commonly swept under the carpet. By coming forward, women like Banks can lead the way in shifting these tides. When it comes to equality for women in the workplace, Banks is equally a vocal advocate of feminism, “Fuck yeah. I’m proud to be a feminist. All it means is that you believe in equality for gender, for men and women. Of course, I’m a feminist. I think it’s insane for people not to be a feminist… I know it could have a stigma if you’re not really aware of what it means. But, it’s simple…I just feel like there’s a fear of femininity in this society: a fear of the power of femininity. Women are so powerful. We give birth, we nourish other human forms, we nourish babies with the most feminine part of our bodies…We’re all animals and it’s absolutely incredible. My sister just had a baby and she never looked more beautiful and more powerful and calmer. She’s like Mother Earth, and sometimes I don’t understand. I think women are magical, inspiring and powerful.”
Despite all of the ups and downs the industry serves up, Banks has one constant that keeps her sane, which is her songwriting. “If you told me I couldn’t write anymore I would die. I wouldn’t survive this world if I couldn’t make music…I couldn’t live… Music brings me out. I have no inhibitions. I have no voices that keep me from being my truest form.” Though music is her ultimate shelter from the storm, it doesn’t come without its challenges, especially as she grows increasingly more popular. “There are some shows where I’m like, ‘I don’t want to be in front of anyone right now. I want to be in a cave.’ But you have to. You have to go on stage and there are a million cameras on you and a million eyes on you and you can’t hide. So, that’s something that’s been hard for me but so incredible because it’s amazing to realize you don’t have to hide. Like, ‘Why are you hiding? Who the fuck cares?’ And, of course, being a powerful woman is hard sometimes. I’m still learning how to be a boss. I’m still learning to be respected – to have my voice be respected – and that can be draining…”
Despite the quietude she is increasingly cultivating for herself as she evolves artistically, her waters run deep and are colored by good days and bad alike. “I get in these zones where I feel so dark and I feel so confused and everything is so overwhelming. Then, I get confused about what I want and the feeling that I have nothing figured out. Sometimes I am so intense like I’m on top of the world and at times I feel like I don’t know shit. There have been moments when I’ve just felt really lonely and I didn’t want to be around anyone at the same time and all those thoughts made me feel crazy…But then I go on stage and it just quiets the mind…because you just dive into your own music which you wrote at your current form and all of a sudden you don’t even feel the same darkness that you were feeling.”
This sort of brooding and dramatic personal affect that has come to define her style translates palpably into her fashion sensibilities. “I love wearing black. I think it has every color within it. It can be really soft and it can be really powerful. It can feel muted and it can feel really loud. Then, sometimes I like feeling really feminine. Sometime I like feeling a little bit looser and a little more badass. I guess I like femininity in its most bad-ass form.” She laughs. “I don’t know, I think my style is just me. You hear it and you see it rather than speak it.”
After all of these experiences in the industry, her own personal life, and the growth she has achieved, her words of wisdom are tough to beat. “I would say be honest and be patient with yourself. Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel natural. Just let things happen. You don’t need to force anything… make every move with integrity, with honesty, and you don’t ever need to feel guilty or remorseful…if everything you do is honest and pure – then you can’t really regret anything.”
Banks will be hitting the festival circuit in the early fall. Until then, she’ll be holed up in the studio doing what she does best: songwriting. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can catch her in outer space. “I want to be able to transport myself to other universes and planets with the snap of my finger…I’m really interested in space. It goes with my mind, and I don’t understand it and I don’t think anybody does… I want to see some aliens.”
Banks interview by Indira Cesarine & The Untitled Magazine
Photography and styling by Indira Cesarine
See more from this shoot in The Untitled Magazine’s GirlPower Issue available now.
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