For the longest time, the singer, songwriter and producer Jillian Banks has felt like two people. As a kid growing up in southern California, she was the brooding, manic scribbler of lyrics in her bedroom, “stream of consciousness diary entries where my brain would trip out,” she remembers. Writing was this release valve for feeling “alone and isolated and unheard.” But she was also a normal kid, the kind who had actual friends and, you know, left that bedroom from time to time to hang out with them. That duality has continued into adulthood. Consumed with maniacal perfectionism one minute, awash in good spiritual will the next, the singer is a bright-eyed morning person by day, sultry R&B vixen by night. She’s the kind of artist who eschews social media addiction but has put her phone number on Facebook in case fans need to talk: optimistic and melancholic, into her natural light brown hair one minute, hitting the bottle to turn it inky brunette the next.
For many years, this friction has been the artist’s fuel. It ran the engine behind her first releases, 2013’s pair of beautifully anguished EP’s, Fall Over and London. It animated her 2014 debut, Goddess. It has powered the artist through multiple world tours and the recording of 2016’s The Altar. And in an era where feeling fractured resonates with so many, you could say her split personality has been part of what’s made her music connect: it’s the sound of so many splintered souls.
But all of that has changed, now. As the artist (who goes professionally by BANKS) prepares to release her third LP, titled simply, III. Everything has gone from black and white – one extreme verses the other – to something more muted, something with more room for nuance. “Maybe it’s a kind of adulthood,” she muses, noting that she recently turned thirty. “It’s like, all the colors were already there, but now I know how to paint with them. Black and white are still around but so is, like maroon.” She laughs. “Maroon is okay!” She pauses again, thinking. “This record, it’s really about this transition between a girl and a wise woman,” she explains. “And all the in-between messy, gritty steps that takes.”
It’s taken a lot to get here, to a place of relative peace. It didn’t start that way. At all. Six years ago, Jillian Banks’ life changed very quickly. She went from being a college student studying psychology, the mysterious girl behind those two magical EP’s, just beginning to play small rooms, to selling out world tours. It was a dream come true, of course, but it also demolished her psyche. “All of a sudden I had a different life,” she recalls. “I was touring and people knew who I was. It was insane, and so abrupt, I never really had time to catch up.” Over the next several years, through the release of both full-lengths, a version of the same cycle repeated itself. “You go so low,” BANKS recalls of her mental state. “And then in order to get up in front of that many people night after night, after beating yourself down so hard, it takes so much adrenaline. You have to give so much to get there, that after the show you just collapse.” She smiles softly. “I was just doing this for two years straight and then I was like, ‘I should go to therapy!’”
So she did. And more to the point, BANKS got off the road, got mostly offline, and got out of central LA, trading her place on the bustling east side for a more remote, secluded home. Then she did absolutely nothing. For as long as she could stand it, which was hard, at first. “I had to be told not to go to the studio,” she remembers, laughing. “I would text my manager ideas and he’d be like, ‘I’m not responding.’” But eventually, she started to come back down to earth. “I rediscovered how to live in one place,” she says. “I rediscovered what I like to do, even and it turns out I’m so boring! I literally like to go on hikes, watch good movies, hang out with friends.”
Finding the will, even in the midst of the chaos of new-fame and ceaseless touring, to remove herself from the high octane mania was a sign that BANKS’ two sides were trying to make room for each other. And what she found, after she sought out quiet, is that there is plenty of space for everybody. In all that space she discovered a lot of previously unrealized beauty. Exploration of that gray area, of duality, of holistic self-acceptance, really, is what you hear on III.
The first single, the smoldering banger “Gimme” is “pure fire, pure woman,” she says. “That’s one just like about demanding what you want and getting it, and if you’re not given what you deserve, taking what you deserve. It’s hot, but it’s empowering. There’s something powerful about being open about your animal side.” Also on the animal side of things is the album’s opening statement, “Till Now,” which begins gently enough, the intimate sound of an acapella voice memo BANKS made on her phone, but then it really lets loose, becoming an anguished treatise on loss and redemption. “There’s a lot of aggression,” she says, smiling and speaking one of the sauciest lyrics: “I let you turn me around till now/And you been messin me around till now/And I let you push me around till now.” Kiss off anthem, par excellence.
But a track like the delicate, intimate “Hawaiian Mazes” takes a completely different tack, showcasing a sweeter, slower-burning side of the singer. “It’s about growing up and owning your path. Sometimes you can hold on so tight to a memory of something, or in this case someone, because you’re scared of the unknown. This song was written while I was just beginning to loosen my grip on trying to control everything. Trusting that the decisions that I’ve made have been right. Letting go is a huge theme for me,” she says. “I’m still learning. I feel like when I’m 100 years old, I’ll still be learning to let go. But in order to really be present, you have to… and that can be really painful.”
Pain, though, is no longer the enemy, and that’s kind of the point. BANKS started writing music because she was suffering. It was a way to manage her hurt. Hurt is still very much a part of her work, but the richness and sophistication of III comes from the artist who made it realizing that pain is not to be feared. And in recognizing that, the singer has become so much more aware of all her other sources of inspiration. Ironically, accepting suffering has diminished its role in BANKS inspiration palette.
“What About Love,” the final track on the album, and the one that perhaps BANKS keeps closest to her heart, reflects that deepening and widening of perspective. It ends
with the sweet sounds of her four-year-old niece – one of many moments in which you hear children’s voices on this album – saying, “I love you.” BANKS initially thought “What About Love” – a kind of beneficent torch song – would open the album, you know, make the record a kind of loosely linear coming of age story, from abject innocence to hard-earned experience. “But then I realized it made more sense for me to close it with ‘What About Love,’” she says. “Because no matter what, I always want to have hope. If you don’t have that then you’re just bitter, and I never want to be bitter.” She pauses. “Life is painful,” she continues. “Think of childbirth. I’ve never had a kid, but after my sister gave birth she told me it made her realize life is meant to be so fucking painful because the most natural thing in the world was excruciating.”
Life has its extremes, but there’s a lot to exalt in, in between, and that’s the story this album tells. “I definitely want you to have sex to this record, I definitely want you to drive to this record and feel empowered and strong, maybe even a little cocky! I definitely want you to listen to it when you’re processing things, and also to play it and feel, like, at peace,” the singer says, smiling. “There’s a song for every mood, because it’s an album about being human.”
For the first time in her life BANKS herself is cool with all that variety of experience. She’s no longer trying to make one side of herself obey or win out over the other. She’s made space for it all. And the reward has been: peace. “You were born already whole,” the artist wrote, part of a poem she composed when asked to summarize III. “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.”