I’m sitting on the pavement with my arse hanging out my trousers and my crumb-covered laptop splayed on my lap. I’m supposed to meet Banks in a minute, but I don’t know what she looks like. Well not exactly, after all I’ve seen her photograph on iTunes when I listen to “Before I Ever Met You”, her unflinchingly uncomfortable monologue about a relationship on the brink, and on stage playing to a pin-drop crowd at her first London show at Notting Hill Arts Club - but I’m not sure I could pick her out of a crowd.
When she arrives, dressed like a 40s filmstar at a funeral, she is the most plainly obvious popstar you’re ever likely to see. As I brush Hobnob remnants from my jeans and walk with her to a private members club, I feel like I should have made more of an effort. Even the door snobs at the reception reel off a list of A-listers she’s the spitting image of.
Banks has only released a handful of tracks, but each one of them leaves you breathless. “Warm Water” with its gentle, enveloping production and lyrics about the submergence of new attraction, “Waiting Game” about the pain and passion of a long distance relationship and “Before I Ever Met You” about when love turns poisonous. These are not unusual things to write about, but Banks feels like she’s coming afresh. Some of these songs have been sitting on a dictaphone for years, unheard by anyone but their author. Banks spent the first 10 years of her career, “just writing in my room. It was hard to come out of my shell cause all of my music’s so personal to me. A lot of people were surprised when they found my career, they’d be like 'you’re a singer?'"
While Banks was secretly songwriting, she went to college in LA where she studied psychology. At the end of her degree she wrote her thesis, about children of divorced families, “whether they view marriage differently and whether or not they’re more or less likely to get married.” Are they? “I never really found out.” Is Banks a child of divorced parents? “Yes.” Does she view marriage differently? “I’m still finding out.”
After spending three years studying human emotion and insecurity, Banks started to take music more seriously. She has notebooks of lyrics, gathered over years, but quickly realised they weren’t going to be enough. “Back in the day, I used to record things on the tape recorder. Then I started writing in a notebook but I couldn’t get my thoughts out fast enough. I couldn’t write fast enough and it would drive me crazy and my handwriting would be so bad I couldn’t read it later. So then I started writing it on the notes in my phone, that’s what I kinda do now, then I record it in my voice memo thing.” But, isn’t the problem with iPhone notes that you scrawl them down and then never remember what they mean afterwards? On my notes at the moment I have something that says “tell me about Black Brian”. I have no idea what that’s referring to. “That never happens to me. I could write three words, three random words: ‘red’, ‘pinball’, ‘insane’ and I could see them three years later and I could know exactly the day I wrote it.
What’s the last note on her phone then? “Can I say my notes if they’re gonna be lyrics to my next song? Ok. "‘I hang on everything you say, knowing that I imply all the secret things that you’re in love with me. Finally when I let myself fall hard for you. I see you pretend like I’m making it up.’”
Banks is on her first work trip to the UK, flying across the Atlantic to get in the studio with frontal lobe producers like Sohn and TEED. It’s a process she finds kinetic. “It’s the most amazing feeling when you go into the studio and you know nothing about the person you’re working with and then you start writing, and the most raw and emotional stuff , stuff that they probably wouldn’t tell who they’re married and who they’re close with, just comes out. “
You sense it’s not just producers from whom Banks can elicit the sort of secrets normally saved for confession or deathbeds. This is the first proper interview she’s done. Artists in this nascent stage of the career are normally fans of stuttered sentences and the middle distance, but Banks doesn’t break eye contact the entire time we talk. She seems like the sort of person that other people want to tell their secrets to.
“I’ve always been the therapist of my friends, I don’t know why. I think it’s cause I feel everything so hard. I love talking and I love gearing about others, I’m really interested in other people.”
That “hair full of secrets”, as too-gay-to-function Damien from Mean Girls would say, is the secret to Banks’overpowering lyrics. Songs that tell the simple stories of attraction and rejection in ways that sound uncomfortably true. Great lyricists, like Carly Simon or Jarvis Cocker, have always been able to bring pointed and specific couplets out of the raw wash of emotion. Banks can extract a person’s darkest secret and work it back into a song.
We talk for a lot longer than the interview, get breakfast (Quinoa bowl and fruit plate in case you’re wondering), and swap tips for our respective hometowns. We talk about other things too. Relationships and emotions and world perspectives. As I leave, shoving my yoghurt stained phone back into my crumby backpack, I wonder, in long rambling moments whether I too succumbed to Banks' unique ability to extract the truth.
Read more from this Banks interview in an exclusive announcement next week.
Photo by Jasmine Safaeian
Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamWolfson
Read more on people called Banks:
Behind The Scenes With Paul Banks As He Prepares For The Release Of His Solo Album, 'Banks'