Banks and Her Magical Box: “I Feel Powerful”

We caught up with the singer as she rehearsed for her spot on the 'Late Show with David Letterman.'

by Kathy Iandoli
Apr 6 2015, 4:47pm

It’s the middle of the day in Chelsea, in New York City, and Banks is standing in a box. Actually, it’s more like a capsule that at first glance looks like a giant dressing room in a mall department store, but when you walk in, it’s trippy as shit. Whoever’s in the box can be seen from the outside, but when you’re standing inside, all you can see is mirrors reflecting your image ad infinitum, before they fade into zig-zagging lights. This is the setup Banks has come up with for her performance on the Late Show With David Letterman. She’s one of the last artists to grace his stage before his final curtain call in May. Right now she’s standing outside of the box in SIR Studios during rehearsal looking perplexed. “I hope the cameras catch the right angles,” she says taking a swig of water. “If they mess up the angles, then it’ll look like, just… no.” If it all works out, the house of mirrors will feature on her upcoming tour dates, but right now, Letterman is the focus.

“Artists sound amazing on Letterman,” a label figurehead chimes in from the studio couch. Banks is signed to Capitol Records’-acquired imprint Harvest Records, home to other acts like Matt and Kim, TV On The Radio, and Death Grips. “Every time I see someone perform on Letterman, they sound awesome,” he reiterates.

“Well, OK, I’m excited now,” Banks says with cautious enthusiasm. “These camera angles though. I hope they get them right." This is a big deal for Banks, perhaps a bigger deal than for other artists. Ever since the Orange County-native hit the blogs back in 2013, she's been big but not overly visible. (Noisey jumped on her in the summer of that year, funding her first ever color video for “This Is What it Feels Like.” Watch it below.) Sure she’s sold out shows (both on her own and supporting The Weeknd) and we’ve watched the roll out of captivating videos “Brain,” “Drowning,” and the most recent “Beggin For Thread”—all off last year's debut album, Goddess, but even if her cellphone number is still on her official Facebook page, Banks curates her image and public interactions closely, and she's highly focused on the music.

Goddess broke the Top 20 in the US, along with several other territories, including the UK, a particular point on the map that has Banks’ heart. She even titled her first EPLondon as an homage to the city that inspired her to record it, savvily aligning herself with the English capital’s finest music-makers including Lil Silva and Jamie Woon. (Her full length included collaborations with UK-based artists Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs and Sohn.) The Goddess remix album’s just been released, featuring remixes from producers like Chainsmokers, Salva, and Lido. Ever since Banks became blog fodder, she's been a remixer's dream. She loves it, and despite being one of the brightest new stars of last year, considers it an honor that someone would even want to remix her music.

Shy isn’t the word to describe the woman born Jillian Rose Banks, and neither is reserved. Guarded is probably the most appropriate, considering the singer holds on to every fiber of a private life she can grab. That sounds impossible when you're a sought after artist, where everyone is clamoring for a piece of you. But Banks really tries. Even as she stands in a packed studio for her own rehearsal, she tucks herself into the leather couch whenever she doesn’t have to be present. Still, when she does emerge to practice her performance, she’s a lion. Standing in a black Thierry Mugler dress with wedge boots, and no make-up—not even the signature “wings on fleek” eyeliner that typically decorates her eyes for her shows—the 26-year-old is naturally gorgeous. As she steps back into her electric castle to rehearse “Beggin For Thread” once again, she delivers her vocals with more intensity, flanked by a drummer and a keyboardist set up on opposite ends outside of the capsule. Every time she raises her arms while she sings, the mirrors multiply them: she looks like a Hindu deity. With that last take deemed solid, Banks celebrates by taking a breather and changing out of her performance clothes—pants and a blouse, all black, of course.

We walk out to the studio lobby where Carly Rae Jepsen is smiling for photos with random engineers. Jepsen’s eyes lock onto Banks, who doesn’t appear to notice. Banks is tugging at her shirt: “Could I wear this on Letterman?” she asks. Meanwhile Carly Rae looks like she’s about to shout, “Call me! Maybe?” at her. That’s the greatest thing about Banks. She’s awesome and she has no idea. When she speaks, her responses are thoughtful, sometimes profound, mostly abstract, yet not inaccessible—much like her music.

“Did you think you would get this big?” I ask her. “Noooo,” she says shaking her head. “I don’t feel like that at all.” Noisey caught up with Banks after her Letterman performance to talk life transitions, privacy, how she combats stage fright, and what’s next.

Noisey: How did the concept for the capsule come into your head?
I haven’t done much TV, and when I do things I just want it to feel 100 percent me even if it’s out of my element, so I wanted to bring my world into a live setting, and I wanted it to be special. I was thinking a lot about what I wanted to do, and I fell into this idea.

Were you happy with how everything turned out?
I was! I had never done anything like that before. At a certain point you care so much about your art and what you do and then when you rehearse and you get there, you put so much heart and thought into it and when it finally happens you have to have fun with it. Once you’re there, you’re there.

What was it like internally to know you had a whole crowd out there that you couldn’t see?
It was pretty crazy. I actually liked it because I was able to be in my own little world. It was a special thing for me. It was a milestone for me to do.

What has the world of Banks been like over the past 12 months?
Very crazy. Lots of touring, non-stop touring. Just growing. You get put in these situations that are not natural, especially for a creature that is me. I’m very private, and I’m not very used to being seen so much, and that’s been a huge transition for me. That’s why this performance is very interesting for me, because I can’t hide. I’m in a mirrored box and there’s like every single part of me showing, every single angle. Sometimes people see themselves differently from how others see them, and that’s kind of what this is for me also: I can’t see out of this mirrored pentagon that I’m in, and everyone else can see inside. So I’m seeing myself probably completely differently than everybody else is seeing me.

Every experience someone has is in relation to how they are thinking, what they’re feeling and what they’re going through. And so sometimes people can go through times where they feel horrible and they feel sad and then they look back and they’re like, “Oh my God I actually looked really powerful and beautiful.” Sometimes that’s how I’ve been in this process.

Do you listen back to your music and remember that deep dark place and think, “Shit, but this is really powerful”?
I like that place though.

Is that where your zip code is?
No, my zip code is everywhere, I’m everywhere, but that place—you can’t be scared of it, because for me if I don’t go to that place then I would literally be a hunchback, the gravity would be so heavy. So that’s where I go, and once you sing it you have this bad ass way of getting it out, because you’re singing songs like “Before I Ever Met You” and songs that come from that place, that zip code that we were saying. You sing them and you feel like a boss when you’re singing it. You’ve like overcome something.

How do you get into that frame of mind and get to that place when you create?
I don’t have to get myself in the mood, life gets me in that mood, and then I have to make music to get myself out of that mood if that makes sense.

You’re one of the few artists who has managed to maintain a low profile and privacy in your life. Was that something you vowed to do coming into this, like “I need to stay human above all”?
Oh my God, yeah. When I say it’s been a transition for me, it’s been hard for me to… I don’t know where it comes from really. I’m very private, well, maybe private isn’t even the word. Sometimes I don’t like to be seen. Sometimes I wish I was invisible. Sometimes I just want to feel and breathe, but not be seen and just observe. But then around my core people that I’m really comfortable with, I feel like I can exist without being seen, but also in a louder way, if that makes any sense. But it’s been a huge transition, especially touring non-stop. Some shows you feel really strong before and you go out there and you feel great, and some shows you just don’t feel like being seen and then you go on stage. I remember this one show I had and I had never gotten so dark before a show. I just went to that place that I needed to write. It was that mood that I get in, and then I went on stage and I was feeling like every pore was hurting with eyes. But it was incredible because I got through it. I wanted to cry after because it was just like “I did it.” That’s why I say I’m learning so much, because you should be seen.

It’s funny because your performance at Irving Plaza before the Goddess tour was packed with bros. And they were there chanting your lyrics, and they looked like the type of people who really don’t think much throughout their day, but it was proof that your music and lyrics can bring anyone to that place.
Sometimes I feel like my lyrics are the most animalistic part of me. It’s like I get gritty in them. I am in my music who I wish I was every second of the day, but you just don’t have energy to feel that much. You would probably explode.

Do you get stage fright a lot?
Always. [Laughs.]

Really? You can’t tell. How do you get past it?
I do different things. It depends on what I’m feeling. I meditate before shows, I like to be alone before shows. I don’t like anyone around me for like an hour before shows. I just need to breathe.

Talk to me about this Goddess remix album. It seems like people have been remixing you from the moment you hit.
Yeah! That’s been really cool for me, to hear people that I admire remix me. I think people wouldn’t remix a song unless it touched them. It’s fun to hear different versions, but it keeps the same heartbeat of the song. It keeps the same message or tone. You can switch up a song from a heavy dragging song to something a little more fast-paced, but the tone can stay the same—that’s really interesting to hear. And remixes have really just been a big part of my path because, like you said, they just started coming out and it was really exciting for me to hear them. And because there were so many, we decided to put some of them out.

What do you have coming up?
I want to record, I want to work on my live show more. I’m really inspired right now. I just want to create right, whether that’s visually or making music. I definitely need to make music; I feel like I need that right now more than anything. I’m going to be in the studio and I might go to London to work with some people that I’m excited about. I’m going to do a bunch of festivals soon, so I’m excited about that. And there’s something special that’s coming in the next few months that I can’t really talk about, but my mind is just swirling around it right now.

Which artists are you feeling right now? Who is inspiring you?
There’s a girl named Nao. I really like her. She has this song called “So Good” (above). Always Lil Silva, he’s my boy, the D’Angelo song “Really Love” on his Black Messiah album. I love that song, it’s so beautiful. Those are just a few that I’m enjoying right now, but when I’m creating music I don’t really listen to much music. I just dive into what I’m making with who I’m making it with. Or I’m doing it alone. Either way I’m so focused in what I’m creating that I’ll go to the studio and I’ll make it, and then I’m going to listen to it all night and keep writing to it. It’s like I dive so deep into it that I don’t really have an urge to listen to anything else in that moment. It’s all consuming.

Are you reading any books?
I actually just bought a book I’m so excited to read. I just finished reading The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. I love stories, and I just picked up this book by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, who is this incredible feminist and she wrote this book called Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths And Stories Of The Wild Woman Archetype, it’s kind of about embracing your inner animalistic female self in the most empowered way possible. I’m really feeling that. I feel powerful right now.

So if you weren’t here being Banks, where do you think you would be?
On another planet… doing the same thing.

Goddess - The Remixes, is out now.

Kathy Iandoli is starting a book club with Banks. You can follow her on Twitter @kath3000.