Getting to know more about Banks (the performance artist formerly known as Jillian Rose Banks) might not seem too easy on the surface, especially during a 15-minute phone interview.
Maybe the 31-year-old, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter, whose brand of electronic dance music has been arbitrarily labeled Goth-pop, wants her keep-you-guessing image to remain as dark and mysterious as the mood she creates around her.
There’s the tough-as-nails exterior that works so well with provocative songs and music videos such as “Fuck With Myself;” the black leather-and-lace dominatrix garb she and her backup dancers wear onstage while executing slinky, seductive moves that get up close and extremely personal; and that cool, meticulous demeanor combined with a soul-piercing glare and an R&B-infused voice that can melt unbreakable hearts and hypnotize fearless minds.
Then she speaks, and all preconceptions are forgotten.
Banks is an affable, she-bopping sweetheart.
Less than a month into a world tour — her first headlining shows in two years — to back the July release of her third full-length studio album (appropriately but unimaginatively called III), picture this: Banks laughs about sitting next to a Ferris wheel she doesn’t dare to ride. It's only hours before a Sept. 25 show in Seattle, and the singer sounds relaxed and content, but also with a detectable trace of Demi Moore-level hoarseness.
“Everything’s getting into a groove. It feels good,” says Banks, comparing the tour participants' “not so luxurious” bus rides across North America to summer camp, while fully determined to “get used to it.”
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Initially, Banks seemed reluctant to take a deep dive into her act (“I don’t really like describing my own music or show, because it’s easier to just do it,” she offers), she nevertheless shared some thoughts about herself and the dance moves she’ll bring to House of Blues Dallas on Oct. 9, in between dates on consecutive Sundays (Oct. 6, 13) at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
“I haven’t spent much time there,” Banks says of Dallas, though after thinking about it, she asserts that she “definitely” has performed previously in the DFW area. One specific memory is checking out “some square dancing thing” that was “kind of fun” after a show that likely was elsewhere in Texas. “But every time I’m there, I love it. I think it’s an awesome place.”
Banks, who lured a couple thousand enraptured folks to Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium (3,700 capacity) on Sept. 19 (including her “proud dad” James, a doctor who recently moved to the Mile High City), decided to try her best to shed some light on her show, for those still in the dark.
“I would say it’s aggressive and soft and feminine and sexy and honest and open and free,” she says of the live performances. “And moody and sensitive and tender and harsh and jagged.”
That certainly is an all-encompassing (and accurate) description. Including 11 of the 13 songs from III on her Denver set list, this mover and shaker knows how to sway audiences during an emotional journey that’s also exotic and erotic.
“I just think movement is such a beautiful way to express sound in general,” Banks says. “When I’m up onstage and I’m singing songs that I wrote, it feels really amazing to be able to represent those emotions with my body as well. So it’s like, kind of, more senses are triggered.”
Those sensations didn’t arrive overnight, though. Neither a natural-born nor school-trained dancer (her ballet fling around the age of 3 didn’t last long), Banks finally got hooked on the rhythmic art after becoming a professional singer.
“I didn’t really get serious about it until …The Altar tour (in support of the 2016 release that followed 2014’s Goddess debut) is when I started incorporating it really into my show, like, in a really conscious way,” Banks says. “And then I knew that … it was gonna be a big part of my show moving forward. And I have a lot of fun with it.”
Banks credits Nina McNeely, an L.A.-based choreographer, director and visual artist who also has collaborated with Rihanna, Björk and Skrillex, and was creative director of The Altar tour, for getting her to take the next step toward artistic achievement.
“Sometimes we just mess around,” Banks says of her stage sidekicks. “Like I choreographed the song ‘Underdog,’ and ‘Gimme’ [the bouncy, synth-filled track from III], I choreographed with the girls. Nina McNeely is like the queen, though. She’s really amazing, so she’s definitely helped teach me how to be in my body and be free.”
Banks laughs about the media accounts that described Olmo and Fletcher as “identical twin dancers,” saying, “That kind of adds to the creep factor. They’re just blonde, super-blonde, and I’m super-brunette. So it works.”
The pair of lookalikes, who were introduced to Banks by McNeely, now perform onstage for most of the numbers, taking an occasional break for precious ballads like “Sawzall” and the soulful “Better,” which both appeared later in the Denver set and showed off the singer's haunting vocals.
Banks struggles to explain what qualities helped the dancers get the job, before saying, “They just had the right energy, I guess. And they’re both savages when they dance. They’re both really, like, amazing, warm people, and when they dance, they look like they’d murder you if you did something wrong.”
Besides the new songs to sing, opening act Kevin Garrett, a co-writer on III’s “Contaminated,” and new keyboard player Ben Darwish ("he’s awesome”) joining her indispensable drummer Derek Taylor (“I’ve never played a show without him”), Banks says the most significant change on this tour involves her own ability to “probably enjoy it more.”
Accepting who she is and discounting critical opinions from others took a long time to process. Just consider that in high school at sweet 16, Banks started developing a serious case of stage fright. And that was after the daughter of parents headed for divorce learned at age 14 to play the piano on a toy keyboard to combat her loneliness.
“I used to sing with my back to the audience,” Banks recalls. “Everyone would be like, ‘Turn around!’ And I would be like, ’Nooo!’ College [Southern Cal, where Banks earned a bachelor's degree in psychology], I still had it a little bit but I’m past that. I mean, I get nervous still. But nerves are different than stage fright. … Stage fright is hindering. And nerves are not.”
There was no magic potion or wonder drug to help get her through the night terrors, though.
“I just kept performing, and eventually got over it, I guess,” Banks says. “Once you kind of jump off the cliff, you’re into it. So once you get past that first hump, it gets easier and easier. Now, I’m always gonna be, you know for those big shows — L.A., New York, London, Paris, those types of cities — I always get a little bit like, ‘Eeee!’ … But in general, I don’t know, I love performing.”
That means blending the light with the dark, the savory with the sweet and the soft with the edgy into a show that’s thoroughly entertaining. If anyone with eyes on the surprise believes that’s impossible to pull off, they better think twice.
The various elements are not “mutually exclusive,” Banks says. “You can be all those things. … In fact, I think it’s boring if something’s just bright and, like, fireworks all the time. That’s just like no dynamics and just like cheese … Cheez Whiz.”
Though Banks continues to gain commercial appeal by appearing on shows such as The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in September, don’t expect a cheesy product endorsement anytime soon.
Three albums and seven years into her career, she is staying focused, finally comfortable facing the crowds and the consequences.
The artist also unveiled a vulnerable side in Denver, reciting her touching, well-received poem “Ode to the Grey Zone,” a title she initially wanted for the album. And two of her favorite artists (both late greats) — revealed during this interview — might surprise you, too: German choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch and Grammy Award-winning singer Etta James, her choice for all-time entertainer.
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How the Banks Variety Show has emerged shouldn’t be much of a mystery, actually.
“I just don’t care as much anymore,” she says of overcoming performance anxiety. “Like about stuff that I shouldn’t care about. … It’s stressful putting yourself out there in front of thousands of people. And I think as an artist it takes a long time to get used to that.
“So once you stop caring about what people think, I know that sounds super-obvious, but I just stopped giving as many fucks. So now I feel untouchable.”
Even so, audiences are discovering that an approachable, multifaceted Banks is becoming a whole lot easier to embrace.