To hear 26-year-old Jillian Banks talk about her music is like listening to a shaman explain the mechanics of a complex spell. Her debut record, Goddess, isn’t so much a collection of songs as it is her essence embodied: her “heart.” Her fans don’t just hear her, they “feel” her. And when asked how long she’s been working on these tracks, she replies, enigmatically, “Since I was born.”
An air of mysticism has surrounded the R&B star since last year, when she was plucked out of obscurity by BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe. He played a Banks (often written as “BANKS”) song at a time when there were no photos of the singer on the Internet and no trace of her on social media. Even the track, a mesmerizing torch song called “Before I Ever Met You,” was only available via an obscure SoundCloud link. But Banks’s voice, raspy and limber, wafting high above a rumbling trip-hop beat, was striking. Listeners’ curiosities were piqued.
Banks, meanwhile, was confused.
“We didn’t understand how anyone even knew about [the song] or about me or anything. There was no picture of me out,” she says. “It was just a natural thing that happened. I didn’t force it upon people. They just felt it. That’s the best way to do it, I think, to all of a sudden let music touch you, rather than have somebody give it to you to touch.”
Freshly showered and makeup-free, Banks is perched on a faux furry seat in the lobby of New York’s Dream Downtown hotel. It’s her album’s U.S. release date and I offer my condolences for having to spend the morning talking to journalists instead of celebrating.
“No, this is all fun,” she says, in a voice so soft I have to lean forward to hear it.
Banks, a valley girl native of Tarzana, California, insists she’s never purposefully perpetuated the mystique. And, true, after finally creating a Facebook page, she compromised by posting her cell phone number for more personal contact with fans—though, she says, most are too shy to call and leave texts instead.
But some things must stay private—including the identity of the singer in those breakup songs. “What if I never even see you ‘cause we’re both on a stage / Don’t tell me listen to your song because it isn’t the same / I don’t wanna say your love is a waiting game,” Banks sings on “Waiting Game,” just before a sinister-sounding beat drops and murky, echoing vocals resonate. Ironically, when prodded, Banks gives me the same line that lover did—just listen to the song.
“There’s nothing else to say besides what’s in the song, really,” she says. “That’s the most straightforward and honest and raw way of putting what I was going through into words. I write because I don’t know how to speak.”
Even so, with lyrics that read like diary entries and ringing endorsements from within the music world (singer Ellie Goulding once gushed to Banks on-air, “Things are only going to get more and more mental for you…Yours is the most exciting voice I’ve heard in a long time”), Banks’s gigs have snowballed, from New York Fashion Week parties to Victoria’s Secret commercials and the soundtrack for dystopian blockbuster Divergent.
Despite her seemingly abrupt rise from nowhere, Banks has been writing for more than a decade. An autodidact, she learned to sing and play in her early teens on a keyboard with “weird, light, out-of-tune shit keys.” The “songs” she wrote were more like “stream of consciousness little pieces of my mind with melodies attached”—but post-Zane Lowe, playing live for an audience became inevitable. By only her second gig ever, she was opening for popular R&B recluse The Weeknd.
Her keyboard, however, has suffered a less glamorous fate. “One of the first studio sessions I ever had, I brought it into the studio and the producer was like, ‘What is that?’” Banks says, laughing. “I was like, ‘I thought we were recording today?’ He was like, ‘Get that out of my sight and out of my studio. I never want to see it again.’ I was like, ‘What? It’s my baby!’”
Banks is the sensitive type—a trait which doesn’t lend itself well to reading reviews. Explaining why she stays away from them, she references a book her father gave her, The Four Agreements, by Toltec spiritualist Miguel Ruiz. “It’s like, everything you do is for you and you can’t control anyone’s perceptions about you because that’s their own truth—and how do you know their truth?” she says. “When I’m at my most pure and most centered and most peaceful, that’s what I’m most in tune. That’s how I try to live.”