Banks Was Rising to the Top When She Disappeared. Here's Why

Two years ago, Banks suddenly retreated from her flourishing career. Now she’s emerging with her most confident album to date -- and finally feels at peace.

In the artwork for the single “Gimme,” Banks’ first solo release since 2017, the synth-pop singer gazes into the distance as she clutches her bare breast, which is just out of frame. The provocative image, which inspired the cheeky #TitsOutForBanks Twitter campaign among her dedicated fans, mirrors the directness of the song: “You can call me that bitch,” growls Banks in the first verse. The artwork was a move she now calls “a little bit risky.” But after being out of the spotlight for two years -- during which the dark, alt-pop aesthetic that she, Lorde and Halsey helped popularize exploded even further into the mainstream through the likes of Billie Eilish -- a risk was exactly what Banks, 30, needed to take. The new single, she says from her Los Angeles home in the hills, “slaps you in the face. It’s a part of my personality that is fearless -- I wanted to come back with that.”

Born Jillian Rose Banks, the Orange County, Calif., native started writing songs at 15, though it wasn’t until she had graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in psychology that she started posting tracks on SoundCloud, including “Before I Ever Met You,” which she uploaded in February 2013. With the help of DJ Yung Skeeter, who connected with Banks in college and offered to manage her, the song made its way to Zane Lowe, then at BBC Radio 1. The following month, Banks landed a record deal with London-based label Good Years Recordings, and six months later she signed stateside with Harvest Records. Her 2014 debut full-length, Goddess, hit No. 12 on the Billboard 200, led by the electro-pop single “Beggin for Thread,” which peaked at No. 11 on the Alternative chart. The album’s 2016 follow-up, The Altar, also entered the Billboard 200’s top 20. She has since garnered 513 million on-demand streams in the United States, according to Nielsen Music; landed synchs on shows like Girls and Power; collaborated with 6LACK; and, on her last tour, booked 3,000-capacity venues.

Felisha Tolentino
Banks photographed on May 9, 2019 at Bacari in Los Angeles. Styling by Maryam Malakpour. Banks wears a Juan Carlos Obando dress and Rachel Comey earrings. 

But years of nonstop promoting and touring left her feeling rootless, and Banks was ready for a timeout. Since graduating in 2010, she had put all her time and energy into getting her career off the ground. And once it did, maintaining a rapid-fire pace was a necessity. But as a result, Banks never had the chance to process her trajectory. As she approached 30, she realized she needed to carve out time for herself. “It was very necessary,” she says of her break. “I never really had time to digest how much my life had changed. I needed to rediscover how to live in one place, reestablish a nesting place and be a little more grounded. I purposely told my management, ‘I don’t want to leave for at least a year.’”

Banks Plays 'First Best Last Worst' | Billboard

She didn’t. Free from touring, she wrote nonstop; the results make up her third album, III, out in July on Harvest. Hunkering down in L.A.’s Westlake Recording Studios, she gathered an intimate circle of collaborators, including Buddy Ross (Frank Ocean’s music director), BJ Burton (Bon IverFrancis & The Lights) and Hudson Mohawke (Kanye WestDrake). And though she says she’s usually possessive of lyrics and melodies, she opened the door to songwriters she had never worked with before: Trey Campbell (Ella MaiBebe Rexha) and Kevin Garrett (Beyoncé). She kept things tightknit outside the studio as well, working for the first time entirely in-house with Capitol Music Group.

Felisha Tolentino
Banks photographed on May 9, 2019 at Bacari in Los Angeles.

Starting with the bite of lead single “Gimme,” the songs on III are more fiery than ever, with lyrics about desire and pain sung over driving bass. Banks nearly named the album Eros, after the Greek god of love -- which would have fallen in line with her other divinely inspired album titles -- but felt the word wasn’t strong enough to encompass the breadth of what she had written about. Her new album, she says, covers a richer chapter in her life, and the number three, with its definitive simplicity, more effectively conveys a beginning, middle and end. “I was going through a major growth spurt when I made this album,” she says, including moving on from a breakup. She now describes herself as a “wise woman” instead of a “naive girl.” Rather than giving in to bitter or jaded lyrics, she tapped into the early assurance heard on the Altar track “Fuck With Myself” and her 2017 one-off “Underdog.” On III’s closing track, she replaces her lost love with a new one: Her 4-year-old niece’s voice saying “I love you” fills the album’s last few seconds.

On Banks’ last tour she introduced movement into her sets, which featured elaborate goth-inspired costumes and veiled backup dancers. When it comes time to hit the road again, she promises her delivery will be even “bigger and better” than before -- largely because, she says, she kept in mind how new songs would translate live while making them in the studio.

But until then, she’s entirely content to stay put in her “quiet little retreat” of a home a while longer. She’s far removed from the always-on-the-go Banks who in 2013 was eager to jump-start her career, and she couldn’t be happier about it. “I’m in a very peaceful place,” she says now. “What a relief.”  

This trio of producers and engineers helped Banks’ new album across the finish line

BJ Burton

Hometown: Raleigh, N.C. 
Résumé: Burton has credits as a co-writer, producer, engineer and/or mixer on albums like Lizzo’s Big Grrrl Small World (2015), Francis & The Lights’ Farewell, Starlite! (2016) and Bon Iver’s 22, A Million (2016).
Biggest Hot 100 Hit: Eminem‘s “Fall,” which peaked at No. 12 on Sept. 15, 2018
Keeping Up With BJ: Francis & The Lights’ “Morning” became the theme song of Keeping Up With the Kardashians in 2017.

Buddy Ross

Hometown: Kelso, Wash.
Résumé: He has toured as Frank Ocean’s keyboardist since 2012 and later became his music director. Recently he worked as a recording and mixing engineer on Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride.
Biggest Hot 100 Hit: Ocean’s “Nights,” which reached No. 98 on Sept. 10, 2016
Political Past: Ross’ instrumental “Scorpio” soundtracked Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign video.

Hudson Mohawke

Hometown: Glasgow
Résumé:  Since signing to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music production team in 2012, Mohawke most notably worked on four tracks for West’s The Life of Pablo and “Maria” on Christina Aguilera’s Liberation.
Biggest Hot 100 Hit: West’s “Waves,” which reached No. 71 on April 23, 2016
Political Past: Mohawke shared a snap of “Old Town Road” rapper Lil Nas X in his studio earlier in May.

Felisha Tolentino
Banks photographed on May 9, 2019 at Bacari in Los Angeles.

This article originally appeared in the May 25 issue of Billboard.