Imagine the middle bit of a Venn diagram between socialite Olivia Palermo and 1990s model Bridget Hall — if both were in mourning — and you’d get breakout alt-pop star Banks. The 26-year-old singer, born Jillian Banks, is almost always shown in videos and photos dressed in all black, glowering from behind a sheet of glossy dark hair. And her songs sound just as brooding.
“I found music when I was very dark,” says the Los Angeles native over a fittingly austere cup of iceless tap water at Andante Coffee Roasters in Hollywood. “I felt unheard, with inner dialogues that I didn’t know how to express.”
But now, in the run-up to the Sept. 9 release of her debut album, Goddess (Harvest), her inner dialogues can be heard everywhere. “Before I Ever Met You” and “Change” were featured in Grey’s Anatomy; “Waiting Game” lent smolder to a scene in the film Divergent and a Victoria’s Secret ad (“You make me feel all sexy, but it’s causing me shame,” Banks murmurs, as a model struts down a Parisian street). In 2013, she opened for gloom&B star The Weeknd, a kindred spirit, and appeared on the cover of V magazine with fellow alt-pop princesses Lorde, Haim and Say Lou Lou. This year she sold out theaters on her own headlining run and played a packed Coachella set.
It’s a happy career launch with heartsick beginnings: Banks found music at 15 almost accidentally, fidgeting with a toy keyboard as a salve for the anger she felt over her parents’ divorce. “It wasn’t like, ‘Today I will start writing music,’ ” she recalls. “All of a sudden, my fingers were twiddling on the keys and I didn’t know what I was playing. But a weird melody would come out and it was like unnngh.” Banks widens her dark, oversize eyes. “Ten pounds — just all this weight lifted off me,” she says.
Music was therapy for Banks, who majored in psychology at the University of Southern California — it wasn’t meant to be public. “It released more frustration than talking to anyone did,” she says. “I kept it private because it was the most vulnerable part of me.”
It wasn’t until a friend passed some rough iPhone voice memos to Trevor McFedries, a DJ/producer who has worked with Katy Perry and Sky Ferreira, that Banks relented. McFedries signed on as her manager and arranged a trip to London, where the singer worked with tastemaker favorites like Sohn and Lil Silva. They helped mold her distinctly British sound, and encouraged her to bare all on two 2013 EPs, Fall Over and London. “I wrote so many songs, I felt empty — in a good way,” she says.
The result of all the anguish and hard work is Goddess, a beautiful 14-track set that carries a cavernous, almost mentholated quality, as if you’re listening from underneath a capsized rowboat. Like Banks herself — on this day, she’s wearing a dark Helmet Lang bolero jacket and tailored trousers — it’s glammed-up gloom.
“You should’ve seen me at Coachella,” she says, tilting her head and pretending to wipe sweat off her brow, “just skulking in the shade.”
From: Los Angeles
Signed to: Harvest
Sounds like: An after-hours indie-pop blend of Aaliyah, Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey
Fan army: 67,000 Twitter followers; 78,000 Instagram followers; 247,000 Facebook likes
Me Time: Banks unwinds with three-hour walks. “It just feels good to be alone with your brain,” she says.
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of Billboard.