Discovery: Banks

The buzz behind Banks began with the release of “Before I Ever Met You,” a song the singer dropped on Soundcloud about 4 months ago. The track—a dark, sultry breakup jam anchored by the newcomer’s unique vocal—was received with much acclaim, its play count currently clocking in over 205,000. That’s no small feat for an artist who was unknown prior to the track’s release, beyond her cool collab with British producer Lil Silva for the song “Work,” which appeared first on YouTube accompanied by visuals. Banks continued to release content while keeping her identity a mystery for the most part—as of now, she’s come out with two stunning solo videos (one for her big track “Fall Over” and another for her newest, “Warm Water,” as well as a handful of edits, including a remix from Mad Decent’s right-hand-man Djemba Djemba (you may have seen the track on our Soundclouds of the Underground column).

Although it’s rare for an artist to cover so much ground in such a short time with no visible past in the business, it’s not difficult to understand why so many are interested in hearing more from and working with the gorgeous siren. Her vocals can reach heights comparable to Erykah Badu and a tone akin to Fiona Apple; her sound hits hard like hip-hop but consistently flirts with elements of R&B and electronic; and her sullen, sexy aesthetics are strong and assured. We spoke to the up-and-comer in her first exclusive chat about her influences, upbringing, style, sound, and what’s next.

GROWING UP: I grew up in LA. I actually grew up in the Valley, which was a pretty amazing place to grow up because everybody has nice, big backyards, and I was kind of a little nature being. Growing up I listened to a lot of everything—I fell in love with music when I discovered people like Lauryn Hill and Tracy Chapman, people whose voices I could really feel, people with a lot of soul. That’s what I’m drawn to as a musician: Anybody that has their own voice and their own point of view. You can really hear it with [Lauryn Hill and Tracy Chapman], they really have something to say, and it makes you respect them and want to know more about them.

HOW MUSIC CAME IN: I think probably when I was 15 or so, I was going through a really hard time with my family, and I just felt really helpless—I didn’t know how to put anything I was feeling into words, and I was really confused, and I felt like nobody would hear me, but I didn’t even know what to say. So somebody gave me this toy keyboard and I just started playing around with it, and these melodies would just come out of me that would perfectly express and represent what I was feeling, and it was something so much deeper than what words could express, and it was just the most liberating, therapeutic, amazing feeling—I felt like I could float on air when I discovered it, so I just became addicted.

BEING AN UNTRAINED MUSICIAN: That [time I got the toy keyboard] was my first time, no training at all. I taught myself how to play; I still don’t know what chords I’m playing, like A or A minor, any of that, I have no idea. I literally just taught myself by ear. I think that’s sometimes why my chord progressions are different than most would do, because I don’t think of it like that. I even hold my fingers differently than you’re supposed to. You really discover your own sound when there’s no information for it—it takes a lot longer to get good, probably, but you really develop your own way of doing things and your own way of writing songs.

KEEPING HER MUSIC PRIVATE: I actually kept it very close to me. Because it was such an outlet for me and everything I was writing about was so close to my heart and so emotional and I had to be so vulnerable, I kept it really quiet. My best friend Lily knew about it, and she’s always been so supportive of me and encouraged me, but I kept it pretty quiet. A lot of people in the last year have been like, “Whoa, you’re a singer?,” when my stuff started coming out.

FINDING THE BANKS SOUND: I think it’s just years of writing music—I’ve definitely developed. And also going through different experiences you just mature as a woman. Life has made me realize what I want it to be. I definitely want [my music] to be really cinematic; I want you to be able to visualize things while you’re listening to it. I just want everything to be moody—I want it to affect people.

HER UNIQUE VOICE: My voice has always been kind of distinct—even when I was four years old, my mom told me that people would be like, “Why does your daughter always sound like a chain smoker?” I’ve always had this deep, raspy voice. I haven’t even had to learn, but it’s just this natural thing to be able to express any emotion I have through the tone of my voice.

ON HER ENIGMATIC PERSONA: I think it’s a mix of both [wanting to be selective and things escalating quickly]. I think when we put “Before I Ever Met You” out, that first song, we just put it out on a SoundCloud link, and all of a sudden it had 50,000 plays. It was surreal. At that point I hadn’t even had one photo shoot. It was mixture of that and once I started doing it I only wanted to put out necessary stuff. I feel like these days people are overwhelmed with images and various materials, and I just want to put out what I think is special and what I think should be seen and heard. But I think it’s a mixture of both: That it happened really quickly all of a sudden and we were trying to play catch-up, but at the same time I’m really particular about what I do.

COLLABORATING WITH LIL SILVA ON “WORK”: Lil Silva is part of Good Years, and that’s my label in the UK, and he’s just so cool, he’s the best. He has so much soul, and he even has an amazing voice, which I didn’t know about until recently. I just got a track from him and he’s singing on it and I was like “Whose voice is this?” But soul can be in so many different types of genres, and whenever I feel something, that’s what I wanna do.

ON THE “WARM WATER” VIDEO: Dylan Knight did “Warm Water” as well, and I just feel like aesthetically the stuff that he does is just so inherently moody—he’s a brilliant cinematographer and all the images that he captures are so feminine and beautiful and sexy and raw to me, and I wanted to use him again. In terms of the concept, I just wanted it to be simple and beautiful and buttery. I wanted everything to kind of flow together and just represent what the song was to me, which is kind of about getting those butterflies.

GOALS: I just want everything to be an extension of each thing but grow. You know, I’m so new to all of this—those were my first two videos I’ve ever done. I’m just gonna keep growing as an artist and I’m excited to work with different people and learn from all these other talented creative people that I’ve been around. It’s so inspiring to be around other people who have ideas you haven’t thought of, and all of a sudden you’re like, “Wow! That’s so amazing!” I definitely want everything I do to just get better and better.

UPCOMING PROJECTS: I have an EP coming out in the fall. It’s gonna be all new stuff. I’m so excited—it has a little bit of everything on it. I’ve been working with Jesse Rogg, who did “Before I Ever Met You” and “Fall Over,” and Tim Anderson, who is an amazing writer and producer and everything. I worked with Al Shux on a song—he did “Empire State of Mind.”