LA native Jillian Banks broke into the alternative R&B scene back in early 2014 with debut album Goddess. Hit tracks “Warm Water” and “Waiting Game” caught the attention of a number of producers. In due time, she readily took up the role of broody, R&B poster girl and opening act for the Weeknd’s “Kiss Land” tour. Synthy, soulful-singer-songwriter-meets-Victoria’s-Secret-model and atmospheric “Starboy” Abel Tesfaye? Talk about a match made in heaven.
For those of you not familiar with her work, let me sum it up. Banks pivots between trap-pop and down-tempo R&B, a combination built on the heartfelt cries of a soulful songwriter steeped in ethereal atmospheric sounds. These sedated songs vacillate between the haunting whispers of Billie Eilish and the layered, hyperventilating harmonies we hear with Bon Iver.
Banks has been around for a while now. However, her famous collaborators and high-stream-count singles have not quite pushed her into the mainstream. But, she’s spent these past six years creating a new album, III, that is arguably her best to date.
PSA fellow left-field R&B lovers–she’s a gem. Her studio work, especially the production, has only gotten better over the past few years.
Back in 2014, naive, soon-to-be-college-graduate Kathleen was discovering Banks for the first time. It was sexy, it was cool, it was different–my first taste of moody, synthy pop. I found it to be serendipitous that she happened to choose Dinkytown’s Varsity Theatre of all places to showcase her latest work, to a crowd who was primarily college students. Initially, I thought, “Why is Banks at Varsity? She should be at First Ave.” But hey, these college kids were diggin’ it and it happened to be a more fitting venue than I expected.
Banks’ new album, III, is filled with just as many lusty, synthy bangers, but with more creative risks. Her producer BJ Burton, a Bon Iver collaborator, utilizes a Messina vocal harmonizer technique that, when combined with her sultry, seductive vocals, is wondrous.
It was the sound and complex production I came for, I hoped her studio work translated well to a live performance. With her autotune-heavy, distorted ballads, I figured the live rendition would be hit or miss. The sound was not as clean and compelling in person, but what surprised me most was the theatrical level of live performance and the incredible visuals.
Banks had two dancers accompany her on stage, both dancing in synchronization. She was front and center. The choreography and showmanship was stellar. Banks’ music is typically something I “zone out” to and it was interesting to see that translate to an energetic, engaging performance in person.
Disclaimer, at times her songwriting lacks lyrical finesse, but I was actually impressed by her interjection of poetry mid-set. Banks took a moment to share her inspiration for III. She struggled with finding an album name that could represent this “chapter of life.” While she did not fully explain how she landed on the name III, she did share a poem called “Ode to the Grayzone.” This poem helped her find the words she needed. The poem title even served as a placeholder, as she decided on the name.
Ode to the Grayzone, now I know that it exists. I heard stories long ago, one woman entered its abyss. She said that the road was messy, steps were crooked, signs were wrong. I heard myths that front was back and white was black and short was long. I asked, “how could someone know where they were going, if alone?” I asked, “should I wait to enter, until I feel that I am fully grown?” She said, “child, silly girl. You were born already whole. You’ve been fully grown since the beginning, life just took its toll. You need to remember that whenever one road seems too long, answers to your unanswered questions lie in your unwritten songs.”Jillian Banks, “Ode to the Grayzone”
The crowd was quiet and solemn as she shared the short poem, with a unanimous ovation at “you were already whole… life just took its toll.” Shortly after, Banks propelled into the track “Contaminated,” one of her strongest new singles.
Standout songs from the night were, of course, some of her initial hits I already mentioned. As for her new material, the introspective, sexy track “Fuck With Myself” and the high-energy, dance-hall hit “Gimme” were the most fun. Banks showed a new side of herself with “The Fall,” a sharp-tongued critique of the music industry co-written with Miguel. I prefer when she lets her vocals run–not big on her rap-singing, but I like that she’s pulling from a richer pool of life experiences other than the stereotypical gloom-and-doom of a failed relationship.
The album has a lot more variety, is not necessarily cohesive, but is freer and more experimental. I like that she’s veering away from the bass-heavy, vengeful breakup Banks I knew, and trying something new.