Entertainment & Arts

BBC Sound of 2014: Banks

Sultry R&B singer Banks has come third in the BBC's Sound of 2014 list, which showcases emerging artists for the coming 12 months.

Fusing dark, introspective lyrics with seductive electronic grooves, the 25-year-old has collaborated with underground British producers such as Jamie Woon, Lil Silva and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs.

But she hails from LA where, as a broken-hearted teen, she started writing songs on a toy piano she'd been given as a gift.

"I found music because I felt different," she tells the BBC.

"A lot of times, people are ashamed of feeling weak and being rejected - so it's liberating to be able to sing about those things. And it's amazing when other people don't feel alone because they hear it."

Having issued some low-key EPs (Fall Over and the London EP) last year, the singer recently toured with R&B soulmate The Weeknd and is preparing to release her debut album.

Banks: "The moment I discovered music, I knew it was going to be a huge part of who I was"

Congratulations on making the top three of the Sound Of 2014!

Oh my God, I'm so excited! It's just such an honour.

Do you feel ready for the next 12 months?

I am so ready. I love my job so much. It's all I want to do and it's all I think about.

Your birth certificate says "Jillian Banks". Why did you drop your first name?

I have a really feminine voice, but I also feel quite powerful when I write. So my songs feel heavy, and that's how Banks sounds. It's a really short, powerful sound. It almost sounds masculine and I like having that dichotomy.

Where were you born?

I was born in Orange County, but I moved to Los Angeles when I was one or two and lived in Tarzana [an affluent, highly educated neighbourhood in the San Fernando Valley]. We had a really big back yard and I was a little nature baby.

What was school like?

Well, it depends what age. I went through stages of being really, really outgoing and then… not so much.

But my mum told me that when I was five, the principal was giving us a tour of my first school and I made him watch me hop like a frog the whole time. I wouldn't walk, I just hopped like a frog!

So you were always performing?

[Giggles] I don't know if I was performing, but I was always in my own little world.

Did you take part in any school plays, or sing to the class?

No, once I discovered singing it was kind of my own thing, separate from everyone.

What's the first music you remember hearing as a child?

I have a memory of listening to Tracy Chapman and just being intrigued by her voice. Even as a young girl, I wanted to know more about her and her story. I felt I was learning about her through her music. That was a revelation to me.

Although your sound is very different, would you say there's a thread connecting Tracy Chapman's music to your own?

Definitely. The music I was really inspired by was Tracy Chapman, Fiona Apple, Lauryn Hill. You could hear how human they were through their music. All that vulnerability and that beauty of being human. I hope I have that in my music, too.

"It's a powerful thing to be able to write a song," says the singer

You started writing to get through a "tough time" - but you've never said exactly what that was. Is that deliberate?

Maybe it's deliberate and maybe it's not... But it wasn't just one thing - that time was hard. It was the first time I went so dark in my head. I had a lot of things going on around me that were hard for me to deal with. Even on a sunny day, everything felt gloomy.

Do you still go through those dark periods now?

Not so much. I think, when you're younger and you're having all these intense emotions... I can only speak for myself but I'm so sensitive: When I'm sad I'm really sad, and when I love someone I really love someone.

But as you get older you find ways to cope that are healthy for you, and for me that's music.

So things would be a lot worse if you hadn't found that release...

Yeah, it'd be awful! You'd just be wandering through life hitting your head against every object that comes along!

"I want to create a really dark atmosphere," says Banks. "I want it to feel heavy."

You're self-taught on the piano. How does that affect your writing?

Sometimes my chord progressions are a little bit different, or don't really make sense. I mean, I even hold my fingers differently than you're supposed to. But it makes the music 100% based on emotion and intuition and not at all about maths.

Your lyrics are very intimate. Do you ever worry you're giving too much away?

I never knew the boundaries that you had to draw for yourself. You know, how honest you can be?

But I decided, you know what? I'm not going to change anything. I'm not going to be less open because other people are going to start hearing it.

How did you feel when people did get to hear it?

I don't know what the word is. I was… I was touched. It feels amazing to be writing things that you went through, and other people are coming out right and left saying they have felt those things, too. It's amazing. Why should anyone be scared to show anger or anything?

What's it like reliving those emotions on stage?

It feels good. It's a powerful thing to be able to write a song. Even the least powerful feeling - like insecurity - that makes you feel weak when you experience it, when you write about it, you are powerful. So no matter how sad the song was for me, it feels good for me to go there.

Is the album finished yet?

I'm still just doing the finishing touches to it - I don't have a title yet - but I'm so excited.

How does it compare to your EPs?

It's more of me. More of my heart and my brain.

Any other major organs?

And my blood.

Maybe a kidney?

A kidney? No!

Warm Water, which recalls Prince at his most libidinous, was written in just three hours

Did your parents come out to see you on tour with The Weeknd?

Actually, one day my dad was listening to the radio and he phoned me up excitedly shouting "guess who's on the radio? Vampire Weekend!"

I was like: "That's cool dad, but that's not who I'm on tour with!"

It was so funny. He was so proud.

Does he know the difference now?

Now he knows. He came to a bunch of the shows. He's so supportive and awesome.

Notoriously, you have your personal phone number listed on Facebook. Have you had any proposals yet?

Yeah! I've had a few!

Have you met up with any of them?

No I haven't. I haven't met any of them.

I suppose that's for the best.

Maybe. Or maybe they're my soul mates. You never know.

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