artist and crafts

Therapy and Ceramics With Banks in 3 Acts

The singer on her new album III, taking a break, and toxic relationships. Photo: Steph Wilson

“Look what I chose,” Banks says, proudly toting a giant ceramic Tyrannosaurus rex in her arms. Shortly before her third studio album, III, dropped in mid-July, we met at Los Angeles’ Color Me Mine to paint ceramics and discuss the record. About three weeks later, the album would debut at No. 21 on the Billboard 200, becoming her highest-selling album and, critically, her most well-received to date; in the walk-up to its release, Banks was eager to get more crafty. She entered the pottery studio through the back entrance of the store, which made me snicker — I had no idea this children’s-party place had a back entrance, but it reminded me that we were in Los Angeles, where every storefront has a backdoor for celebrities to abscond in oversize sunglasses and elaborate scarves (she had neither).

Since her jump-off as a buzzy SoundCloud artist in 2013, Banks’s music has always been evocative and haunting, from her signature layered vocal effect, which skirts the edge of exorcism-core (see: “Poltergeist”) to her percussive bass lines (“Judas”) and poignant love songs (the brand-new “What About Love”). The 31-year-old Tarzana, California, native, Jillian Banks, solidified herself as a witchy, glitchy alt-pop darling with her first two albums, Goddess and The Altar. Post-Goddess in 2014, Banks clawed her way from the peripherals of moody Spotify playlists to accrue a voracious following of sad girls and hopeless romantics — and over 1 billion streams.

Then, abruptly, she went off the grid. Banks took a few years off from releasing music: “I feel like I had the space and time to actually confront certain things,” she told me. She was open about her aversion to interviews, explaining they used to be “stressful” for her. How’d she get past it? “I took a break.” Now, she’s back with a starburst of creativity so supermassive that it leaked out of her headphones and onto the page; she’s publishing a book of poems to coincide with the release of III. The album and book have similar themes — growth, innocence, and life’s gray zones.

Banks has always felt like a rare gem in today’s music landscape, quietly inspiring the melodramatic Halseys and mad Billie Eilishes of the world, and III is audacious; Banks treats fans to those familiar, massive stabs of bass in “Stroke” and “Godless,” her customary glitchy production on “Alaska,” and her percussive trap beats on “Gimme.” But we’re also introduced to a new side of her, with a rare feature from Francis and the Lights, a left-field beachy bop called “Hawaiian Mazes,” and trying her hand at rap on “The Fall.”

Over paint and ceramics, our conversation largely hovered in the realm of vagueness. Her answers were at times hazy, or maybe that was the paint fumes. Our experience together transpired like a fever dream in fragments — one that, appropriately enough, largely orbited three primary themes.

Part 1: Processing

There was a back corner table reserved for us — like a velvet-roped bottle-service experience at a children’s-party place — where we were catered to by a bright 20-something employee. Due to Color Me Mine’s muted wooden decor and the assorted blank ceramics studding the shelves, everything colorful in the store stood out — like Banks and I, two adult women, here to paint in the middle of the workday. (There was only one other painter in the store, a child with her father). Banks came prepared, wearing a splotchy graphic shirt in case she splattered any paint. I prepared a different way; I told her I had just come from therapy and was ready to do some processing.

Soon after she arrived, I found myself following her around a shelf of unpainted bowls, mugs, kittens, and princesses. She picked up a sprawling, open-mouthed shark head, which doubled as a piggy bank and cackled. “You have to do this one,” she said. “You HAVE to.” Speaking to the store’s steep prices, and the fact that neither of us was personally paying for it, she devilishly insisted, “This is our chance.” It felt rebellious, like a white-woman version of throwing cash in a nightclub — we’re gonna blow other people’s money on ceramics, motherfucker.

Our caretaker let us pick out our colors, five each. Banks went for “the worst ones I possibly could, ’cause this is my chance to experiment.” I went for normal shark colors, because I was eager to ask her about trauma.

At the listening session, you said that III is like the “final chapter,” like you’re closing the book on an era. What do you mean by that?
Well, when I say “final chapter,” I’m more talking about being able to let go of something — someone, anything. In order to close a chapter, you have to be able to let go. I think every album is a chapter, or every song. It’s more just the concept of being at peace with your own decisions.

When I look back on my own eras, sometimes I just mourn for myself. Like, “If only I had the knowledge I do now.” Do you ever think about that in listening to your old music?
When I think about Goddess, that era, for sure. All this stuff I struggled with was so on the surface, and I didn’t know how to deal with any of it. And some of the ways that I dealt with it were so fucking dark. When I think back to that and I look at experiences that I had at that time that were so incredible, I want to go back and tell that girl to enjoy it more, you know? That makes me sad sometimes.

You talk a lot on this album about the experience of missing someone, but knowing that it was wrong for you — that both things can be true.
That’s so fucking painful.

It’s awful.
With art, with relationships, any situation, nothing is black-and-white … except that. There are a few things that are black-and-white. Like, how you judge people, how you judge yourself. Life is so messy. But there are certain things that you almost have to be so jagged about, like when you know logically that somebody is toxic for you. It’s hard to know what’s right.

There’s something so innocent and naïve about letting yourself fall for someone. On that note, something in “What About Love” made me cry when I heard it.
“What About Love” is about an impossible situation: I belong to no one and you belonged to someone else. But it’s sung in the most hopeful way. Like, ‘We’re going to work out. I love you. You said that it would work out, so why wouldn’t it?” That’s why that song would make you cry. ’Cause there’s something sad and scary about that. It’s like my song “Contaminated,” where it’s the black-and-white thing: It’s just not good for you even though you want it to be. “What About Love” has that darkness in it, but it also has this magic that makes me feel like anything is possible. The strings reminded me of the Pixar movie Up — that feeling of floating in a house ’cause a bunch of balloons can lift you up. It’s dreamy and idyllic.

I was also drawn to “Hawaiian Mazes,” which feels like a departure for you, musically. It’s kind of a bop.
There’s a groove to it for sure. When I first wrote that song, I didn’t think that it was right for the album, and then I realized its specialness because it’s such a groove. I remember exactly why I needed to write it and how painful letting go was in a certain situation, and that song was when I just started to become at peace.

How do you get there? How do you find peace?
You go through it. It’s fucking hard. Being a human is hard. That’s why I took time off. I knew that I needed to confront certain things. I took some time to do that and, I’m not like, “Here I am! I’m the finished product!” But more functional? Yes.

Part 2: Queer Theory

By this point, she’s already painted her dinosaur’s base coat olive, and is now moving on to an experimental second coat of blush red. She’s enjoying not taking art so seriously. I’m struggling to let myself be as free and desperately trying to slap paint on the massive expanse that is this blank shark bank. But overall, the physical act of painting is soothing, and while she’s been reluctant to answer some of my questions, we’re clearly both using art as a crutch.

Our bubbly caretaker returned to refill our trays, hilariously and blindly cutting into our conversation about arriving at personal peace to say, “You need refills on colors 79 and 92?” Eventually, she handed over the full bottles of paint, because, again, this is our free self-care and we’re willing to take full advantage. Admittedly, I’m starting to struggle with wanting to respect the walls she’s erected and also wanting to dig deeper. But Banks is sweet in nature — a Gemini who feels like a Cancer — and this experience feels special and intimate, like we’re really sharing something. I wanted her to open up. So, I decided to just be my purest self.

I have a theory that your music is inherently lesbian because of how intense the emotional processing is.
Oh my god! Elaborate.

All lesbians want to do is process. We just want to relitigate our traumas over and over again.
Oh God, is that what my music is?! My music isn’t all heavy and dark and trauma. But I know what you mean — I’m graphic, I’m particular. I get it.

There’s a lot of depth and emotional intelligence in your lyrics. It’s brave to let yourself feel so hard — lesbian or not.
I just don’t know how not to. It’s being an empath in general. Just digesting energies and being so aware. Sometimes I’ll say I’m sensitive as if I think it’s a weakness. And I hate that, because the word “sensitive” is not a weakness. I wish there was another word for it. But there have been times definitely where I’ve wished that I couldn’t feel so much. It’s an easier life.

As an empath, what’s your experience with emotional vampires?

You said in the listening session that “Stroke” is about dating a narcissist.
That’s the most dangerous combination, empaths and narcissists.

Why are they drawn to each other, though?
Because it’s just relentless, the need to understand and nurture. And it becomes this addictive, fucked-up thing. But that can be so hot, too.

Part 3: Moon Sisters

I ask Banks about her book of poems, and she stops painting to actually read me the poems instead of talking about them. I’ll let you read them when she releases the book instead of transcribing it here, but picture this: One of your favorite artists tears poetry from the trenches of her soul and opts to read those words directly to you. But you’re distracted, because you’re finally fully immersed in your nonsensical, cacophonic environment, listening to the scratching of dry brushes on ceramics, Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” whispering through overhead speakers, the pitter-patter of fingertips on keyboards from nearby label representatives.

What was different about creating III from your past albums?
I feel like the things that I have really been trying to work through are trusting myself and letting go, and just being at peace with myself. And I am in a very different place than I was even two years ago. I feel like I’ve grown more in the last year and a half than I did for three years. Or five. I had the space and time to actually confront certain things. I worked my ass off on it. It’s like changing mental scripts that are in your head. That shit is hard. I don’t know, I turned 30. I hear that for women that’s a big thing. But I don’t know what that means.

Was it for you?
Not really. You don’t wake up and go, “Oh, eureka! I got the answers!” I do feel like I give less fucks now. But it’s a gradual thing, obviously. I feel less guarded now for sure.

Tell me about your poem book.
My poetry book is called Generations of Women From the Moon.

I love that.
The moon is female.

I was literally just about to say that.
My dinosaur looks pretty sweet. There’s definitely a gradient happening. Yours is good. Mine is a joke.

We can go outside and smash them in the parking lot. It could be cathartic and symbolic. We let the dinosaur and the shark just live here, in this moment, in the past. Let go. Move on. Close the chapter. What do you think?
I don’t want to destroy it. I think we should keep it. This is art.

I agree. Now I finally have somewhere to keep my money.
Now I finally have a dinosaur.

Jill and Banks and their art. Photo: Jill Gutowitz

Except she didn’t actually have a dinosaur; not yet, at least. After Banks and I hugged good-bye and took selfies with our painted beasts, a label representative nervously revealed that it would take a couple days for the shark and the dinosaur to be fired and finished. We all agreed that, in two days, we’d pick up our respective creations (or, I’d pick up mine, and the label would pick up Banks’s). I returned five days later to pick up my shark, eager to hold up my end of this sacred pact, while still remaining chill. There, the Color Me Mine employee asked if I’d also want to take home the dinosaur, which was still there, wrapped up and ready for a forever home.

Therapy and Ceramics with Banks, in 3 Acts