In 2013, Jillian Banks posted her cell phone number on her Facebook page. It was a radical move for a musician in the age of the hyper-curated, publicist-mediated pop star, but a quiet sort of radical: It allowed her a more intimate, direct connection with the fans who texted and called than those who engaged with her on social media. And for a woman who started making music as a means of exorcising her own, most private demons, that one-on-one relationship with her audience was tantamount.
“My music initially started out on the floor of my bedroom in a robe, and sad,” Jillian Banks said on a recent fall afternoon. “It had nothing to do with anything other than getting out what I needed to get out.”
We had come full circle, then, since the musician, who records as the mononymous Banks, was sitting before me in a hotel robe, preparing for the Dior and Guggenheim International Gala pre-party where she would perform that evening. It was Banks’s first performance of a new show for her new music since the release of her sophomore album The Altar, almost exactly two years after her debut Goddess catapulted her onto the world stage. Except it wasn’t quite full circle, and instead a kind of progression: The Altar is rawer, more exposed than even Goddess, reflecting the 28-year-old musician’s resolve to allow herself to be bigger. In a recent interview with Vice’s Noisey, Banks said, “This society, what I feel like it does to the most feminine parts of women, I think it wants you as small as possible.”
“Growing up as a woman in this world, you either go against that or you don’t, and for me, I felt like I was smooshed, mentally,” she told me. “As you grow up and you learn about how you want to feel and how you want to relate to the world, I think you open up more.” So part of The Altar — and the tour that will soon follow — was reclaiming her right to take up space, to be aggressive, to be queen of her own invented underworld. To be big.
“I wanted to be seen,” she said. “I belted on this album. I feel like more of a fighter on this album.” Even in the wavering ballad “Mother Earth,” Banks sings openly about her battle with depression, howling lyrics that simultaneously meditate on her own melancholy and offer a pep talk to herself. In “27 Hours,” just before she breaks into the chorus, her voice quivers slightly, an unvarnished moment that would have seemed entirely out of place on her earlier, more manicured album.
She was scrolling through her Instagram when I arrived at her hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side the afternoon of the Guggenheim gala. Though she once shied away from social media, she recently adopted Instagram due to the overwhelming volume of messages she receives on her phone. The day of the Guggenheim gala, she was taking over Dior’s Instagram, too, and she was tracking down the perfect image to post next.
It was a behind-the-scenes image of an earlier fitting; Dior artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri had designed a custom black lace gown with a feather crown for the stage. (For the red carpet, she opted for a simpler short wool design with the quilted fencer’s bodice that appeared throughout Chiuri’s Spring 2017 collection; for the second night, the gala itself, an ankle-length leather dress with another, equally regal feather crown.)
Chiuri is the first woman to be appointed creative director of Christian Dior; she succeeds the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, and Raf Simons at the helm of the storied French fashion house. In her Spring 2017 debut for Dior, Chiuri showed a collection that openly embraced her history-making new role. It was replete with the romantic details she brought over from her time at Valentino, combined with an element of mysticism and overt slogans like “We Should All Be Femininists,” borrowed from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
“You can tell a woman made this,” she said later, observing the dress in the mirror. Then, she amended: “You can tell a bad bitch made this.” She dropped to a low crouch, swaying to each side, and sprung up again with a giggle.
Though the gown suits her perfectly — she described it as her “dream” — the visual world didn’t always have such a role in Banks’s aesthetic; it’s only in her more recent, bigger incarnation that she’s started exploring how her music looks. There’s the leather jacket she bought for herself when she started her climb to fame, for example — one that accompanied her on the road, around the world, and into the studio with NPR as she figured out how to be a musician in front of an audience. (Banks already had a substantial following when she played her first live set. “I felt like I had no armor on,” she said of her earliest shows, when she would dwell on the daunting task of exposing herself in front of an audience of hundreds, or thousands. “It’s an interesting business, baring your soul in front of people.”) Her videos, like the creepy, blue-tinged “Fuck With Myself,” have grown more elaborate and stylized. And then, there’s the fashion: She sat front-row at Chanel’s Fall 2014 couture show and appeared at the 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund awards. It’s entered her stage wear, too, of which the custom Dior gown is just the start.
“When I’m on stage, you are able to create a world that represents this certain part of you that’s the purest, most exaggerated form of who you are,” she said. It’s all part of her resolve, as she said throughout the day, to be bigger.
Her music — and now, her visual language — is replete with religious iconography and spiritual imagery, reflective of her desire to conjure something otherworldly with her music. Her tracks have names like “Gemini Feed,” “Mother Earth,” and Judas.” In “Poltergeist,” the song that opened her Guggenheim set, she sings through a hauntingly distorted microphone, “I started all of the wars, I’ve been getting messages from my deep waters.” Then, she breaks into the chorus: “Oh, my God, I think I saw a ghost,” she sings, a stuttering beat thumping behind her.
If Banks thinks she saw a ghost, it was probably one of her own conjuring. She took to the stage at the Guggenheim party Wednesday night, head held high, somewhere between a queen and a high priestess standing at the center of her own Stonehenge. Pillars of light strobed red, blue, and white around her. On the stage floor, an all-seeing eye peered upwards. Two dancers shrouded in mesh flanked her, clinging to her and pulling away again in jarring gyrations. The audience crowded in on all sides of the circular stage, disciples awaiting the start of an ancient rite. It was chilling, electrifying, big.
“Tonight is the birth of something for me,” Banks said.