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“Tell me what you want from me. I think you need a weaker girl, kinda like the girl I used to be,” sings Banks on “Weaker Girl,” with a voice that is both reflective and self-assured. The song is from The Altar, Banks’ album released September 30, 2016 on Harvest Records, and embodies a new kind of strength for the artist--not one that she didn’t have before, but that she’s now embracing in full.
“This is me looking in the mirror and being present in the moment,” she says. “Not being scared of change, and not being scared of my own strength and my own power.”
When Banks broke out with 2014’s Goddess, she became the world’s most blogged about artist, with a voice compared to the likes of Fiona Apple, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, and a sound that took alt-pop and R&B to electrifying new places. With every song written and controlled creatively by Banks, The Altar pushes those edges even further, and pulls no punches. It’s an inspiring confrontation of complicated love, pain, and self-doubt.
“I pushed myself. I pushed my boundaries. I found my own strengths while making this album,” she says. “I found that when I needed a shoulder to lean on, I could be that shoulder for myself.”
The album opens with Banks alone on piano, her voice distant and reverberant. “And to think you would get me to the altar,” she sings on “Gemini Feed.” “Like I’d follow you around like a dog that needs water. But admit it you just wanted me smaller, if you woulda let me grow you coulda kept my love.” And then grow she does--the song swells with core-shaking beats, and her stirring voice turns resolute: “Open up your eyes.”
Nowhere is Banks’ fearless self-confrontation more evident than in “Fuck With Myself,” which Zane Lowe premiered in July as a Beats 1 “World Record.” “I fuck with myself more than anybody else,” sings Banks, cutting through propulsive beats and ominous grooves. In the powerful, jarring video she dances and struggles with contortionists wearing her image. “In the video I'm looking in a mirror, because it's like looking at myself with open eyes. My hair is not in my face anymore. I feel less scared to be seen.”
On the haunting, slow-burning “Mind Games,” she challenges us to do just that: “Do I ever have to notice? I’ve been standing here and I don't know why. Did you ever even see me try? Do you see me now? Do you see me now? Do you see me now?”
Other songs on the album like “Mother Earth” are fearless in their vulnerability--led by strings and acoustic guitar, Banks sings “Follow me to my bed, cause every time you fall I'll be holding your head up. And when will you get tired of feeling bad? And every time you fall, follow me.”
“I wrote that song when I was feeling sickened by this weight that society puts on women,” she says. “It tries to make them want to be as small as possible and take up as little space as possible. Be as perfect and wrapped up in a bow as possible. My sister just gave birth to a baby girl and I just I felt really sad and scared for her because I didn't want her to feel how I have felt.”
The album, which features collaborations with producers and writers including Tim Anderson, SOHN, DJ Dahi, and Jenna Andrews, was driven by Banks’ deep, insistent need for raw expression and solace.
“Once I was ready to write again it really just poured out of me,” she says. “It was just like my body needed it so bad. I think I was probably chomping at the bit to put everything that I had gone through on paper. I went through a depression while I was creating, and it came out in my music in the best way--not in a sad way, but all of this deep-seated stuff that was weighing on my mind.”
And the album’s title, The Altar, honors the spiritual experience of that creation.
“Sometimes it feels like the inspirations for my songs come from somewhere else, where I’m not even thinking, they just come out,” says Banks. “My music and my songs, they feel like my religion, and the altar is the holiest place there is.”