Banks Talks Intimate ‘Live and Stripped’ EP and Empathy in Uncertain Times

Among the most unforeseen trends that defined the last decade in music is the dark turn taken by much contemporary R&B. One artist who stands out for her signature spin on this sound is L.A. singer-songwriter Jillian Banks, known mononymously as Banks. Her crazed emotional outpourings are delivered in edgy productions that cloak her voice in layers of strident noise and abstraction. This aesthetic reached an apex on last year’s “III,” Banks’ deepest and darkest album yet. Having garnered attention by magnifying everything in such dramatic fashion, Banks now surprises us by doing the opposite. Her new EP, “Live and Stripped,” released in tandem with candid videos for each song, is the latest installment of “1 Mic 1 Take,” an original performance series by Capitol Records that captures artists stripped down, recorded in one take, with no overdubs or studio trickery. 

One might expect a project like this to be daunting for the modern artist who relies on the production assembly line. Banks, however, seems quite unphased. “For me singing like this is actually the easiest and most natural,” she explains. “It’s how most of my songs start. I wanted to do this because it not only felt like tapping back into my roots of how I started making music, but it’s also a really good time to feel connected to people in a really real way,” Banks told Entertainment Voice, giving us an inner look into the music and mindset of her new release. Indeed, at a time when we can only meet up with friends through technology, it is particularly refreshing to strip some of that technology away from music, and get back to the core. 

The EP begins with a reimagination of “Stroke” from last year’s album. The original version was a terrifying soundscape of hovering, ghostly voices, pitched up and down, with scattered bursts of static and distortion. Now, the wobble bass that carried the track with its pulse is replaced by a central guitar figure, so unabashedly human in its bona fide simplicity that can come across as slightly comical. On the other hand, the song reminds you how limited means engender creativity. Banks is a woman of many voices, and on this tune she sings in a sultry high-pitched voice, one of her staple sounds. With so much less clutter and processing, you might find yourself noticing, for the first time, just how theatrically charged her voice is. 

The reimagination of existing material is an art of restructuring, and as such, calls for the erection of recognizable structures, around which the new creations may assume form. In some cases, the more unwieldy the architecture, the easier it is to see the song as it really is. Banks’ songs might brazenly reflect today’s trends in their state of the art production, but when stripped down, they strike as more timeless than one might expect. To this end, Banks modestly professes, “I just write what comes up. I can’t really control what I write. If it is timeless then that’s wonderful.” Classic sounds can easily devolve into chummy, head-nodding, finger-snapping fare, and when Banks makes it to “Contaminated,” it all sounds very much like “lifestyle music” — easy, unthreatening, measured, moderate, accessible, and tasteful. You could imagine the type of dancing this calls for — curtailed motions in small circles, vocal pantomime followed by sour faces and blushes. As the song goes on, Banks gets valiantly nasal. Of course, she was nasal in the original too, but bolstered by overdubs. When the chorus hits, Banks kills it. You can hear the music strike a nerve, in real time, as the refrain approaches, opening her up in a cathartic release. She lets go, tapping into new energy, and by the time her “Ah”s evolve into “oi,”s, you know she means business. 

“Drowning,” a rework from Banks’ self-titled debut album, is likely to give you chills by the end. Banks begins sounding unanticipatedly husky, reminding you of the versatility she keeps at bay. She alternates between intimate whispers and cascading outpourings. During her paroxysm of “Stay-ay-ay” repetitions, she sounds as if on the verge of a system overload, and at one point you can hear her nearly break into tears. While the album version derived potency from its dizzying effects, the reworking thrives on raw emotion. Much like unplugged productions are expected to do, it forces you to focus on the song rather than the production. Banks revealed that it was this song, out of the four tracks in the set, that changed the most in sound and feeling. “The recorded version feels heavier, more painful. More mid process of hurting from this particular relationship,” she explains. “The acoustic version was fun to do because we had never done it before and they recorded us doing it without any rehearsing beforehand. That made it feel extra electric because I didn’t really know it was about to come out of my mouth. Messed up lyrics and all. It’s also been a long time since I wrote that song. I feel farther away from the pain of it, I love the song so much so it was fun seeing how it would unfold itself.”

“If We Were Made of Water,” another selection from Banks’ last album, rounds off the set. The original was not quite as abstracted as the other reimagined tracks, so the new rendition is more consistent in feeling with the original, more of a distillation than an overhaul. Without the thunderous sub bass cacophony that ended the studio version, we find ourselves again forced to focus on Banks’ singing. In the clean, decluttered, piano-driven arrangement, Banks sounds immaculate, every subtle fluctuation of her voice coming across amplified because of its bareness

With three quarters of the reworkings coming from Banks’ highly conceptual album, “III,” the new record raises questions about the malleability of music. “III” documented a journey from romanticism to reality check, wisdom to empathy, and ultimately toward greater love. Now, when Banks revisits them and produces such starkly different sounds, the songs seem to take a new perspective. Regarding her outlook, Banks has little to say other than, “I think it changes every day. It depends where I’m at mentally.” And indeed, “Live and Stripped” comes across like a product of its times, although perhaps more like a prescient envisioning of the times, as it was recorded late last year. Now, with tour dates suspended in the wake of the pandemic, artists around the world have turned to live streaming performances. Ironically, the prohibition of physical intimacy seems to have made performances more intimate in a way, by doing away with the gimmickry and artifice that often come with large public shows. In this light, Banks’ EP might be seen as part of a greater cultural phenomenon. Banks admits, “I definitely think culture is going to change after [Covid-19]. I hope people become more empathetic and realer. I have always loved connecting to people in really intimate ways, and this EP feels intimate. I’m curious and excited to see how all this madness affects how people interact moving forward. It seems like it would make people appreciate the little hugs more. I know I do.”

Live and Stripped” is available April 3 on Apple Music