Following the huge success of her debut album, Goddess, which sold 25,000 copies in its first week alone, Banks returns with her sophomore release, The Altar. This record is as vulnerable as it is powerful, raw and free as it is structured.
Gemini Feed opens the album, with Banks singing over a distant-sounding analogue piano before futuristic synths lurch into the frame, as if she’s revving up a machine from out of space, completely in control. The verse builds with two entwined vocal melodies, illuminating the duplicity in the title of the song. It explodes like fireworks into a bouncing, addictive chorus with layered chords deep enough to lose yourself in.
While Goddess focused on production and sound, The Altar centers on Banks’ voice and her potent songwriting. This time around she was drawn to instrumentals that supported what she was writing and needed to express; led by lyrics, melody and her voice, instead of composition. “It’s pure emotion and gut instinct,” she explains.
Throughout The Altar, Banks experiments to stunning effect. On Fuck With Myself, her vocals are playful. “I’m barely singing,” she says. “I’m dangling words off my tongue and I was having so much fun with it.” Witness the full throttle of her vocal power as she yells “Do you see me now?” in Mind Games or the jumping-bean vocal tic of Train Wreck. Layered over a funky lollop and substantial beat, that motif provides a rhythmic force as Banks speak-sings before soaring into a pure melodic chorus. Her voice is at its zenith: “I pushed it much harder – I allowed it to be free and big and fierce.”
Fuck With Myself, the first single from the album, was actually the final song she wrote and the message epitomizes “The Altar” in its entirety. “I’m showing myself more. I feel comfortable opening up and showing all of the layers I have. The day I made it was fun, the lyrics were fun, making the video was fun. Music should be fun sometimes. This is pure power,” she says.
The video plays on the idea of the different sides of Banks, with dancers wearing masks of her face and contorting their bodies in stilted, eerie motions. Banks plays with a prosthetic version of herself: at times, she sings to it and strokes it lovingly, at other times, she hits, smears its lipstick, alters it. Eventually she sets it on fire and watches it burn. For her this represents the ways we treat ourselves, how she treats herself. “I can be my own best friend and my own worst enemy,” she says. “I found inspiration watching Marilyn Manson videos and being thrilled by his risk-taking visuals. He’s not afraid to make things dark and disturbing”.
“I fuck with myself means that other people’s opinions about you shouldn’t matter, it really just matters what you think of yourself and you should love yourself fully. This isn’t always the way it goes and I wanted to show this darkness that makes the light so bright. I also wanted the video to be sensual and sexy because there’s passion in this struggle. Even though I made this song last, it’s the roots of this album so the video had to encompass a lot of these meanings.”
After touring with The Weeknd around the world, Banks returned to write in Los Angeles, her hometown. “It felt really good, I relearned how to be at home after being on the road for so long and I got to feel really comfortable again.” While on tour, she’d started working with members of the XO crew, such as Danny Boy and Belly. Other production hands include Vienna-based sonic genius Sohn, multi-talented musician and producer Tim Anderson (Solange Knowles, Dizzee Rascal), Al Shux (Jay-Z, Plan B) and DJ Dahi (Drake, Kendrick Lamar). “You have to really click with someone in order to make music. Once you find a group of people who help pull the best music out of you, you stick by them and I think I found them,” says Banks.
The Altar shows a new side of an artist who is ready to be seen, to take up space. After a crazy few years of acclaim and success, she’s become used to the limelight. Banks explains, “In the past cameras were so new to me, it was somewhat overwhelming and made me feel more like retreating than attacking. In the “Fuck With Myself” video I was ready to bare it all and make it big, release it with guns blazing.”
She describes the songs as her ‘13 little kids’ and even now struggles to talk about the story behind the album closer “To The Hilt”, a heart-breaking piano-led ballad about the end of a relationship. “I miss you on my team,” she sings, hauntingly. “Mother Earth” is built around gentle strings and plucked guitar, but with a message of empowerment and sisterhood she’s fiercely passionate about. Her voice sounds glorious, morphing into a beautiful rasp and a gritty drawl, full of soul. It’s a feminist anthem, a plea, a call for equality and hope, written partly for her new baby niece, fueled in part by reading cult female empowerment book “Women Who Run With The Wolves“ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. “When will you get tired of feeling bad?” she sings. “I feel so much that there’s this fear of femininity, of shying away from our natural instincts, that women are taught to shrink into this little box. I feel the weight of it, I think everybody does,” she explains.
“I wanted my niece to hear that song, I don’t want her to feel how I have felt and how all of my friends have felt.” She wrote the song while coming out of a depression. “I felt the weight of society on women was making me sick; it was making me sad.” She describes the dark place she left behind as a snake shedding its skin, an exoskeleton that had to be sloughed off before she could enter a new phase. “Making music is the best medicine,” she says.
Goddess set Banks up to be in the right place for this new work. “It allowed me to see how big the world was. It made me want to experience everything before I die. I wasn’t even on the internet before Goddess came out, I wasn’t used to cameras and my songs felt like my diary entries – they are my diary entries – but I’ve overcome that love/hate relationship with singing them in front of people. Goddess allowed me to grow and be more open and empowered and strong.”
The Altar is a depiction of a woman opening her inner life to the world through song. It is a fearless, empowering and very human work of art and evolution, about themes and experiences many can relate to – learning how to be a boss, how to be unapologetic about wants and needs, demanding respect. What a privilege to be privy to an artist sharing her life and soul with the world – especially when the songs are so damn good.