Slithering through a flourishing garden of her own creation, BANKS sheds her skin. For the duration of her fourth studio album Serpentina, she adopts the ways of the snake. Her fascination stems not from the serpentine’s conniving and devious reputation, but rather its uncomplicated detachment to what it’s left behind. Serpentina carries with it a new sense of forward-looking empowerment and well-worn intimidation. BANKS is embarking on the first chapter of her decade-long career in which she’s in complete control.
“With snakes, they shed their skin and they keep slithering forward. They're not trying to crawl back into that white little shell that they leave behind. They just leave it and they're not thinking about it,” BANKS tells The FADER. “I think that was really inspiring to me too, where it was just: leave it in the past, keep moving forward. Because of that presentness, there's a new brightness and warmth to this album that I haven't really had.”
With medical complications wearing her body down and plaguing her 2019 tour, the singer had no choice but to sit in that present moment as she was forced to embrace recovery in the global pause of 2020. In the lead up to Serpentina, she had doubts about whether creating music was still her overarching desire. What BANKS found was that making her own decisions was what truly reconnected her to her creativity.
The first step came as she became enamored with the production process, losing herself in endless sonic combinations on Ableton. The next was a rejoining of the art and business sides of her career for a healthy alliance as she approached her first release as a newly independent artist. This way, it was all her own: her masters, her plans, her process. “I’m on this new journey with music,” she says. “I feel more empowered than ever. I feel more pure than ever. I feel like the best artist I’ve ever been.”
Below, BANKS tells The FADER about the unchanging soul of being a musician, letting go of the past to make way for artistic development, and transitioning into complete, independent womanhood on Serpentina.
The FADER: What was the conceptual process of approaching a record like Serpentina?
BANKS: I had just gone through a lot and I feel like in general, I’m in such a place of really prioritizing my independence and my own voice and trusting my own intuition. It was happening naturally just because of where I’m at, but I think that was really important to me to not ask people’s opinions, to just really dive in on my own.
I fell in love with Ableton and with production in general. I’ve always kind of executive produced everything I’ve done, but in terms of being alone, engineering it myself, making the sounds all myself, I’ve never done that before. So having the time to do that and the time to really dive in and experiment, it kind of shocked me how much I love music just because I felt so far away from the music business and my career. It’s one of the only things that makes me feel good when I’m feeling low. It became really clear to me how important it was for my soul to just do it my way and do it really in an independent fashion.
How does reaching this point of rebirth change your songwriting process knowing that you’re not going to have these external voices?
I’m always so graphically honest in my music. I don’t really necessarily think my writing style changed at all – but there’s a calmness and a peace to myself, to my artist mind and to how I feel about the songwriting process. Even in terms of who you surround yourself with, I think in the past, I would almost be drawn to dark energies because subconsciously maybe I thought it would help me grow or something. Why did they make me feel dark? Okay. Well I have something to work on obviously. So who knows why, but I just – fuck all that. For me, just the people that were involved in this album were all handpicked by me and I just naturally gravitated towards them.
When you were rediscovering that love of music, what did you find yourself gravitating towards and what was that communicating to you?
I wanted to release “The Devil” first, just because I had that idea at 3:00 AM one night: How do I overcome the demons in my life? You can’t be this polite angel. You have to be stronger and meaner than a demon. You have to be, what is that? A devil. I was having so much fun with this concept. I thought: What if there was a devil who was tired of his job and he wanted to retire? He was tired of trying to be bad all the time. And there was a girl who was tired of trying to be perfect all the time. And then they kind of found this kinship and were like, let’s switch places.
And that’s the concept, how the song came together. I was fucking around with it. I was cracking up when I first said, “I’m the devil and I speed. Put the pedal on the gas.” And I think it was playful and funny to me because I was just being spunky. I think with art also, it’s just art. It’s just creating. It’s just to express yourself. It’s not so serious. That bass line carries the whole song and I just did it all in the middle of the night and it was just fun. And then, I brought in a few other people to help me finish it off, which can be inspiring too once you’re in a hole with a song.
You’ve toyed with ideas of these different female archetypes across your albums. What role does the serpent serve for this record in particular?
Serpentina just sounds like an intimidating, powerful, dangerous female deity to me, someone you don’t want to mess with. Not in a scary way and not even in a dark way, just in a really empowered way. And I think that the word serpentine, I used to doodle all the time in cursive when I was in like eighth and ninth grade, I just thought it was the prettiest word. And when I was thinking of what I wanted this album to be called, I started doodling serpentine everywhere. I put an A on the end and it kind of felt like a divine creature. Snakes in general represent rebirth, shedding one’s skin. And I think for me, letting go of the past is a big... it’s a joy maker or a joy killer.
I think when you’re really holding onto the past, you can’t be present and you can’t really be proud or even have much gratitude in that moment because you’re just so focused on something you think either you messed up or you should have done differently. With snakes, they shed their skin and they keep slithering forward. They’re not trying to crawl back into that white little shell that they leave behind. They just leave it and they’re not thinking about it. And there’s something really joyful about that and free because it’s no pressure. Just keep moving forward. And I think that because of that presentness, there’s a new brightness and warmth to this album that I haven’t really had.
“I Still Love You” is a song that you’ve sat with for a long time – what was it like revisiting that and finally sharing it with an audience after holding it so close?
I think that it’s like what I was saying about letting go of the past. I think I was holding onto it so tight, because I knew it was such a special song. What if when I released it, it didn’t get what it deserved? I was so precious about it. I was anxious, almost, that it wouldn’t... What if the production didn’t bring to light its beauty? What if people didn’t understand how special it was?
That song, for some reason, was so personal and it always felt kind of private to me, kind of like I wrote it before anything happened with my career. And I just wanted to keep it to myself. Thinking about the past and idealizing the past, I just wanted it to be in the present. I didn’t want it to represent a time in my twenties anymore. I wanted it to represent me now at 33, even though I wrote it back then. And I didn’t want to hold onto it anymore. I wanted everybody else to hear it. And you can’t control anything anyways.
How do you put that in conversation with how you’ve grown as an artist?
Well, big question. I think the soul of myself as a musician – people get better at writing, get better at production, but the soul of who they are as an artist, their uniqueness as an artist, is always who they are. And I think that “I Still Love You” I wrote however long ago, before I knew anything about anything in this business, and the fact that it still works is kind of nice.
And it’s the same sentiment as when I started producing on my own. I started realizing like, wow, it really has been me the whole time. Those times of insecurities where people have come in and out of my career where I felt anxious, like, what if I need them? What if without them, I won’t be able to do X, Y, and Z? None of that is real. You just need yourself.
Opening the record with “Misunderstood” was a really powerful statement to have right off the bat, too.
It’s just a grounded, at peace with where you’re at sentiment. And it’s okay if other people don’t get it because you don’t need to get me – this is me and my music is me. I love how it builds. It starts with these really soft, really just chords and my vocals sung pretty soft and smooth. And then it just orchestrally just grows a lot and there’s a change at the end and there’s drums and it just gets bigger and bigger. And it’s really short and sweet. It’s just like a nice little intro kind of saying like, “Hey, you’re about to enter this world. This is my world. I created it. This is me. And that’s it.”
What does it mean to you to have such full control over your music?
I remember before anything happened in my career, I thought, “I don’t care what happens. I just want to get signed.” I remember having that thought. Yeah, I think every artist should try and own their own masters and own their own music. It’s the ultimate form of independence. Art and business are so separate, but I am a fucking businesswoman. It allows you to be your own decision maker when you own your own music and when you can decide: What is the single? What song comes next? Do I want to make a visual for it? If not, why not? If I do, how am I going to make this happen? It builds your character as an artist and a person. It makes you tougher in a good way.
Like you said, you are bringing people into a whole separate world that you built on your own and it stands on its own in a really intricate way. It’s too delicate to hand off to someone else.
Yeah. It’s kind of psychotic what we do as artists, like pretty much just barf out our insides, the most personal, vulnerable parts of us and then just give it to this world – especially in these days where social media is so toxic and people just can sit behind a computer and say whatever they want. You have to be a little nuts to do this, for sure. But, I think that it really helps when you are strong in who you are and when you believe in what you do.
What do you want this album to encapsulate for you when you look back at it in the future?
I think the time in my life that I really started accepting who I am, and because of that, flourishing. I think when you hold onto things so tight, sometimes they can’t grow. For me, this is like I had such a growth spurt because I finally just exhaled. I’m always going to think of this album no matter what happens with it, just because it’s so meaningful for me. It’s something that represents when I really feel I became kind of like an adult, independent woman, really, not needing so much from others.