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Electropop star BANKS got into music after feeling "unheard"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISUNDERSTOOD")

BANKS: (Singing) If I had just one penny for...

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

1.4 billion streams - it's made BANKS well-known, but how well understood?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISUNDERSTOOD")

BANKS: (Singing) Please let me be, please let me be misunderstood, oh, please...

SIMON: This month, the singer released her fourth album, "Serpentina." It slithers, if you please, through electrosoul and hip-hop to tell stories of heartbreak, apathy and uplift.

BANKS joins us now from Southern California. Thanks so much for being with us.

BANKS: Oh, thanks for having me. What an honor to be here.

SIMON: Well, it's an honor for me to talk to somebody who our daughters admire, so...

BANKS: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...So tell me about being misunderstood. I mean, is that where art begins?

BANKS: I don't think always. I think sometimes it is definitely, you know, like putting out an album, and it's pretty much like releasing your diary entries to the world. And I think that, in order to do that, you can't care what people think, and you have to kind of, like, use obstacles as fuel to become stronger. So I think kind of saying, it's OK if you don't misunderstand me, but please misunderstand me, it's kind of like saying, like, I'm good either way.

SIMON: So many different musical genres on this album - gospel, pop, electronic, hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLDING BACK")

BANKS: (Singing) Cause love is holding back.

SIMON: You grew up in the San Fernando Valley, right?

BANKS: I grew up, yeah, in Tarzana.

SIMON: What's the term - 818 Girl?

BANKS: Yeah, always and forever.

SIMON: So help us understand the kind of influences that went through your artistic imagination growing up.

BANKS: Well, music for me stemmed from feeling unheard. I just was having a really hard time around 15, 16, and I found a keyboard. I remember I put this one stream of consciousness, a few sentences, I put it to, like, three notes. It just felt so good. It made me feel heard when nobody was listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLDING BACK")

BANKS: (Singing) I remember when you locked us out. We had to climb in through the window, how lifted me up, was on the second floor, and I always loved that story.

Definitely growing up, I was really into, you know, Ben Harper, Fiona Apple, Lauryn Hill, Tracy Chapman - voices like that where you could really feel their soul. You know, I love voice cracks. I love all that stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLDING BACK")

BANKS: (Singing) All I want to do is...

The more human, the better. And humans are so imperfect, even though we all try to be perfect. And so a lot of the times, art does start from that for people.

SIMON: What about the name "Serpentina"?

BANKS: "Serpentina" - well, when I was younger, when I was about, like, 14 or 15, I would doodle the word serpentine in class all the time, like, in cursive. I just thought it looked really pretty. I just liked the word. And when I was thinking of the album name for this body of work, I all the sudden started doodling the word serpentine again, like how I did when I was younger, and I was like, that's so weird. I haven't seen that in a while. Like, I haven't done that in a while. And then I started thinking about, like, what snakes represent. And snakes shed their skin, and they don't try and, like, crawl back in their skin. They let it go, and they're in their new skin, and they just keep slithering away. So I was like, I am serpentine, and this is "Serpentina."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DEVIL")

BANKS: (Singing) Someone write my new name down. Someone write my new name down. Someone write my new name down.

SIMON: You - I gather you had to go through a lot while making this album.

BANKS: Yeah, I mean, quarantine was crazy for everybody. And for me, I had just been coming out of kind of a really tough year, 2019, for me. I was touring my last album, "III," and I fractured my spine, like, a few months before it started, and I had to take all these steroid epidurals just to be able to move. And I got laryngitis, and then I lost my voice, and I had to take more steroid shots for my voice in order to be able to sing. It was just, like, constantly sick the whole year, on antibiotics on and off, on steroids on and off. And I pushed through so hard that, mentally and physically, I kind of, like, fell to the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DEVIL")

BANKS: (Singing) Cause I'm the devil now.

SIMON: I've got to ask you about the song with the title - with the name we can't repeat on the air - "F-word (ph) Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "F*** LOVE")

BANKS: (Singing) I'll be on the road when you want it. Kiss me on the go if you want it. Don't say I'm your only, ay.

SIMON: I mean, love's the only thing that lasts. What's your problem with love?

BANKS: (Laughter) I have no problem with love. I think this song, ironically, is more kind of about self-love, even though it's called "F Love." It's kind of like, don't give me a rose. I don't want it. Don't give me a throne because I got one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "F*** LOVE")

BANKS: (Singing) Sneak up on me out of lust. Lucky something's good enough. Tell me one thing...

There's, like, a societal expectation that you should be with someone. When I was, like, single - I was, like, single for a while - it was like, I would run into people after a really long time, and the first like, hey, how are you? Are you dating anyone? And it's kind of interesting because why is that the first question? So that song kind of is bred from that feeling where it's like, no, and I don't need anyone. F it.

Ironically, I actually met somebody, like, really soon after I wrote that song (laughter). And...

SIMON: Really?

BANKS: Yeah (laughter).

SIMON: Well, it's none of my business, but I'm still glad you met someone.

BANKS: (Laughter) Thanks. That's sweet.

SIMON: So let me ask you about another song, if we can, and this is "Spirit."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPIRIT")

BANKS: (Singing) Baby, when I feel like, feel like giving up, something in my spirit tells me I ain't had enough.

SIMON: There's such a great rising swell of hope in this song.

BANKS: Yeah, that song's so special. I've always been into, like, gospel. And my friend Samoht, who sings on it, has the most gorgeous voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPIRIT")

SAMOHT: (Singing) Through the rough, diamonds seem to shine the most. Angels surround to love me close.

BANKS: It's kind of just saying, don't give up, and lift yourself up, and it will be OK. No matter how down you get, there is something in your spirit that's like, I have not had enough. It's not my time. I can keep going. And this song, it feels like there's a warmth and a brightness to it that is so necessary in the world and to this album and to me. And yeah, it was just a blessing to make.

SIMON: How are you doing now?

BANKS: I feel like I'm in a really good place as a woman, as a person. I've always executive produced my albums, but this last few years, I've gotten really into Ableton, and I co-produced this album, and I own my own masters for the first time, so I'm just in control in a really real way, not the way where you have to, like, overshoot it and be, like, raising your voice. I feel, like, calmly in control, and it feels really good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I STILL LOVE YOU")

SIMON: BANKS - her new album with an old name, "Serpentina." Thank you so much for being with us.

BANKS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I STILL LOVE YOU")

BANKS: (Singing) Sure, I know I haven't been around. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.