Banks review – hotline to the new priestess of pop

Trinity, Bristol
Banks is on everyone's Next Big Thing list. This haunting show proves the American R&B star worthy of the hype

(323) 362-2658. That's Jillian Banks's phone number, and she doesn't care who knows it. Like a latterday Quentin Crisp, the alternative R&B newcomer has left her digits in full public view on Facebook for fans to call.

That, however, is all. Banks doesn't "do" social media (she dismissively lets her management run that). Which is, of course, the only smart strategy remaining in this "here's an Instagram of my breakfast" world of celebrity saturation; this era when, as brilliantly suggested by Bowie's The Stars (Are Out Tonight) video, the tables are turned and the famous vampirically stalk the rest of us. In days like these, there's no direction left to go except analogue and old skool, and the forgotten art of leaving 'em wanting more. In that sense, it's only fair that we should have her number, because, figuratively speaking, she has ours.

Anatomy of an anti-hype: this much we know, or have been permitted to by a carefully regulated drip feed. Jillian Banks (for ages, even her first name was secret) was born 25 years ago in Los Angeles, 15 minutes from the beach. Her mother and father separated when she was 14, and Jillian was given a keyboard to help her negotiate a path through the ensuing depression. She began writing songs, then enrolled to study psychology at USC, delivering a thesis on the children of divorced parents (a theme that recurs, cryptically or otherwise, in her work). She's inspired equally by British bedroom-dubstep (Burial, James Blake) and American R&B (Brandy, Aaliyah); she's signed to the revived Harvest label in the States (once home to Pink Floyd and ELO) and Good Years here; she's released two EPs (Fall Over and London), and has worked with UK producers Lil Silva, Jamie Woon, Sohn and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. That, to date, is the sum of Banks knowledge.

Whoever's running this coy campaign – heaven forfend it might be the artist herself – has played a blinder. Already, Katy Perry and Tinie Tempah are fans, Grimmy and Zane are on board, and her music's soundtracked a Victoria's Secret ad.

More importantly, she has appeared on all the Ones to Watch/Next Big Thing lists, from Spin to Spotify, HuffPo to BBC Sound of 2014 (she came third), which always mysteriously coalesce around the same handful of names, as if anointed by unseen power brokers, like the white smoke emanating from the Vatican chimney: habemus popstar. It's almost as if the industry were run by a small cabal of risk-averse corporations, with what remains of the music press happy to regurgitate spoonfed tips so they look eerily prophetic when the foregone conclusion comes to pass.

None of which grubbiness, ought to colour one's response to the artist. Yes, it's easy to see why the biz might welcome a Lorde without the awkward outsiderdom, a Lana without the troublesome vintage baggage, a Grimes without the weirdness. But, while Banks is all of those things, she has significant qualities of her own. "This is such a perfect place to start the tour," she tells Bristol, a city that knows all about slow, sultry beats. And the Trinity, a former church, enhances her priestess-like persona, this slender figure in a simple black dress with her arms outstretched in a vortex of shifting colours, as if in communion.

She's described her music as "dark bluish black with smoke and chants and fire and heart", which oversells it only slightly. A rich, complex blend of booming bass, backwards sighs, ghostly backing vocals and deep beats that seldom creep above heartbeat pace, with a voice that sounds like aniseed tastes, it skilfully assimilates both the noir moods of Tricky and Portishead and the subtly strange sonics of Dallas Austin and Timbaland (acknowledged tonight by a cover of Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody?).

"I wrote this when I was absolutely dying inside," she announces before Bedroom Wall, and her lyrics, when you catch them, carry dark shadows. A break-up is detailed in Before I Ever Met You: "As for our house, I'll move out/ You can keep the dog we trained…" In Change, she bends over backwards to accommodate an emotionally damaged lover: "You would say I need attention, just because I put on makeup to, ironically, look good for you…"

"Writing," she tells us, "was my only way to feel empowered through my weaknesses… and it's important for all women to embrace those things." Many will embrace Banks's haunted downtempo pop this year. And if you don't like it, you know who to call.

• This article was amended on 24 March to correct the name of Banks' UK label


Simon Price

The GuardianTramp

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