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Banks Breaks Out at SXSW

As the festival entered the homestretch, Banks, née Jillian Banks, was still wrapping her head around the fact she had three showcases on the schedule.

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As the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Tex., entered the homestretch last week, one of the most arresting acts in the music lineup was still wrapping her head around the fact she had not one, but three showcases on the schedule. It was Thursday, and Banks, née Jillian Banks, was at the Four Seasons hotel making time until midnight, when she would be the second-to-last act to take the stage at the Hype Hotel. She wore black Helmut Lang from head to toe.

“This is my first time playing a festival ever,” she said.

This is just the beginning. With a touring stint with critically acclaimed band The Weeknd already under her belt, an upcoming international tour of her own and a full-length album due out this summer of her brand of moody, electro R&B, the raspy-voiced brunette is poised to break out on both sides of the Atlantic. On Thursday, she performs at the Trinity Centre in Bristol, England, and in April she’s at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., where social media somebodies can turn into mainstream sensations overnight.

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The 25-year-old Los Angeles native, a former University of Southern California psychology student, was first noticed last year in the U.K. after BBC Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe somehow got hold of her first song, “Before I Ever Met You,” which was posted just on her private account on the music-sharing platform SoundCloud, and played it on the air.

“It’s funny,” she mused. “I’ve been writing for 10-plus years just for therapeutic purposes just because it’s my life, but a year and a half ago is when I decided I wanted to open my diary entries, which is what [the songs] are, to the world. It’s been absolutely insane.”

The singer, who considers confessional, “crunchy voices” like Lauryn Hill, Fiona Apple and Tracy Chapman as influences, developed an interest in music at age 15, as her parents were going through a divorce.

“I was going through a really hard time, and I just felt so lonely and helpless and angry,” she said. “I just started playing and these melodies would come out, and it was like the biggest release in the whole world. I was writing about things that sometimes felt kind of shameful, and I needed to feel like it was OK to do that.”

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After the label Good Years Recordings signed her, she released an EP, “London,” last September and has since recorded collaborations with more established acts like Lil Silva, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs and Sohn. “I was so inspired. I had such a breakthrough with my sound that I wrote all this new stuff,” she recalled. One of those songs, “Waiting Game,” appeared in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. With her brooding good looks and lithe frame, Banks could pass as one of the Victoria’s Secret Angels herself, but she said she has found her calling in music.

“This is what I want to do forever, always. I’m a songwriter,” she said. Of her as-yet untitled full-length album, she said: “Oh my God, you can expect Banks, Banks, Banks, Banks, Banks, Banks. My brains, my heart, my blood, my organs.”

On Friday, still in her black Helmut Lang getup, Banks played her third, and final, gig of the week, a 30-minute set. This time she was the headliner.