Man vs. nature

Montreal Mirror | by LORRAINE CARPENTER

Devendra Banhart keeps the peace

"I play guitar poorly and sing poorly," says singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart, going against the tide of critical acclaim that has gathered and grown around him since 2002's Oh Me Oh My the Way the Day Goes by the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit. That LP was followed last year by Black Babies and this year by two more albums, Rejoicing in the Hands and Nino Rojo, all bearing his antique folk simplicity, Eastern streaks, quivering vocals and quaint poetry. Born in Texas and raised in Caracas and California, Banhart and his family followed the teachings of Maharaji Prem Rawat, who named him - Devendra means "king of gods." For over two years, Banhart has lived on the road, but he hopes to settle someday in either Cape Breton, Mexico or Woodstock, N.Y. (no surprise there). The Mirror caught up with the nomadic artiste - currently on tour with his other project, a band called Vetiver - to discuss plastic surgery, Mother Nature's scab and his mysterious book.

Mirror: I've read several different descriptions of the book you're writing. Is it a cookbook? Is it fiction?

Devendra Banhart: Well, I haven't thought about that. Andy Cabic from Vetiver is helping me edit it. It's nowhere near done. I guess it's a folk story about Indians, snails, mosquitoes and energy.

M: I notice you've lived in lots of cities, but your lyrics seem so influenced by nature.

DB: Nature's all around us. You can find nature in your cell phone. Really. There's an essential ingredient in a cell phone that you can only find in a tree in Africa - did you just say something about Ethiopia?

M: No.

DB: Oh, okay, it must be R. Kelly. I'm listening to this R. Kelly song called "Peace," and what a song this is! Holy shamoly! "Happy people, you saved me" - amazing!

M: Does your music have that effect on people?

DB: Oh, I could only wish!

M: So, are you at all inspired by urban settings?

DB: Not so much, because they're less welcoming to human beings. It's weird that we walk on paved streets, but under it there's earth. It's such a huge "fuck you" to Mother Nature. We're like this scab on our Mother's body and she's just gonna pick it off.

M: I read that your family hired plastic surgeons to make your dogs look like your grandmother, and that this is a standard practice in Venezuela. What the hell is that about?

DB: Oh yeah, Venezuela has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world! They don't have any culture of their own, globalization has annexed that completely. There's no films, books, songs - they exist, but have you heard of any? Do you know what I mean? Plastic surgery is cheap and groovy, so they probably said, "Hey, let's be good at something," and got obsessed with vanity the way America got obsessed with money and oil. I mean, the average Venezuelan looks at themselves in the mirror more than 300 times an hour. They have beauty pageants starting in kindergarten and then they have them in women's jails and in the old folks' homes. Venezuelans take pride in their plastic noses.