How singer and songwriter Devendra Banhart makes music to get weird to

Kalamazoo Gazette

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Devendra Banhart is a doozy.

Even the multitalented singer-songwriter's publicist mumbles something about "dealing with these hippies" and a cell phone battery "literally melting down" as he reschedules a phone interview for the second time.

Then, when you finally get Banhart on the phone, he's on the road in the tour van with his friend's band, Vetiver, with whom he's playing as a guest acoustic guitarist. Flamenco blares in the background -- and he tries to interview you, saying what you're doing as a cub reporter is more interesting than his little life playing his little songs for people, which he'll do Saturday night at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids. As bloody if.

"Where did you grow up?" he asks. "Why do you write about words? What do words mean to you and why?" he blurts in a stream-of-consciousness staccato. The new battery on his cell phone cuts out as he seems to say something about a leprechaun.

You play the "Can you hear me now?" game until he's ungarbled.

"It's just that my phone is very unbatteryish," he says. "I charged it. No big deal at all."

He gushes for a moment about Vetiver. "They're just, like, my favorite musicians. Andy Cabic, from San Francisco, he's the main songwriter. We all orbit around his songs. ... You would flip your brains and heart out if you heard it."

For someone who seems as zany as Banhart, he writes incredibly pretty, cerebral things -- sort of like what Cat Stevens' and Nick Drake's love child would sing itself to sleep with if it sniffed a lot of glue before bedtime.

At least, that's where his music stands for now.

Banhart says he's moving into a reggae direction. He recently concluded a tour with the Queens of Sheeba, during which they performed "reggaefied versions of my songs" half the time and covers of reggae classics the rest.

He says he's serious about the reggae thing, but this little boy certainly seems to cry wolf. He also said he's pitched a "mushed banana" cookbook for which he's collected 500 recipes.

Things get even more nebulous when Banhart is asked whether he's sporting his Charles Manson look (the resemblance to the "Helter Skelter" cult of personality is creepy, especially since Banhart is only 23) or his cleaner-cut look, which is surprisingly handsome for a Manson look-alike. He defends Manson as an "underdog for the free thinkers of the planet" who lived in communion with "ATWA" (air, trees, water and animals).

"As for what I've been wearing -- a lot of fake beanie hats with the dreads with them," he said. "I just went online and ordered some Dave Matthews apparel. And I've got Lenny Kravitz's contact lenses on right now. I'm also wearing the carcass of a bear."

While some of the sparse info on Banhart seems incongruous, it's true he's a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and a former itinerant.

"This is how it goes," he said. "I moved to America (from Caracas, Venezuela). I went to the San Fran Art Institute, dropped out and moved to New York. That's where the aforementioned lack of a place to live due to no money happened."

Banhart moved from being a squatter into a proper apartment during the studio work on his first album, "Oh Me Oh My" (Young Gods, 2002). But it was his other day job -- not music -- that helped put an end to couch-surfing.

"It wasn't because I put out a record," he said. "I was busing tables at a vegan hell-house, a fascist pit of greed and macrobiotic cooking."

He ditched his own vegetarian ways when a "pixie goddess" named Joanna, with whom he was dining, ordered a "plate of bacon."

"I thought: 'What the f--- am I doing? I'll have the bacon as well,'" he said. "I also ordered a hamburger."

Pinning down such an eclectic artist to a recording studio was a quandary for Michael Gira, former frontman of goth greats The Swans and owner of Young Gods Records, Banhart's label.

"Does he continue making hiss-saturated home recordings, or do we go into a 'professional' studio?" Gira recalls musing, in press materials for Banhart. "We mutually decided that it was best to move on -- why should he be ghettoized as a possible low-fi crank/eccentric? Besides, his songwriting and his guitar playing (in my opinion) have taken such leaps and bounds forward, that we were compelled to record them in a way that made it possible to really hear the performances clearly."

The split-the-difference solution came when Banhart was invited to record in Lynn Bridges' home studio on the Alabama/Georgia border. Banhart submitted 57 songs, of which 32 were recorded on vintage equipment during 12-hour-per-day sessions for 10 days. Little was added in post-production, and the cicada choruses remain from when Banhart recorded at night with the windows open.

In those 10 days, the quirky, prolific singer-songwriter recorded two full-length albums.