Freak Folk's Very Own Pied Piper

NY Times | by Alec Hanley Bemis

Devendra Banhart may be the most prolific, but other members of the freak-folk family are critics' darlings, too.


ON a brisk November evening, a hundred earnest young men and women lined up outside a church just off Harvard Square. Bundled up against the brisk November cold, they did not look like a typical crowd of Boston churchgoers: many of the men wore shaggy beards, and one girl sported what looked like pigeon wings mounted to the ankles of her boots.

Inside, guitar amplifiers and a drum set stood in place of the pulpit; the bibles and prayer books had been removed from the pews and stacked in neat piles to the left of the stage. By 9:30 p.m. the audience was quietly seated, ready to watch Devendra Banhart, a handsome, unshaven young man with long black hair, no fixed address and a musical style that has been described as avant-folk or freak-folk.

Mr. Banhart, 23, is the most prominent of a highly idealistic pack of young musicians whose music is quiet, soothing and childlike, their lyrics fantastic, surreal and free of the slightest trace of irony. The albums released by this loosely affiliated gang of musicians include 22-year-old Joanna Newsom's densely poetic "Milk-Eyed Mender," created almost exclusively with classical harp and voice; the blissful, energetic "Sung Tongs" by New York's Animal Collective; and "Homesongs," from a 27-year-old British performer named Adem, whose warm acoustic moods and liberal use of autoharp and harmonium are reminiscent of an age when pop musicians from the West first discovered the sounds of the Far East.

Many of these musicians are friendly with one another, which makes their popularity seem less like a fad than like the work of a gang of friends who have suddenly come into their own. And they are all critics' darlings: just count how many of these records dot this month's top 10 lists. (This summer, the voice-of-youth novelist Dave Eggers wrote about his addiction to Ms. Newsom's music in Spin magazine.)

But what they share most strongly is a willingness to create their own peculiar idioms. Ms. Newsom's voice is high-pitched, her songs complex and rollicking, her lyrics ornate and Victorian. ("But that vestal light/it burns out with the night/in spite of all the time that we spent on it:/one bedraggled ghost of a sonnet!") By contrast, Animal Collective's loose, echo-filled music seems honed from hours of improvisation, while Mr. Banhart's equally free associative work often sounds like obsessive sketches never intended for public consumption. Indeed, much of his 2002 debut, "Oh Me Oh My..." was filled with abbreviated fragments of voice and guitar that he'd left on friends' answering machines.

In addition to being its cheerleader and ambassador, Mr. Banhart is the most prolific member of this set, having put out two albums in 2004, "Rejoicing in the Hands" in April and "Nino Rojo" in September. His following is still tiny - he has sold only about 50,000 CD's to date - but each album has sold twice as many copies as the previous one, and in a matter of months he has gone from attracting 75 Boston concertgoers at a time to 500.

This summer Mr. Banhart gathered tracks from many of his friends for a compilation entitled "Golden Apples of the Sun." It doubled as an incentive to subscribe to a free monthly called Arthur, billed as a modern-day incarnation of a 1960's underground newspaper. His tightly etched illustrations decorate his records and the original versions have been included in a handful of group exhibitions in New York and in a new solo show.

In an interview before his Cambridge performance, Mr. Banhart explained, "Sometimes a song starts as a drawing, sometimes a drawing starts as a song." He flipped through a booklet of his drawings of swirls, beaks, beards and hands. The images are handmade, intimate and inscrutable. They typify his profoundly personal approach; his music seems created for private enjoyment. As he sings on "This Is the Way" from his second album: "This is the sound that swims inside me/That circle sound is what surrounds me/This is the land that grows around me."

After the show, Mr. Banhart explained: "All of us have known each other for a long time. It's not music made for magazines or labels, it's made for each other. If you were to ask me how I feel about any of the term freak-folk, it's cool - you have to call it something - but we didn't name it. We've been thinking about what to call it, and we just call it the Family."

As anyone who lived through the 60's remembers, that is the name Charles Manson's followers gave themselves. But Mr. Banhart feels a different connection to the era: "If there's anyone we relate to, it's our moms and dads, and older hippies, people into Eastern philosophies and new age, in the sense that if you look at the seed of every religion, it's all the same, so let's start our own vague one based on love and peace and unity and going within. I suppose we like that kind of hippie as opposed to the white-dreaded, hackie-sack-playing Dave Matthew's hippie."

But as he continues talking, Mr. Banhart starts to make fun of himself. "We also burn patchouli daily," he said. "We all carry a little scent of it, at the practice space sage is a must, and we try to drink organic beers."

Back onstage at First Church in Cambridge, Mr. Banhart introduced his bandmates as Bear Landscape, Vetiver and Viking Moses, who wore a garland of flowers. Only later did he use their given names: the bassist is Brendon Massei; the drummer, Jimi Hey; and the guitarist, Andy Cabic. Mr. Banhart doesn't need a pseudonym: his highly theatrical name, which means "king of gods" in Hindi, was suggested to his parents by Prem Rawat, a controversial, self-proclaimed spiritual leader who has since been denounced by many of his former followers. (Mr. Banhart's parents also had a sense of humor; his middle name, Obi, comes from the Jedi master played by Alec Guinness in "Star Wars.")

It's this sensibility - one part spiritual, one part absurd - that Mr. Banhart seems intent on spreading. He's like a young Cat Stevens, just as likely to be perceived as a clown as a prophet. Take the band's cover, near the end of the concert, of "Step in the Name of Love," a top 40 hit by R. Kelly, the scandal-ridden R&B performer.

"This is where the free dancing comes in - look, I'll start," Mr. Banhart said, squirming in a controlled way, like a flower child take on break dancing. About a quarter of the audience complied; many seemed oblivious to the song's origins. The night culminated with several extended, dub-heavy songs in a style Mr. Banhart has referred to as space reggae. He called one song "I'm a White Hippie Troll."

How does Mr. Banhart convince hundreds of people to dance along to earnest songs with such silly titles? One answer comes from Vashti Bunyan, 59, a British songwriter who faded into obscurity for more than three decades, abandoning music to journey by horse-drawn wagon to an artists' colony in Scotland founded by the singer Donovan. Mr. Banhart credits her reply to a fan letter as the inspiration for sustaining his career, and she's become a touchstone, collaborating with both Mr. Banhart and Animal Collective.

"I feel much the same way now as I felt when I left London at the turn of the 70's," Ms. Bunyan said in an interview. "Ten years ago, people weren't that involved in American politics, and now it's the first thing you look at, as it was during the Vietnam War."

The solution to problems with public affairs, she suggests, is music that is as private as possible: "It's a particularly difficult time to look at the world, and maybe right now it just easier to create your own."