2004's Artist of the YearDEVENDRA BANHART SPINS A SPELL At 23, new folksinger Devendra Banhart has the whole world in front of him. His 2002 debut album, the one with the preposterously long title Oh Me Oh My ...The Way The Day Goes By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit rocked the critics with its ditzy, open-hearted warblings, and made him a name to watch. And watch we all did, only to be treated with two of 2004's most pristine records. April saw the release of Rejoicing In The Hands, and Nino Rojo emerged in September. On the two albums, Banhart's ties to traditional American folk and blues are even more evident, as are intimations of previously undeclared affinities to Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch. The spiritual purity of his songs is startlingly striking because the studio environment of their birth has removed a big part of the cloying witchiness of the debut, leaving you with old-fashioned songs that concern themselves with the important, small things in life. On Rejoicing In The Hands 's closer "Autumn's Child", Banhart's high voice quivers like a feather above a soft, piano line. Nino Rojo takes Banhart even further from the early Syd Barrett and Marc Bolan comparisons. It's even more stripped down, and burrows into a locus where folk meets blues in a very primitive way. On "My Ships", he sings: "My fists are plastic dice, oh the shape of the sun" and delivers it so offhandedly that it smacks you like an epiphany. The gospel-ness of the line is hard to pin down, not because it has no true tie to organized religion but because Banhart obviously intends his music to be as much about good fun and great songs as about absolute truths.
In 2004, Banhart wowed audiences in the UK and Europe, and contributed guitar and vocal parts to San Francisco band Vetiver's debut record. The evidence on his newest releases show that the quirky edges have been sandpapered away to allow hitherto unseen directness to shine right through. This young man, who was once a homeless drifter, is Beta's Artist of 2004. His two albums Rejoicing in the Hands and Nino Rojo are a tie for the #2 album of the year. He speaks to Beta's Lee Chung Horn about Michael Gira and Young God, homelessness and music, and, oh, dreaming...
Hi Devendra. I understand your mother is Venezuelan. What about your dad? Where were you born?
Well, I was born in Houston, Texas. My biological father is Texan. I don't really know that much about him except that he was a soybean farmer, and wrote a book called "What if Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed all had Dinner?"
A lot of the press concerning you said you were homeless. Were you ever?
Yeah, for a little while. That was in New York, and also right now, I guess, only now it's a different type of homeless! I'm a wealthy bum now! Whereas before, it was real homelessness.
How did you meet Michael Gira of Young God? Did you know he was in Swans?
I didn't know the Swans' music but I knew about them. Michael sent me a ten-page letter and two albums by his Angels of Light - How I Loved You and New Mother. My mind was blown and I made up to move!
How did your 2002 debut album come about? Many of the songs on "Oh Me Oh My..." were not recorded in studios. Some were mischievously left as messages on friends' answering machines while you were living in Paris. Others were taped on a hand-held recorder. Were the songs touched up in any way?
Zero! We just released it as it was. In the words of Coco Rosie, it was very much a documentary as opposed to a film.
But were you satisfied with the way "Oh Me Oh My..." came out in terms of recording quality?
Well, you know, satisfaction is not the feeling, just an "it is what it is" feeling.
Your bio says you lived in San Francisco before New York City. What was life like in San Francisco?
I had very good friends in San Francisco. It was an incredibly open city to itself though it was closed to the world. New York was the opposite, it was a closed city but very open to the world.
Your second album "Rejoicing in the Hands" was done in Alabama and Georgia. Gira said: "When it came time to record new music we were of course faced with the quandary of how to go about it - does he continue making hiss-saturated home recordings, or do we go into a "professional" studio? We mutually decided that it was best to move on. Why should Banhart be ghetto-ized as a possible low-fi crank/eccentric?" Did you agree?
No, because we recorded it in a house with studio equipment, so it was like Oh Me Oh My... but with a bigger four-track!
I was personally very impressed with the new album. It's beautifully recorded and the songs seem more fleshed out and realized than the first.
Yes, the songs had time to grow and evolve. Distill might be a good word for it, we added moonshine and mead to a fine fig liquor!
How long did it take to write the songs for the second album?
It took one year for the two records.
How did you hook up with Vashti Bunyan?
A very long time ago, before I had played a show in my life, I sent her my music and we became friends. She is the reason I play music live.
I understand you toured the US recently. How did the US tour with Joanna Newsom & the band Vetiver go?
Oh man, oh man, it was wild! You see, I really think Joanna is a super being , a genius of the highest order, so it was inspiring and humbling as hell. And Vetiver, well, shit, they're sitting next to me right now! We're in Spain practising at this moment. The whole tour was great, it felt like being on tour with my family really.
I understand there was an earlier tour supporting Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man? How was that?
I don't remember that, I guess it was an uptight and intoxicated affair.
You're heading to the UK in August for shows. Any hopes and fears? Any thoughts?
Many hopes, many fears, but no thoughts!
What is your part in Vetiver?
I was shoeshine boy, masseur, goatee trimmer, toe nail clipper, blue blocker supplier, pez dispenser, bottle opener.
You are 22 years old. Do you think the songs you write in the future would change as you become older?
Well, I'm 23 now and I've been writing more music to get up and dance to as opposed to sit down and listen.
Thank you. Love and grace to Singapore!