Devendra BanhartBeing Devendra Founder of the Swans, a now defunct avant-garde rock band, and Young God Records owner, Michael Gira, has high praise for one of his artists. Â“I personally think that if I had more resources here, he could be the next Beck or something. HeÂ’s guileless. I feel very protective of him entering into the fray of the disgusting music businessÂ… He just kind of wanders about and people seem to gravitate to him and want to take care of him.Â” HeÂ’s speaking of Devendra Banhart, a new kind of American mystic, a Cat Stevens look-a-like and a fellow who seems to be tapped into gods, demons and otherworldly characters in general.
When seeing Banhart live, thereÂ’s an immediate and undeniable attraction to him. He possesses a sort of dark, chiseled beauty, his voice is as clear as a birds, and he can seemingly hit whichever notes he wishes too, and his nylon-stringed guitar sounds like the lute of an angel. Then he sings, and youÂ’re not quite sure what it is heÂ’s singing about, but you can hear the words and they sound weird and cool, and Banhart strings them along with his voice unhindered by syllables and structure.
So, then you go and get all his albums cause you really canÂ’t believe what you saw, and then you canÂ’t believe what you hear. The songs sound even weirder because theyÂ’re stripped of all their surface prettiness, mainly due to the fact that many of them are recorded on an answering machine or simple one to four track machines. BanhartÂ’s voice, which sounds affable live, sounds demented on record, and his soft guitar patterns become piercing due to the archaic technology.
In the brief and flighty e-mail interview he granted us, Banhart was elusive. When I asked if the lo-fi approach suited him, he answered, Â“yes, itÂ’s a shame, i would rather come over and play you a song everytime you want to hear a tune oÂ’ mine.Â”
By the voluminous words he picks for his album titles (his debut was titled simply, Oh Me Oh My... How the Day Goes By the Sun is Setting the Dogs are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit , and his next album will be called Rejoicing in the Hands of the Low Ring Empress How Oh How Her Beards Follow Me Floatingly ), it should have been obvious that Banhart would want the music to speak for him, no matter how much he would have to say.
Greil Marcus described Dock Boggs as someone Â“who sounded as if his bones were coming through his skin every time he opened his mouth.Â” Banhart seems to be in touch with the same sort of occultism that Nick Drake or Boggs recalled. Â“Yes, Nick Drake and Dock Boggs are very important to me,Â” he wrote, Â“Clarence Ashley, Carlisle Brothers, Memphis Minnie, Roscoe Holcomb, Willie Johnson, Charley Patton, they all matter lots too, the most really.Â”
These comparisons often accompany any performer that mines the junkyard of the American folk tale alone, but never before do they fit so seamlessly and correctly. Banhart sings of sparse imagery and ancient problems. There is a world-weary instinct within his voice that is offset by a zeal for the experience, something not evident in post-modern, alterna-singer/songwriters.
Â“IÂ’ve never told this story to another living soul / for fear it might awaken and the story would unfold,Â” Banhart sings in his composition Â“Cosmos and Demos,Â” tempting a linear development from Robert JohnsonÂ’s Â“Preaching BluesÂ” to BoggsÂ’s Â“Pretty PollyÂ” to DrakeÂ’s Â“Black Eyed Dog.Â” These are tales of caution, but in the determinist sense that prevention is unobtainable.
Side projects still exist in the BanhartÂ’s world, as they must for struggling artists. Along with his solo career, he is also involved with painting and drawing (he has done all his own cover art and was, at one time or another, preparing a book) as well as playing in electric bands including Vetiver, a psychedelic folk group also slated to put out a record on Young God. Â“i play in Vetiver when we are on the same coast , i have a band called the Black babies and we do Bo Diddley, reggae sorta stuff, Alton Ellis, Desmond Dekker sorta stuff, and a new age project called pinky lighty and the glowy glowwy wow mmmmmm, is on its way!Â”
The Decentralized Beginnings
Devendra was born in Texas in May of 1981. His parents were devotees of a charismatic cult figure, an Indian spiritual leader named Prem Rawat, or Maharaji. Rawat named the new child Devendra, which is Hindi for Â“king of gods.Â” His middle name, Obi, was given to him by his mother after the Star Wars character Obi-Wan Kenobi. Then, at the age of three, DevendraÂ’s dad was nabbed for selling drugs.
Â“Then, after a few years, i moved to Caracas Venezuela,Â” Devendra wrote, Â“and I lived there, with my family. In Caracas, everythingÂ’s fucked, but I love my grandmother, whom fed whisky to me from her pinky, paid me to touch my earlobes, and let me pull her elbow flab. As I first became a teen-ager, my mother remarried and we moved to California, into a canyon, Encinal Canyon. I began to play music.Â”
By all accounts, high school was not a favorable time for Devendra. He went through common sorts of personality changes as true outcasts must, and Devendra was not only outcast and different, but an immigrant.
For college, Devendra attended the prestigious San Francisco Academy of Art College. His first show was at the marriage ceremony of his two roommates, two performers, an Elvis impersonator called Jerry Elvis and Bob the Crippled Comic. He performed the standard Â“How Great Though ArtÂ” and backed Jerry Elvis on a surely intense Â“Love Me Tender.Â”
He then spent time within Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris, living in interesting places like squats or an abandoned pirate ship turned into a nightclub in Paris, until Gira was given one of DevendraÂ’s tapes. Banhart then moved to New York to work for Young God Records.
When asked about how this traveling affected his writing, he replied, Â“i dont know. iÂ’m sure it has, you see ive never stayed in one place so i dont know how different my writing would be if i had, im sure it would be similar, i write about details.Â”
At a young age, Banhart has borne out a lifetime of hindrances, characters and austerity. But the poor do eventually inherit the Earth, and the dividends are beginning to be offered BanhartÂ’s way. Not that he is biting. Despite being courted by major labels, Banhart is seemingly intent on remaining with Gira and Young God. His to reply to the question of his feelings on GiraÂ’s above speculations and Beck comparisons was, Â“scientology!!!!!Â” His story is broad and vague, and fictitious and grand in its scope like all folk heroes. Â“Partly truth and partly fiction,Â” Kris Kristofferson once wrote of Johnny Cash. Devendra Banhart walks those same lines, a reality all to himself.