Devendra Banhart | Review
New York Sun | MARTIN EDLUND
The Good FightTo kick off his first national tour earlier this year, 21-year-old Devendra Banhart played a free show at Pete's Candy Store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Pete's is a small club, far too small for the crowd of eager fans who turned up to see him play. They didn't seem to recognize him, however, and Banhart had to fight his way to the stage. As he took his place in front of the microphone, a question rippled across the crowd, "Is that him? Is that Devendra?"
It's a natural enough question: Banhart's look and sound don't match up. He is handsome, thin and fey, with shoulder-length hair and a black-and-red beard that make him look a little like Jesus Christ or Che Guevara. Yet, when he opens his mouth, another figure comes to mind: He sounds like a slightly crazed Billie Holiday.
This is but one of the incongruities that define him. The story of his debut album - the wordily titled "Oh Me Oh My ... The Way The Day Goes By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs Of The Christmas Spirit" (Young God Records) - would be a neat bit of mythmaking, were it not true. When the album was released last October, Banhart was living among busted appliances and the detritus of former tenants in an abandoned salsa club on Grand Street in Williamsburg. The album, which won raves from likes of Mojo, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times, had not been recorded on state-of-the-art studio equipment, but on borrowed, often broken, four-tracks and telephone answering machines. Banhart never intended it for release.
Reading reviews, it's clear that critics don't know quite what to make of him either, tending to categorize him as either "outsider music" or "psychedelic folk." Neither term is correct. "Outsider music" implies madness, and to call something "psychedelic folk," in this day and age, suggests a certain degree of willful eccentricity or irony. Banhart is sane and utterly sincere.
The key to understanding how it all fits together may be a single phrase: "Keep Up the Good Fight." It appears on the final page of Banhart's CD booklet, and he signs it at the end of e-mails. It's his mantra: A statement of support for, and solidarity with, all those who operate on the margins of mainstream culture.
It's a peer group unrestricted by time or genre. The walls of Banhart's bedroom (he now rents a room from his label's publicist in Williamsburg) are adorned with photographs of obscure 1960s folk singers Karen Dalton and Vashti Bunyan. He worships them the way a young girl would a teen idol: openly and unabashedly. Whenever Bunyan's name comes up - which is often - he says the same thing: "I want to get plastic surgery to look like her and then marry myself she's so beautiful."
He's equally devoted to the prewar blues men, particularly the Mississippis, John Hurt and Fred McDowell, and eccentric Bahaman guitarist Joseph Spence. When he's out on tour, he hunts through used record bins for albums by little-known children's singer Ella Jenkins, and plans to cover one of her songs on an upcoming compilation. Dalton, Bunyan, Hurt, McDowell, Spence, Jenkins: All are compatriots in the good fight.
Given his fascination with music's fringe characters, it's not surprising that Banhart's own music fit this tradition of untradition. His debut album is so wildly out of step with contemporary music, it seems to belong to another era entirely. As Young God Records owner and former Swans front man Michael Gira puts it, "It sounds almost archival, like something that could be found in someone's attic."
Rummaging through an attic isn't a bad metaphor for hearing the music either: It sounds cobwebbed, full of mystery and hidden meaning. Even when you discover something, you aren't sure what it is, or whether it has significance.
The only instrument on the album is Banhart's acoustic guitar. He plays it in an intricate finger-picking style reminiscent, alternately, of John Hurt and Nick Drake. Occasionally, it sounds almost like a sitar.
Banhart is an admirer of the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias - a Nobel Laureate considered by many to be the father of Magical Realism - and his lyrics plainly show his influence. Banhart's songs tell surreal stories involving a recurring cast of items - spines, birds, skin, teeth, the sea, babies, spiders, snails, ears, tongues, feet - all invested with human or otherwise supernatural qualities. They don't so much interact as flow together down a stream of consciousness.
"Michigan State," the song most often requested at his concerts, is a good example of his free-associated lyrical style:
and if my snail has my favorite slow
then my cold has my favorite snow
but if my snail's cold and comes to a haltbr> then my sea has my favorite salt
the salt keeps the sea from feeling sweet
and my toes have my favorite feet
and if I sweat salt and the earth sweats heat
oh, Michigan Michigan state, how I'd love to live in you.
It's the right language for what Banhart wants to express: magic, terror, beauty, dream. But it's also the language that comes naturally to him. Another song he performs at shows, provisionally titled "How About Telling a Story," speaks directly to his craft. "How about telling a story/one that's really about somebody," he sings. "...But by the time I found a name/I moved onto another game/I'd write a song of toes and spines/'cause I can't think of story lines."
Banhart relates his own life story in the same non-linear fashion: in episodes, lists, bursts. It, too, has the feel of Magical Realism. Call it Magical Reality. The basic facts, as Banhart tells them, are these. He was born in Houston, Texas, on May 30, 1981 to parents who were followers of the Indian spiritual leader Prem Rawat, also known as Maharaji. It was Rawat who gave Banhart his name; Devendra means "king of gods" in Hindi. His middle name is also a spiritual name of sorts: "Obi" after Obi-Wan Kenobi. "My mother probably is not very creative," Banhart says. "First she had someone else name me, and then she named me after a Star Wars character."
When Banhart was three, his father was imprisoned for selling drugs. His parents divorced, and he moved with his mother to her native Caracas, Venezuela. At 13, he returned to the states with his mother and stepfather (another follower of Maharaji) to live in Encino, California, an upper-middle-class neighborhood 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
Devendra Obi Banhart did not fit in. When I asked what the transition to America was like, he answered, "On the first day of school, it was roll call and they named my name and the cool kid in class said 'Yeah, me and her go way back,' and everyone laughed. So it was like that."
Eventually, Banhart did find a community to which he could belong. After graduating high school, he accepted a scholarship to the San Francisco Academy of Art. It was there that he began to focus more seriously on music. His first show was at the gay wedding of his then-roommates, an Elvis impersonator named Jerry Elvis, and a performer called Bob the Crippled Comic. Banhart played a cover of "How Great Thou Art" and backed Jerry Elvis on "Love Me Tender."
After dropping out of art school, he bounced back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and spent four months in Paris, on an old pirate ship turned into a nightclub. Eventually, a homemade CD of his songs found its way to Michael Gira, and Banhart moved to New York to join Young God Records.
It's easy to imagine Banhart - a recent immigrant, the product of a broken home and an unconventional upbringing - as a classic outsider, unable to negotiate the tricky rules of popularity. But this is only part of the story. He seems driven, from an early age, by competing impulses: to ignore convention and quietly go about his business on the one hand, and to flout it, aggressively and publicly, on the other.
The impulse to challenge expectations expressed itself young. At age five, Banhart pierced his ear with a needle, a brazen act of rebellion in conservative Caracas. "All these retarded things started happening," Banhart says. "There was a huge uproar in school. It was crazy. People wanted to beat the sh- out of me. They wanted to kill me."
In the eleventh grade, he attended Malibu High School, which he describes as "a sitcom world" full of "little teeny-bop blond chicks and big jock a--s." It was there that Banhart decided to stage a more elaborate version of the earring incident. "One day I wore a suit to school," he says. "The next day I ripped my pants open and put red paint all over my legs.. I drew all over my arms and I smeared lipstick on my mouth and I parted my hair and I didn't talk. All I said was 'I can see the future.' Then, the next day I dressed like a gangster.. People who had never talked to me before were saying 'Hey, what's up,' and girls were like 'Hey, that kid's cute.' It was amazing. And then the next day I wore a dress, and that was similar to the earring in Venezuela."
This pattern of alternately ignoring and confronting people's expectations poses interesting questions for Banhart's musical future. Though he's done little to court a popular audience, popularity has found him. During the flurry of press attention that followed the release of "Oh Me Oh My," Banhart was approached by two major labels about signing with them. While on tour in Los Angeles, one label even put him up in $400-a-night hotel suite - quite a change of scenery from his Brooklyn squat.
Such inducements mean little to Banhart, however. Several of his heroes - most notably Bunyan and Gira - had disastrous run-ins with the mainstream music business, and Banhart is wary of entering into a Faustian bargain. "I know they don't care about you," Banhart says of the labels, "My stance was 'thank you, but f-- off.'"
Still, it's obvious in talking to him that the idea holds some appeal. Perhaps it's that, for the first time, popularity has come knocking on his door. Like the class misfit asked out by the prom queen, he's both flattered and a little skeptical. On some level, he also seems to realize that popularity would give him a bigger stage, a bigger platform from which to keep up the good fight.
Devendra Banhart will open for Michael Gira's Angels of Light April 26, and will perform as a member of the band on April 26 and 27, at Tonic (107 Norfolk Street, between Delancey and Rivington Streets, 866-468-7619).