Devendra Banhart, Oh Me Oh My... | by Antonia Santangelo


Devendra Banhart is an odd fellow with a unique voice. A musician, painter and poet, this graduate of The San Francisco Art Institute has been compared to everyone from Nick Drake to Tiny Tim. Currently living in suspicious New York City quarters, Devendra is promoting his 22-track debut entitled, Oh Me Oh My…The Way Goes By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs Of The Christmas Spirit. A musical stream of consciousness, the disc released on Michael Gira’s Young God label captures Devendra’s raw flair. Oh Me Oh My… demonstrates different sides of Banhart’s vocal approach, ranging from the shrill vibrato of “Nice People”, the untamed, yet soft whispers of ‘Charles C Leary” to the temperate folk number “A Gentle Soul”. Upon first listen, one may be concerned that their player is acting up, but this disc was recorded on faulty, broken down equipment –which actually gives the work an additional sense of style, tape fuzz and all. After enjoying the album, I was given the chance via noreasterzine to sit and have a talk with the artist, but things didn't go quite as I had planned. The face-to-face opportunity was shattered by the mother of all New York City blizzards. Here is a recap of my experience and how an enigmatic Devendra slipped by me:

On Feb 16, around 4pm I snuck into the New York City’s Tonic all ready to meet Mr. Banhart. Walking in, I was greeted by uneasy silence, the only timbre in the air generating from my clicking heels. Looking around I searched for another human…eventually spotting a young woman sitting at bar flipping through the paper (Shelly Duval’s twin-I swear.) She had her eyes glued to the paper and when I softly said “Hello” she jumped in a startle. Eventually she calmed and informed me that she was in charge of sound and was waiting for the musicians to arrive. We had a few moments of chatter and eventually I realizing that Devendra was not around. Feeling as though I was a bother to the woman, I took to standing in the hall and waiting. Waiting, waiting and waiting. Hours drifted by as my eyes glazed over. Growing tired of standing inside the sly Tonic, I ventured outside, into a full on blizzard. Marching in the snow, I kept my eyes peeled for Banhart. While wiping the snowflakes from my chilled face, popping in and out of the Tonic and humming little ditties to myself, I noticed a taxi cab slide swiftly into a spot-not expecting it to be Mr. Banhart. Assuming this merry song maker would not be arriving in a yellow taxi, I dropped my eyes to the snow filled ground and begged my brain not to freeze. But alas! I heard a rumble and glanced up to see Devendra indeed leaping from the taxi and fluttering into the venue. A man running quite late and on a mission, I watched Devendra soar down the blackened stairs in a hurry. But of course the clock was ticking and Devendra did not have time to speak to little ol’ me that night. Quite a sad little adventure, if I may say so myself. As a result, I had to send my questions to Mr. Banhart via email. The following is the fruits of a brief interview. What is your earliest musical memory?

Banhart: Sounds funny, but the sound and image of little sheets of metal multiplying at an incredible rate, over and over each other. Sheets of little imaginary metal and then the sound of my head reversed with my ass. I am 8 years old here and very scared that this is happening, so I run to my mom’s room and apologize for deceiving her, because this whole time she thought she was talking to my face but really it was my ass and my ass was on my face. Did you dabble in music as a child? Do you come from a musical family?

Banhart: I built drum sets, sang and did some rapping. My mother sings, my cousin sings, but really, I come from a dancing family. In what other ways do you unleash your creativity and express your self?

Banhart: I am working on a book of drawings and writing, it’s to be published in a few months, it is called Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Negress and or being Watched by her Floating Red Beards . It is a story, full of drawings and psychedelic jokes. m: I read in your brief bio that you traveled and moved a great deal in your youth (Texas, Venezuela, California and New York). How has this affected you?

Banhart: It has made it easier to do what I am doing now. I have been on tour my whole life. Where do you consider "home"?

Banhart: Michael Gira’s basement . Please elaborate on your first performance, apparently at a wedding? How did this come about? Was it truly your first outing?

Banhart: Yes, this was my first show. I lived with a couple and they asked me to play their wedding. I played “How Great Thou Art” and “Love Me Tender.” Bob the Crippled Comic and Jerry Elvis -- “Soon is Good” is about them. Your lyrics seem to be written by a stranger to the "nice people"— A man holding the world in a snow globe, shaking it up and peering in. Would you say this is a valid observation?

Banhart: I don’t know about that... I don’t write about things I haven’t experienced. I am in the snow globe. I wonder where Bon Jovi is... those cats that write these vague, universal lyrics. Can anyone relate to the lyrics? They are so goddamn vague. I think mine are very, very specific, so I don’t feel like a stranger to the nice people. Can you elaborate on "Charles C. Leary"?

Banhart: It is a ship, it was my great grandfathers ship. Why did you choose to record this album, Oh Me Oh My... on a 4-track without studio production? Do you prefer the gritty, raw, lo-fi sound? Do you find it more intimate this way?

Banhart: I did it mainly due to accessibility. I used what I had and I broke all of them. People stopped lending me their four tracks. I used what I had and when I didn’t have a four track, I would call a friend and leave the song on their answering machine and then ask them not to erase it. Not that I would use a 28-track studio if I had access to it, but I would be interested in a backing choir. How would you describe your songwriting process?

Banhart: Childbirth. Who would you name as musical influences?

Banhart: Vashti Bunyan, Ella Jenkins, Karen Dalton, Billie Holiday and Linda Perhacs . What are you currently listening to?

Banhart: My friend Entrance has a record out on Tigerstyle. I have been diggin’ on that... Tussle, Angels of Light’s Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home , Sun Also Rises, Vetiver and Joanna Newsome. Are you working on a new album?

Banhart: After this tour I’ll start recoding the new record, it will be danceable, I hope.