The Stranger | by Stevie Chick

Banhart's Singing Is Better Than Sex

Devendra Banhart
w/Joanna Newsom, Vetiver
Sat June 5, Crocodile, 9 pm, $10.

"I found my voice while I was cross-dressing and looking at myself in the mirror," smiles Devendra Banhart, as he signs another CD sleeve and gratefully receives another awkwardly, gratefully delivered hug/handshake hybrid from another entranced follower. Moments ago, he sat cross-legged onstage at this dingy, sweaty London bar, his voice pristine but with a shiver of midnight chill inching down its spine, eeking music-box chimes from his guitar. Something truly special, something intimate--but something that has to be shared.

"I was wearing this white dress, and combing my hair back into a ponytail," he continues. "I didn't have my beard and I looked a lot like a woman. I was putting on lipstick, singing--not trying to specifically sing like anything, just singing until I could walk out and be cross-dressing in front of my family. And even though I'm only 14, I'm confident enough, because I've found my voice. It was very symbolic; finally, something felt warm--everything was cold, all these things I was trying, but then suddenly I felt warm--so I walked outside, aged 14 years old. The family was all gathered, and I was wearing this white gown, my hair up, wearing lipstick, just, like, singing. Laaaaaaa!" he wails, letting loose a heart-stopping bolt of that voice again. "And everyone stared at me, and then I got smacked in the ass by my uncle, and grounded and all that. But that's when I realized I could use it as a strengthening thing."

We talk about his voice, because sometimes it seems like that's all you can talk about. Not that his lyrics, his artwork, his approach to music aren't intriguing--but there's something so perfect about Banhart's mystique that you don't want to dismantle it, to sully the magic with a most earthbound gaze. No, just cherish how a record like his latest, Rejoicing in the Hands, can conjure up such heady daydreams, of Marc Bolan down at the crossroads, Alan Lomax in the leaves with his trusty tape deck rolling a field recording of raw, ornate, flamboyant blues, a blend more spiritual, more mystical than the neon brutishness of modernity often achieves.

When he speaks of art, he's voluminous, incandescent, so unartfully enthused that it's disarming. He seems so casually ecstatic that he'll rave with near-equal breathlessness about Vashti Bunyan, the folk legend who guests on Rejoicing in the Hands, saying, "She's the greatest living musician, she's the reason I perform live," and the "amazing handwriting" of ex-Swan Michael Gira (who "discovered" Banhart and releases his records on his Young God imprint). And he has this wonderfully genuine desire to shake people's assumptions of him, declaring at one moment that reggae is "the highest form of folk art, really and truly. I'm no folk purist."

"If someone asks for my autograph, I always reckon they think I'm Rodney Dangerfield or someone," he laughs, as one shy but bold young girl hands him a train ticket to sign. "And I'm like, shit, I'm not Rodney Dangerfield, but I'll sign that for you. And I get mistaken for Whoopi Goldberg a lot, and Lenin, and Billy Crystal. Orson Welles too. Hey, I got a joke for you... Knock knock!"

Who's there?

"Devendra Banhart."

Devendra Banhart who?

"That's show biz!" he answers, with all the professional bonhomie of Bob Hope delivering that same dud line for the thousandth time. But it's funny, because art like Banhart's--hell, charisma like Banhart's--is unforgettable. And that he doesn't seem to realize this only makes him even more precious.

"Singing feels fantastic, man. It's one of my favorite things to do," he concludes. "A lot of people should just sing instead of trying to have sex, because the whole thing that everyone loves is time-shattering experiences, when the moment stops: when you're not living in the past, you're not living in the future, you're living in the now. When you're having sex, you really have to be there, in that moment in time, and it's gone. It's like, no-time, and that's a wonderful place to be in; a lot of musicians feel that way when they play, as artists do when they're creating something. More people should really be doing it--that's the joy of it. Owning the moment."