Devendra Banhart | by Joanna Booth

There's something hypnotic about his music

If music is the slightest bit spiritual then Devendra Banhart is the god of small things. His whimsical, oddball folk – detailed, delicate, almost fragile in its simplicity – circles around the everyday. However, Banhart knows how to make the littlest things count.

He's packed a lot into his 23 years. Born in Texas, named by an Indian mystic his parents followed, he lived in Caracas from the age of three, then LA, and dropped out of the San Francisco Art Institute to go to Paris where he recorded the songs released as his first album on a borrowed four-track.

These tracks reached the ears of Michael Gira, one-time frontman of Swans and owner of Young God Records, who released the crackling, eccentric, acoustic narratives as they were. Unequivocal critical acclaim followed, and though perhaps there is too great a curve on Banhart's ball for mainstream popularity, he has a growing cult following.

The crowd at his sold-out gig at the London ICA last week were certainly bewitched. He looks very much the wandering hippy minstrel; hair like a fraggle, all angles and bones. The horde was silent as he sat, bearded and weird, singing, hollering, baying, whooping, howling like a wolf – playing his voice like the instrument it is.

The first time I heard any Devendra Banhart was on a Rough Trade compilation. 'Bluebird' is a silver sliver of whistling idiosyncracy barely a minute long. Coming out of the darkness, it was impossible to date the song. The hissing recording and the strange, unearthly, high-tension wire of his voice could have been a 30s bluegrass rarity.

There's something hypnotic about his music. I bought 'Oh Me Oh My', his first album, and listened to it on repeat for the next few days. It's uncrafted – more musical jottings than anything else – but like nothing else around. It's mostly just Banhart and his guitar, interspersed with random and eerie ambient sounds, whistling and the odd clatter.

If 'Oh Me Oh My' is a notebook, 'Rejoicing In The Hands' is a fully fledged novel. Recorded in a studio, the quality is superior. The songs are less improvised, more balanced. It's more immediately accessible, and more musically accomplished. A further album of songs recorded at the same time as 'Rejoicing In The Hand's will be released later this year as 'Nino Rojo', and from live performances of the material it bodes to be of equal quality.

Comparisons are always made, and Nick Drake / Marc Bolan / Rufus Wainwright / Tim Buckley are not mentioned without justification. Banhart also has an exoticism, a witchy quality all of his own. His songs feel like coming home, but as with all the best fairy tales, coming home to find something slightly different from what you were expecting.

Folk isn't the only flavour you find. Vashti Bunyan guests on album two's title track, a free-wheeling pastoral melody. 'This Beard Is For Siobhan' gets jazzily ragtime, and there is the obvious Spanish feel of 'Todos Los Dolores'.

Watching Banhart, his performances are remarkably relaxed. Not that he's laid back, but that he is absolutely himself on stage. Even on CD, he sounds unstudied and organic. There's honesty in the strangeness which is utterly disarming.

His lyrics are on a level of odd whimsy that usually signals a psychedelic drug habit. He has an almost tourettes-like relationship with beards, teeth and insects. They crop up repeatedly through his songs, like tiny signposts. His world is full of characters and narratives, half conjured in carefully judged brushstrokes.

There's nothing ironic about Banhart, but there's humour and more than anything a pervading joy in his songs. He seems to find a holiness in the ephemeral and wants to celebrate it. How can you not love someone who sings: "We have a choice. We choose rejoice"?