Devendra Banhart

Tucson Citizen | by Polly Higgins

His outsider folk is romantic, mysterious

"Hands are kind of the symbol for life and creation," Devendra Banhart says, referring to the title of his latest CD, "Rejoicing in the Hands." "When the hands are open, they are rejoicing."
Devendra Banhart talks fast. Very fast when he's excited about something, such as British folk singer Vashti Bunyan. The words spill out quicker than the speed of comprehension.

Here's what we gathered when speaking to the singer-songwriter last week, his van pointed toward Baltimore: Bunyan is the reason Banhart is doing music.

"I sent her my music a long time ago, and she told me not to stop."

It's when we ask how long ago that Banhart's two other conversational anomalies show themselves. He switches verb tense without reason, and when he doesn't want to talk about something, he suddenly retreats. "It was a secret," he says.

A lot about Banhart seems to be a secret, or is at least cloaked in mystery. Part of that is encouraged by Banhart's romantic lyrics that range from playful to cryptic streams of consciousness. His songs include laughing lemon trees, aches that take their time, and "saggy flesh that sweeps the floor."

He is also, by age 23, impressively prolific. While recording his latest, the 16-track "Rejoicing in the Hands" (Young God Records)," Banhart doubled-down and captured 16 more for "Nino Rojo," which is scheduled for a late-September release. These 32 songs were pulled from 57 that Banhart had written.

"It's just one month where a hundred songs can be written and eight months where - zero. And it happens at the worst moment, which is a reminder that it's not just about the guitar. But I don't want to get into that."

Though Banhart's 2002 debut, "Oh Me Oh My ... " (the title is 22 words long), was recorded nearly no-fi, his latest was done with decent equipment in a country home on the Alabama-Georgia border. There was a warehouse full of taxidermy nearby, Banhart notes, and it was a nice break to be able to go and hang with the bears, falcons and peacocks. The production of "Rejoicing in the Hands" is anything but over-the-top, and the straightforward recording suits the singer well.

In addition to extensive lyrics - which are handwritten by Banhart in nearly illegible penmanship on the "Rejoicing" liner notes - Banhart's outsider folk is grounded by his voice. It's an ancient-sounding tenor for his young age, sung with more vibrato than most singers would dare to use. Paired with the simplicity of the instrumentation, often just an acoustic guitar, his vocals are both vulnerable and ballsy.

This could be why the singer attracts such words as "reverence" in reviews, a word Banhart seems embarrassed by.

"That word is useless. I don't believe in it," Banhart says. "I didn't think of myself as being revered... . (acoustic innovator) John Fahey deserves that. (Bluesman) Charley Patton deserves that. I'm just a speck of dust."

Banhart will perform the majority of his July 6 show solo, and he will join openers Vetiver, a band he plays guitar for, on stage as well.