Psych major

Time Out NY, June 17-24, 2004 | by Sara Marcus

Devendra Banhart’s ecstatic folk music is a trip that’s worth taking

Devendra Banhart’s latest album, Rejoicing in the Hands, kicks off with a seemingly simple ditty called “This Is the Way.” The singsong tune’s lyrics resemble a nursery rhyme: “This is my beard I’m always growing… This is the way I share my breakfast.” But then, just as the song is about to end, there comes a line that could double as Banhart’s mission satement: “We’ve known we had a choice,” he sings, his voice full of quiet wonder. “We chose rejoice.”
That message of guileless celebration is at the heart of Banhart’s music, which has made him perhaps the most significant - and easily the most colorful - figure in the burgeoning psychedelic-folk scene (one that includes the Animal Collective, Six Organs of Admittance and P.G. Six, among many others). Through often surreal imagery, he conveys a credible, contagious ecstasy that comes across in this live shows and his recordings alike. On Rejoicing, this spirit reaches its manic apogee in the jaunty “This Beard Is for Siobhan, “which ends with Banhart singing of taking his teeth dancing and showing them a real good time, over increasingly raucous guitar chords.
It should come as no surprise that this 23-year-old auteur – whose conversation is as prone to fanciful non sequiturs as his lyrics are - is an inveterate wanderer: In the past three years he’s lived in San Francisco, Paris, New York and San Francisco again. Not content with a solo career, Banhart also plays in two bands: Vetiver, his Bay Area housemate Andy Cabic’s chamber-folk quartet, which is touring with Banhart this summer; and the semi-active Abra, which, the singer says, recently completed an album (with Patti Smith as a guest).
Banhart is so prolific that the last time he went into a studio, he recorded material for two albums - Rejoicing, which was released in April, and Nino Rojo, due out in September. The process was far more deliberate than the catch-as-catch-can method that resulted in his debut, 2002’s Oh Me Oh My. “The moment I would write a song,” he notes of the first album, “I’d scramble to find a 4-track recorder, or call up a friend’s answering machine and say, “Don’t erase this.’”
That batch of raw songs was actually never intended to be an album. “I just wanted to share my music with friends,” Banhart says. “I wasn’t trying to get deal.” He didn’t need to try. When Michael Gira (of Swans and Angels of Light) heard the tapes, he released them on his Young God label as they were. For Rejoicing, Banhart was graced with a recording budget, meaning not only that accountrements such as strings and piano accompany his acoustic guitar, but also that his vocals are free of Oh Me Oh My’s tape-hiss haze.
Fortunately, the intimacy and idiosyncrasy that are his calling cards were not sacrificed. His voice still quavers unpredicably; his finger-picking, while more accomplished than on past work, retains a rustic feel. And the lyrics still turn on surprising collisions of nature-based visions, such as the memorable opening line of “Insect Eyes”: “Each strand of her hair / Is really insect eyes,” His imagery isn’t psychedelic in the brown-acid sense, though; Banhart’s psychedelia is simply, as he explains, “a heightened sensitivity to the inner and outer world - finding beauty in things you ordinarily wouldn't regardless of how you get there. It might be drugs; it might be breathing."
As one would expect, music is Banhart’s preferred channel to that altered state. “When I play live, I’m not in the past or the future,” he says. “I’m in a time-shattering space.” Then he blurts out, “It’s like having sex, you know? I want to make people have sex.” Asked if he thinks his music has that effect, he exclaims playfully, “Shit, yeah! How many pregnancies has my record produced? Countless! Rejoicing is totally a conceive-a-baby record.”
While census figures can’t verfiy the number of births for which Banhart can claim credit, he definitely helped foster the psych-folk scene that has sprung up in NYC in the pats couple of years. “Devendra’s inspiring to other artists,” says Brooklyn-based guitarist Kevin Barker, who plays under the name Currituck Co. “Communities of like-minded people just seem to gel around him. He makes people feel loved.”