Devendra Banhart interview and session

BBC | Matt Walton

The wandering minstrel on making dogs look like his grandmother.

“Plastic surgery, dogs, schnauzers, pit bulls, shoes…” Devendra Banhart is listing his influences. “Lakes, fields, Africa, elephants, money…” he continues with no sign of stopping. His second album, Nino Rojo, is about to be released, the companion piece to his folky, raw and abstract debut, Rejoicing In The Hands…, released back in May.

“It’s a kind of double record,” he explains. “The first one’s called Rejoicing In The Hands Of The Golden Empress, the Golden Empress being the sun. She’s led a long life, is really experienced and she’s kind of resting back in her rocking chair, telling a story. The next record is called Nino Rojo, which means ‘red sun’. It’s her child. He’s being born. He’s coming out and doing his thing. So this record is more upbeat.”

Devendra was born in Texas but moved to Caracas at the age of three. He moved back to California at 13 and, although he claims Venezuela hasn’t influenced him musically (“Have you ever heard any Venezuelan music?” he asks incredulously), the experiences of his formative years obviously have.

“Caracas is Venezuela’s main city and it has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world. They get plastic surgery all the time,” he remembers. “And one strange custom for middle-class families to show they have clout is to give their pets plastic surgery to look like the most senior member of the family. So we gave our three schnauzers plastic surgery to look like my grandma. The doctors come to the house, so I saw it and started singing weird a capella songs about that. The first song I wrote was about plastic surgery.”

Since then he’s written lots of songs. “I’ve no idea how it happens,” he ponders. “The only thing I’m sure about is that the weird little spark of inspiration that comes down from heaven is going to come down at the most inconvenient time possible. When there’s no pen, paper, guitar or recording equipment.” Devendra, though, has an ingenious way of coping with this situation. “I call up friends’ answerphones and say, ‘I have to sing this song, please don’t erase this.’”

This lo-fi approach was something he didn’t want to lose when he made the two records, which were recorded at Lynn Bridges’ (Bob Dylan, The Band) home in Georgia on his vintage equipment. “I would hate to go into a really professional studio to record, because you end up cancelling out a lot of the other beautiful collaborations that happen when you record: the sound of chance and the sound of nature. Train tracks, catering people, whispering, murmuring, all those things are textural. You’re collaborating with time and that gives the recording a sense of space.”

So having put out two records in the space of four months, what’s next? “A new direction,” he decides. “A new genre of music I like to call ‘space reggae’. There’s going to be a huge communal band made up of 50 people and we’re going to make space reggae.” And knowing Devendra, it’ll be great.