Banhart's life, music defies conventional analysis

Nashville City Paper | by Ron Wynn

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If someone decided to make a film or write a fictional novel based on singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart's real story it is doubtful anyone would believe it. But no one since the late Ted Hawkins, a 20th century troubadour discovered on the street who later became an international celebrity, has a life history as unique and diversified as Banhart.

Though only in his early 20s, Banhart has already lived in Venezuela and Paris, as well as Texas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. He has attended the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute and has also lived on the streets of Paris. But what truly sets Banhart apart is his singing.

His high-pitched, wavering yet also striking, sound has an innocence and beauty that are memorable, but there is also a steely, sobering undercurrent. Banhart, who appears tonight at the 5 Spot, doesn't focus on the nuts and bolts of either composition or performance, preferring instead to talk about the musicians and styles that have influenced him.

"Son House, Skip James, Neil Young, Vashti Bunyan, Sandy Denny, Caetano Veloso," Banhart ripped off the names. "Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins, the first Wu-Tang album," he continued.

"My sources for what I write are pretty mundane. Most of the time I'm just hanging out in my garden, watching the vegetables grow. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the sources for the lyrics. I've been writing songs since I was nine years old and singing a capella. Putting music to the lyrics and adding instruments, that's another thing, but the singing, in my view, is something that I'm just now becoming really good at doing."

One of the first people to notice Banhart's talent was a San Francisco bluegrass and folk collector Siobhan Duffy, who heard one of his sets at a Los Angeles club. He got in touch with Michael Gira, former leader of the New York group the Swans and the owner of Young God Records. Banhart has subsequently recorded one EP for the label, The Black Babies and two full CDs, Oh Me Oh My and the current Rejoicing In the Hands. The discs don't follow any set musical pattern, shifting from exuberant gospel to heartache country/soul, then back to blues or folk. Banhart's intense, crackling leads and often astonishing range at the top of the scale distinguish the songs.

While he has little interest in talking about his own singing and writing technique, Banhart is quite animated when discussing other genres or artists. He hopes to eventually begin his own label, one that will highlight some idioms that hardly dominate the American marketplace.

"Eventually I want to start a label for classic African funk artists, and also very early reggae performers, people like Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker. Also, perhaps some Brazilian artists, but primarily African and reggae music. That's the great stuff, and you can't find much of it here [in America]."