Devendra Banhart, Niño Rojo

Pollstar | by

Although he's a seasoned performer at 23, indie singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart had a tough crowd his first time out.

"I'm from Caracas, Venezuela," he told Pollstar. "It has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world. It's to the extent of giving pets plastic surgery, so we gave our schnauzers plastic surgery to look like my grandmother.
"And I remember I wrote a song about it called 'We're All Gonna Die.' I was about 8 years old and I sang it in front of the family - uncles, cousins, aunts and the whole thing."
"I sang the song a cappella, and they asked me to never sing again."
Was it the lyrics or the performance that made such an impression?
"Probably both."
However, he wasn't deterred.
"It created this little secret world of playing, where I would dress in drag and sing to myself in the mirror by candlelight."
After a few more years of private solo gigs, the Texas-born Banhart's family moved back to the U.S. He spent his teens in California and continued to refine his craft.
"It took until I was about 17 before I felt like I had some songs I could actually play live," he said.
In fact, it wasn't until he received encouragement from British cult folk singer Vashti Bunyan that he finally decided to take his show to the stage.
"I sent her my music and said, 'Should I do this?' and she said, 'Please do this.' So I justified playing a bunch of shitty shows."
After living and performing informally in Europe for "a while," he returned to the U.S. and received an avalanche of positive feedback from friends and acquaintances.
"My friends started giving me their broken 4-tracks in exchange for the tapes. So the minute I got the machines, I tried to record and I recorded a bunch of shit, and more friends got them."
Eventually, a tape found its way to Young God Records owner and former Swans frontman Michael Gira. As Gira began making plans to release the music, he urged Todd Cote of Leafy Green Booking to take a listen.
"I had to go find a machine to even play a cassette tape, 'cause I didn't have one," Cote told Pollstar, laughing. "I was quite impressed and started working for him right away."
Young God released Banhart's debut, Oh Me Oh My, as well as an EP, Black Babies, in 2002, when the singer was barely 21. The discs consisted of the same rough-hewn tapes that had caused a stir among Banhart's friends and acquaintances, and they began having the same effect on the indie world.
By the time the albums came out, Banhart was already touring relentlessly, supporting various acts including Gira's Angels Of Light and Kill Rock Stars/5RC experimentalists Xiu Xiu.
Early this year, Gira invited Banhart into the studio with engineer Lynn Bridges to record his sophomore effort and studio debut. The prolific Banhart showed up with nearly 60 songs. They recorded 32 and decided to split them into two albums, the first of which Rejoicing In The Hands came out in April.
Upon its release, Banhart set out for a few weeks of European dates. In June, he kicked off his first nationwide headlining tour of the U.S., with fellow indie-folk buzz acts Joanna Newsom and Vetiver as support. The five-week trek sold out venues including San Francisco's Great American Music Hall and the Bowery Ballroom in New York City.
Banhart is currently touring Europe again and will kick off another U.S. leg as soon as he returns in November in support of his third full-length, Nino Rojo. Once again, he's enlisted some of his contemporaries as support - Coco Rosie in Europe and Scout Niblett at home.
"There seems to be a new little youth movement of all these sort of psychedelic hippie kids," Cote said. "They're all in the age of 18 to 28, and I've seen Devendra as being one of the main people involved in that scene.
"People seem to look to him for advice on other bands. There's a magazine named Arthur that had him curate a compilation of other artists that are like-minded, and a lot of the artists like Joanna Newsom, The Espers, Entrance, and Vetiver - have basically gained a lot of recognition from Devendra's help.
"Devendra's really kind and forthcoming about trying to help his friends and other artists."
Banhart has an Australian tour on the books for late November, and then he's on to new musical pastures. He makes it clear that he isn't trying to stick with any one musical aesthetic, describing his first album and EP as "documentaries" and his two studio follow-ups as "films."
So what's next on the horizon? It sounds like Banhart is finding inspiration somewhere geographically in between his South American roots and Stateside home.
"I don't know if people will like it or whatever, but I'm definitely going to pursue trying a different sound, different things, a new direction," he said. "And that direction is reggae!"
Banhart's planned shift from psych-folk warbler to reggae bandleader is no joke: He says he's already actively recruiting seminal Jamaican musicians including Prince Buster and "Johnny Too Bad" composer John Martyn.