Queer as Folk

Spin | by Will Hermes

They have names like Devendra, Sufjan, Kimya, and Panda Bear, and they’ve made some of the year’s strangest – and finest – records.

But just because they dig acoustic instruments and sing about rabbits, spiders, and bean sprouts, that’s no reason to call them hippies. Meet the new eccentrics.

“...Lording over his own eccentric kingdom, Devendra Banhart, 23, has cecome emblematic of the 21st-century folkie. He typically performs seated cross-legged atop an Oriental rug, with a bottle of wine by his side. He favors robe-like shirts, and sometimes sports a bushy mountaineer beard. He sings about pumpkin seeds, laughing trees, and (frequently) his facial hair in a warbling vibrato that he’s learning to rein in. He also enjoys playing the trickster. For a sold-out show at the Manhattan club Tonic earlier this year, he performed his usual set, left the stage, then returned in full drag–beard shorn–to sing cabaret-style piano ballads. “That wasn’t me,” he insists months later. “That was Honey Brown. She’s a hard drinker, and she’s into polygamy. She’s going through some nasty divorces, so things are tough for her.”
Banhart currently kicks it with his girlfriend and her mom on a farm in the southern French gypsy town of Saintes Maries de la Mer, where “there are wild white horses roaming around, bullfights, flamingos, and flamenco music. It’s wild, rich living.” Yep, walks like a hippie, talks like a hippie–albeit an exceptionally articulate one. But he’s careful to define the term: “[My parents] were cool hippies–into good music, Eastern philosophy, anti-establishment, anti-authority. Into creating their own rules based upon goodness and healthiness and the care and appreciation of nature. But, shit, the ‘hippies’ I grew up with were these Hacky Sack Phish fans with white dreads. I certainly do not feel any relationship with that.”
Despite their devoted idiosyncrasy, Banhart and his kin conjure certain ‘60s touchstones, especially the odd aunts and uncles of British folk. You hear echoes of Donovan and the Incredible String Band in his and Newsom’s tweaked troubadour styles; Nick Drake in the whispered balladry of Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam (Drake and Beam rub shooulders on the soundtrack to the recent Garden State). In fact, the scene’s patron saint is a fifty-something English woman named Vashti Bunyan, who, after releasing a single pixie-dusted LP called Just Another Diamond Day in 1970, retired from music to wander around Ireland in a covered wagon. Now a mom based in Edinburgh, Scotland, with six grown children, she was discovered by a new generation when her album was reissued in 2000. In 2003, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus invited Bunyan to play her first show in 30 years at a British festival he was curating. Banhart was so moved by Diamond Day, that he sent Bunyan his home recordings, and credits her feedback with inspiring him to perform live (she sings on the title track of his Rejoicing in the Hands). More recently, she recorded with her admirers in Animal Collective.
Bunyan considers her young fans kindred spirits. “What Devendra does is so original and new,” she says. “Joanna Newsom’s music is wonderful, too, and Coco Rosie’s. I love their invention. They’re obviously influenced by traditional music, but I don’t think it’s folk. ‘Narrative song’ is maybe a better term. I have a terrible feeling about the word ‘folk’. I can’t bear being called a ‘folk singer.’”
“…..”Creating your own world” is a concept that comes up repeatedly. You sense it in the music’s presentation as well as its sound–Banhart, Dawson, and Dawn McCarthy of Oakland-based Faun Fables create their own fold-art CD packages…”
“….But is there a policital subtext to this somewhat isolated stance? “I think it’s just, maybe, the state of the world,” says Dawson, whose songs can address politics with an instant-messaging intimacy. “I feel a new energy among people making introspective music – it’s a more emotional, desperate time.” Banhart agrees: “It’s not like we live in a bubble. But I’ve noticed that the most political thing my friends are doing is disassociating themselves–from greed, and Bush, and… y’know what I’m saying? Like, just taking no part in it. It’s like everyone is going into their own other world.”
And maybe that’s as good an explanation as any for this odd renaissance. After leaving the womb, the safest most of us will ever feel is playing make-believe in a room with our family and friends. This new music, whether it’s called folk or not, strives to re-create that kind of small space, cloistered by strange beauty, where we can be as weird as we like, while the larger world gets scarier and uglier by the minute.