Time Off | by MATT CONNORS
Baby on BoardWhen it comes to American singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart, it clearly pays to expect the unexpected. Or should that be expect the expecting?
In what must be the oddest place to conduct an interview, the neo psych/folk hippie is speeding along in a car on his way to the hospital with his pregnant sister whoâ€™s about to have a baby â€“ right now!
While most sane people would attend to the matter at hand, Banhart seems just as eager to meet his interview obligations (clearly heâ€™s out of his sisterâ€™s reach). Polite offers to call back later are dismissed as Banhart starts yammering about becoming an uncle for the first time, visiting Australia and, ermâ€¦ goats and toupees. Between contractions, screeching tyres and tangential mental conniptions, Banhart also reveals heâ€™s every bit the nutter heâ€™s supposed to be.
Born in Texas and raised for many years in Venezuela, Banhart started writing songs at age 12. His family returned to LA when his mother remarried and years later he attended the San Francisco Art Institute on a scholarship. Banhart was clearly not made for academic life and, after dropping out, started to roughly record his own music to exorcise his artistic demons.
At age 20, Banhart was a homeless, wandering musician but things changed when one of his crude recordings made its way into the hands of Michael Gira, the boss of Young God Records. Gira was taken by Banhartâ€™s voice, describing it as â€œa quivering high tension wire [that] sounded like it could have been recorded 70 years agoâ€. He duly signed Banhart, who moved to New York to begin work on â€œproper recordingsâ€.
In 2002, Young God Records released Oh Me Oh My, a compilation of Banhartâ€™s rough demos, but it wasnâ€™t till his new recordings, Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Empress and its companion album, Nino Rojo, were released this year that he became the darling of the American underground.
Australian audiences get to see what all the fuss is about later this month when Devendra Banhart makes his debut Down Under.
â€œIâ€™ve never been,â€ Banhart says of Australia. â€œIâ€™ve only heard legends. Iâ€™m going with my two friends, Noah and Andy, and weâ€™re just gonna swim. Weâ€™re very excited to swim.â€
Banhartâ€™s Australian tour â€“ and its associated swimming sojourn â€“ was something of a forgone conclusion. Since he moved to New York, Banhart has become a prolific touring act, traversing North America and becoming well acquainted with European destinations. Australia was only a matter of time, given he shows no signs of slowing down.
â€œIâ€™ve been on tour for two-and-a-half years, I think. Iâ€™m pretty used to it now. It gets to me sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I freak out and sometimes I donâ€™t and sometimes I love it. Itâ€™s just like anything in any part of anyoneâ€™s life.â€
Recorded across one session at the Georgia home of Lynn Bridges (who works with Jimmy Johnson of Muscle Shoals Studio fame â€“ Bob Dylan, The Band), Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Empress and Nino Rojo have just been re-released together as a double vinyl.
â€œDouble vinyl!â€ he exclaims. â€œDouble vinyl! Yeah, Iâ€™m very excited about that. We did 54 [songs] and there were 32 that tied the story together from Rejoicing to Nino. But they work independently, in the way that youâ€™re related to your mum and dad but youâ€™re not your mum or dad. So the CDs are separate, vinylâ€™s togetherâ€¦
â€œIâ€™m kind of getting close to the hospital now, I hope you understandâ€¦â€
Of course. But could this just be another one of Devendraâ€™s publicity stunts, like the time he told a journalist that, in his late teens, he was inspired to write songs again after arguing with his then-girlfriend about The Rolling Stonesâ€™ â€˜Street Fighting Manâ€™?
â€œNo, thatâ€™s not true,â€ Banhart pleads. â€œThat was de-contextualised and made up and Iâ€™ve never said thatâ€¦ I said that about some other weird shit, but it had nothing to do with me and thatâ€™s not how I started writing songs. So please forget that. Iâ€™ll pay youâ€¦ Iâ€™ll come over to your house and erase your memory!
â€œI didnâ€™t make it upâ€¦ itâ€™s just that itâ€™s not true. Itâ€™s not true that I started writing songs because I heard Mick Jagger sing â€˜Iâ€™m a street fighting manâ€™. I donâ€™t remember the conversation. It was an interview I did two years ago. It was in conversation, not even a question. I was like, â€˜Isnâ€™t that funny how Mick Jagger was talking about him as a street fighting man and he wasnâ€™t even fighting anybody?â€™. And thatâ€™s it; they somehow put that in thereâ€¦ like that was the answer to how I write songs.â€
So, is there anything Banhart can put his finger on that acts as real inspiration to create music?
â€œYes â€“ everything else in the universe helps,â€ he says. â€œEverything in the universe, you know. Everything â€“ vans, cars, lights, goats, toupees, trumpets, microphones and shoes and pillows and glass and stages and flowers and heels and chins and lips and boots and rings and bells and stickers and rafters and boats and fish and fences and basketball and R. Kelly andâ€¦ everything, you know?â€
Along with his gorgeous, timeless folk sound, itâ€™s this sort of capricious behaviour thatâ€™s left the likes of The Guardian to announce Banhart as â€œthe only bearded eccentric youâ€™re likely to needâ€¦â€ and NME to comment that â€œDevendra Banhart is not of this worldâ€.
But just before we get to ask the all important question â€“ are you nuts? â€“ Banhart announces that theyâ€™re arrived at the hospital.
â€œI sort of have to split this now,â€ Uncle â€™Vendra blurts. â€œI sort of have to goâ€¦â€
The question remains unanswered, but some things, apparently, donâ€™t require qualification. Devendra Banhart is as crazy as a cut snakeâ€¦ and brilliant to boot.