Singer carries neo-folk into a new era

The Grand Rapids Press | by Tricia Woolfenden

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Singer, songwriter, guitarist, artist and creative force Devendra Banhart has earned a multitude of labels from the underground and mainstream music press.

Struggling to find a suitable genre for the quirky young talent, many critics have dubbed him "neo-folk" or "psychedelic folk." His rich, warm warble and narrative style recall a bygone era when songwriters sang quiet tunes about nature, birth and animals.

Accompanied by little more than soft piano, organ, light percussion and guitar, Banhart uses his controlled vibrato as its own instrument.

With the release of two albums -- "Rejoicing in the Hands" and "Nino Rojo" -- this year on Michael Gira's Young God Records, Banhart has amassed critical acclaim and left some in the music industry scratching their heads. His live performances and unique persona reflect an approach to music devoid of commercialism.

Banhart, 23, may be considered eccentric, but his music is among the most respected, underground modern folk material available. During a recent interview from a tour stop -- with band Vetiver, with whom Banhart often plays -- he discussed his music, the neo-folk scene and his affinity for R. Kelly.

Banhart on current art projects: "I do watercolor and ink and all my album covers. I'm working on a book of writing with Andy Cabic of Vetivar and a book of drawings with Kyle Fields of Little Wings (who has an art show at the D.A.A.C., 115 S. Division Ave., through Nov. 22). It's all drawings of ice plants and energy fields in Topanga Canyon with surfer poetry."

On the role of lyrics: "They're very important. They're edited down from books and books. I will extract one line for one song from one entire book. Getting the lyrics down is a tedious process of extracting. I'll condense an entire page into one line."

On what subjects inspire him lyrically: "Oh, I don't know ... glue, gas, doors, the color red, purple and blue, the sky, leaves, telephone poles, children, toupees, bats, wolves, glass, summer, ducks, stone, moss, turtles, gardens, locks, pockets, braids, noses, nose hairs, basements, light fixtures, freeways, bank robberies, squirrels, curls, boys and girls, old people and young people alike, pregnant people, bees, frogs, flies, leeches, migraines, horses, gas, chairs, barbecue spare ribs, fried chicken, muscles, pizza, American Indians, cowboy hats, rattlesnakes, pigs, drinking fountains, humming birds, whistles, satellites, catered food. R. Kelly, the list goes on."

On avoiding sterile recording environments: "The records will get bigger and better, but I won't record in a studio. I'll still record in a house or in some environment where it feels comfortable and doesn't exterminate the outer sounds -- the things that I think make a record important and give it a sense of place ... which make (the record) special."

On the neo-folk scene: "I've read a lot of articles that call it 'this folk' or 'that folk,' or 'weird folk' or 'new folk' or 'avant folk' or whatever 'da-da-da.' I don't see it as a scene that's based on folk at all. ...We listen to all kinds of music. ...We kind of just call it family (music)."

On who he would like to collaborate with: "I would like to collaborate with R. Kelly. I swear to God, I'm totally serious. ... I think he's insane, and he's a genius."