Loving the ugly babies

Hour | by Ilana Kronick

Neo-folk artist and performer Devendra Banhart pregnant with songs

To empty the contents of his overnight brain, every morning Devendra Banhart puts paintbrush to paper. He opts for watercolours, not for their distinctive bleed, but for their portability, a necessary feature for a painter who happens to live on the road, playing fantastical folk music.

For two and half years, the 22-year-old West Coaster who considers himself nomadic has been throwing around his dusty brand of antique guitar gospel wherever it'll fly - which, by the way, ain't exactly everywhere. Despite the staggering and undeniable raw talent that this so-called folk revivalist exhibits, for every musical mind who at first glance pegged this kid to be the "real deal" there's at least one folk type nonplussed by the meandering hippie with the possessed posture, gargly voice and storybook delivery.

"I'm not at all a folk purist. But there are so many kids who come to the shows who are the poison of the shows because they're the folk purists and they're really infuriated by seeing someone who is being considered folk and labelled folk but who isn't. They get mad that I play reggae songs and Johnny Thunder songs," Banhart explains, adding that the majority of his fans are either 4-year-old kids or 80-year-old women.

"The next record is definitely not going to be easily labelled folk. I'll call it space-cajun-dub-reggae-old-timey-electronic... I'll be making a new new-age record. Neo new age."

At least part of what he's going on about has to do with a certain clustering of nouveau folk sounds taking place right now - one that has Banhart (along with Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens and others) in the front and centre of a sonic tendency toward the old whimsical lulls. Banhart's chops fit the bill. And as a dropout of the San Francisco Art Institute who preferred to spend his days "getting lost," he's got the credentials, the character and the florid imagination to candidly play the part.

"My favourite images have to do with animism, magic realism. I really like giving inanimate objects life. I always think of songwriting as being pregnant. Like you have this child but you don't even know if it's a good child or not, but you can't accept that it's an ugly baby cuz it's your baby," he says.

On his latest creation, the full length Nino Rojo, he is, as usual, a freaky-streaked Will Oldham, a giggly Nick Drake, an unselfconscious Marc Bolan, gushing with spirit. The fact that the album is the second instalment of an intensive recording stint (the first part of which was released this past spring) is a real clue into Banhart's naturally prolific abilities - and his proclivity for emotional outpourings.

"Sometimes I feel like I get my period, although it's in the middle of my forehead, like third-eye period, I call it. But I can't plan the whole menstruation cycle. I don't know when the fertile periods are. All I can count on is that it'll happen at the worst time possible. It's like nature making sure that you respect your craft, and not abusing the gift of creation because it comes only when I don't have a guitar or piano or pen or paper, or tape recorder or four-track."