Devendra Banhart

Time Off | by MATT CONNORS

Baby on Board

When 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 who’s about to have a baby – right now!

While most sane people would attend to the matter at hand, Banhart seems just as eager to meet his interview obligations (clearly he’s out of his sister’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, erm… goats and toupees. Between contractions, screeching tyres and tangential mental conniptions, Banhart also reveals he’s every bit the nutter he’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 Banhart’s voice, describing it as “a quivering high tension wire [that] sounded like it could have been recorded 70 years ago”. He duly signed Banhart, who moved to New York to begin work on “proper recordings”.

In 2002, Young God Records released Oh Me Oh My, a compilation of Banhart’s rough demos, but it wasn’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.

“I’ve never been,” Banhart says of Australia. “I’ve only heard legends. I’m going with my two friends, Noah and Andy, and we’re just gonna swim. We’re very excited to swim.”

Banhart’s Australian tour – and its associated swimming sojourn – 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.

“I’ve been on tour for two-and-a-half years, I think. I’m pretty used to it now. It gets to me sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I freak out and sometimes I don’t and sometimes I love it. It’s just like anything in any part of anyone’s life.”

Recorded across one session at the Georgia home of Lynn Bridges (who works with Jimmy Johnson of Muscle Shoals Studio fame – 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.

“Double vinyl!” he exclaims. “Double vinyl! Yeah, I’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 you’re related to your mum and dad but you’re not your mum or dad. So the CDs are separate, vinyl’s together…

“I’m kind of getting close to the hospital now, I hope you understand…”

Of course. But could this just be another one of Devendra’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 Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’?

“No, that’s not true,” Banhart pleads. “That was de-contextualised and made up and I’ve never said that… I said that about some other weird shit, but it had nothing to do with me and that’s not how I started writing songs. So please forget that. I’ll pay you… I’ll come over to your house and erase your memory!

“I didn’t make it up… it’s just that it’s not true. It’s not true that I started writing songs because I heard Mick Jagger sing ‘I’m a street fighting man’. I don’t remember the conversation. It was an interview I did two years ago. It was in conversation, not even a question. I was like, ‘Isn’t that funny how Mick Jagger was talking about him as a street fighting man and he wasn’t even fighting anybody?’. And that’s it; they somehow put that in there… like that was the answer to how I write songs.”

So, is there anything Banhart can put his finger on that acts as real inspiration to create music?

“Yes – everything else in the universe helps,” he says. “Everything in the universe, you know. Everything – 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 and… everything, you know?”

Along with his gorgeous, timeless folk sound, it’s this sort of capricious behaviour that’s left the likes of The Guardian to announce Banhart as “the only bearded eccentric you’re likely to need…” and NME to comment that “Devendra Banhart is not of this world”.

But just before we get to ask the all important question – are you nuts? – Banhart announces that they’re arrived at the hospital.

“I sort of have to split this now,” Uncle ’Vendra blurts. “I sort of have to go…”

The question remains unanswered, but some things, apparently, don’t require qualification. Devendra Banhart is as crazy as a cut snake… and brilliant to boot.