"Calculated?" Devendra Banhart replies when I ask him how much forethought has gone into his neopsychedelic folksongs and 21st-century-hippie persona. "Well, Iím very bad at math, at calculating stuff. I canít do formulas and my intellect is beyond limited. Itís like a corn puff in a whirlpool. Also, my dexterity as a musician is extremely rudimentary. Iím good at playing shitty. Really, what Iím trying to do is cover songs, but Iím so bad at playing them, it ends up sounding like my own music."
Well, thatís one explanation of one of the most unusual song cannons in modern pop. Banhart, a ragamuffin traveler who sounds like a mix of Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, Skip James, Cat Stevens, and the Acid Queen, emerged in 2002 with the catchy-titled Oh Me Oh My the Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit (Young God). Since then, heís amassed a cult following thatís swelled with each release and tour, to the point where heís traded his first Boston venue, the humble Chopping Block on Huntington Avenue, for the Somerville Theatre, where heíll play with his band, Hairy Fairy, on October 19. Banhart also plays the Pearl Street Ballroom in Northampton the night before.
The singer/guitarist/songwriterís most ambitious album, the psychedelic circus Cripple Crow (XL Recordings), has just been released, and when I reach him by phone, heís in a Paris television studio getting ready to perform one of its songs on the air. One reason Banhartís music sounds so free-flowing, besides the fact that he makes up a fair amount of it as he goes along, is that it reflects his life. Although born in Texas in 1981, he spent much of his early childhood in Caracas, Venezuela. (He was given the name Devendra, meaning "King of Gods," by his parentsí guru.) When his mother remarried, Banhart moved with her to California, where she ran a shop that sold crystals and other New Age supplies, and where he digested the sounds of Tropicalismo, Neil Young, and Pakistanís Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As a teen, he began to travel, and he hasnít stopped.
"I live to the south of here, as much as I live anywhere, and itís wonderful," he says. "I stopped looking for homes in a physical place after traveling for years. Eventually you stop looking for a home outside; you just find it in yourself or in the present. Thatís what music is all about: being in the present. Thatís where you find your freedom."
Banhart might have remained a wandering minstrel if not for friend and bandmate Noah Georgeson. "Years ago, Noah gave me a four-track tape recorder and said, ĎI want you to borrow this and in exchange give me the tapes you make,í " Banhart explains. "So my making music began with the intent to share, and I would hope it remains inclusive."
When those tapes were shared with Michael Gira, leader of the bands Swans and Angels of Light and founder of Young God Records, the New York City art rocker was mesmerized. He culled through hours and hours of them, eventually compiling the songs that became Banhartís debut.
"Iíd never heard anything quite like them, ever," Gira said at the time. "His voice ó a quivering high-tension wire ó sounded like it could have been recorded 70 years ago. Heís the most genuine, least cynical and calculated artist Iíve ever known. Heís also one of the most innately talented, magical performers Iíve ever heard."
Banhartís next two albums, Niño Rojo and Rejoicing in the Hands (both on Young God), were full of rambling, boundless ideas about everything from the origins of life to birds, insects, and human kindness. They moved beyond the hiss and pop of home recordings to studio-quality sound. But Cripple Crow is a quantum leap. Its 22 songs add a focus to Banhartís vision, both musically and lyrically. Sure, heís still singing about following lifeís path with a Zen-like flow, as well as cross-dressing, the power of wishing, and heavenís kingdom ó and all that in just the CDís opening song, "Now That I Know." And his sound is still primarily acoustic, with touches like rattling shells, elongated violin lines, and amplifiers processing his voice adding the trippy colors.
Although he does have a precedent in other man-child performers, ranging from Syd Barrett to the mentally damaged savant Daniel Johnston, Banhart sounds so unlike most artists today that it often feels as if his music came out of nowhere ó at least, no place where adults, and especially record-company executives, tread. Thatís a notion Banhart enjoys.
"Iím still coming out of nowhere," he says. "Everything I write comes out of nowhere. I like nowhere; itís a pretty good place to be."
If nowhere is Banhartís inspiration point, it does serve him well. When he and his band booked into the smaller barn/studio at Bearsville, in Woodstock, New York, for a month this past winter, 45 songs sprang out. "We narrowed it down to 22 in the end, so what I learned working on Cripple Crow is thatís too many, too long. Next time, Iím gong to narrow it down to maybe just a dozen before we start recording. I tend to go wherever the creative spirit takes me or brings me. Because itís outside of myself, it isnít a conscious thing.
"Thatís what Iíll do if there is a next time," he adds. "I could die tomorrow . . . lose my vocal cords, all that stuff. Living in America, youíre raised to want and to think ahead ó to forget that tomorrow has not happened and the only reality is this moment.
"The good thing about being at Bearsville and recording 45 songs in a month is that there was no time to get it sounding pristine and perfect. So most of the takes on the album are first takes.
"For us, recording in a barn with a river running by it was perfect. They had nice equipment, but the place didnít exclude the world, which is something I want to avoid doing as much as I can. Already making records in studios can keep you from getting involved with the music spiritually. But being in Bearsville, where youíre surrounded by nature, and deer and bears and turkeys would just amble by, itís humbling. Our music became a little part of all that."
Despite the singularity of Banhartís music, itís become an important influence on a breed of young, emerging artists who blend gentle sonic experimentation with highly personal writing. "What I like is that thereís an old quality to Devendraís voice, and he took a pretty conventional approach ó a guy with a guitar ó and made it sound fresh and modern," says Ryan Lee Crosby, who heads local outfit Ryan Lee and the Mindless. "He reminds me of other musicians like Syd Barrett and John Frusciante (of Red Hot Chili Peppers), but instead of their strain of darkness, Devendra makes music thatís really tuneful and beautiful. Heís inspiring, also, because heís proven that, despite the way the music industry is, you can reach a wide audience by taking a genuine, homemade approach."
Devendra Banhart & Hairy Fairy + Bunny Brains | Pearl Street Ballroom, 10 Pearl St, Northampton | October 18 | 8:30 pm |413.586.8686 or 800.the.tick | Somerville Theater, 55 Davis Sq, Somerville | October 19 |8 pm | 617.625.4088
Issue Date: October 7 - 13, 2005
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