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Devendra Banhart a master of mixing music and worlds

by John Timpane

Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

4 December 2009

 

A talk with Devendra Banhart is like a front-loading washer stuffed with smiles. Happy. Whirly. Splashy. Cleansing.

Startling? A little psychedelic, even? Nevertheless, just right. Banhart personifies independent music right now, as musicians with global backgrounds mix, match, merge, meld, and transmogrify styles and boundaries. Such boundary-crossing is all over his new album, “What We Will Be.”

Speaking by cell phone someplace on the road, Banhart says he’s “very aware of all the different kinds of music, and very aware of the musical worlds of the past.”

Life has been one big crossed boundary. He was born in Houston in 1981, of parents who followed the Indian religious leader Prem Rawat. The parents split up, and Banhart grew up in the teeming, multivarious city of Caracas, Venezuela. By his teens, he was living near Los Angeles, “digging skateboards” and listening to everything.

By 2000, the budding artist/musician was dropping out of college and busking, opening for indie bands in Paris. Global hobo, musical bricoleur, intellectual Hoover, self-described “citizen of the world in technology,” he typifies his generation of world-traveling listeners and players.

He has been linked to strangely named genres such as “freak folk” or “lo-fi” or “sunny psychedelia” or “new weird America.” None are quite on target. He may play a guitar lament now, switch to a rocker (like “Rats” on his new album), dial up funk, tango, ska or tonada, whirling with influences: Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, Roxy Music (he titles one track “16th & Valencia, Roxy Music”), Alice Coltrane (“she makes sacramental music,” he says), Simon Diaz. The exquisite, clarion “Brindo” manages to marry Brazil and Brian Wilson.

“Mixing styles, mores, modes and genres, it can appear to be fractured,” he says, and his recorded work has been a process of bringing fragments into some sort of whole. His second CD, titled, perhaps fittingly, “Oh Me Oh My ... The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit,” released in 2002, was just that: fragments. As of “What We Will Be,” however, he has an avid following, a solid band and a catalog of evocative, melodic songs.

Out of the stream of his talk, silver salmon jump. Hey, Devendra, what makes a good album good? “If it’s a great record, there is a cyclical fulfillment of the reality of my emotional database. I’m not sad all the time, not happy all the time.“He’s at home with twisty lines, mixed musics, a world of many worlds. He credits the Caracas of his youth: “Kids in Caracas are very tuned in. Many of them know more about music and the underground scene in the Village or Akron scene than the people in those scenes do. They also know all the ancient people’s music of Venezuela and South America; they don’t tune anything out. ... Growing up in Venezuela, I learned to be aware of the division between South America and North, but also to feel it made less of a difference.”

So where does this world citizen start when composing a tune? “The main focus for me is the words,” he says. After the cell phone connection goes pfft (“sorry — I went to stand under a cliff next to the ocean, but now I’m back”), he’s back with: “Words are what I labor over, the real travail. Next step is, ‘What do these words sound like? What colors do they look like? What kind of undulating experience are they trying to convey?’ “

In answering those questions, Banhart is liable to draw on every music his globe-trotting ears have heard. A smiling, whirly tune named “Angelika” on “What We Will Be” begins as a summery love song, overtones of ‘70s folk, and then starts changing until it’s a tango. Two different musical worlds, making sense cheek to cheek.

“The first part is the day, the dawn, the beginning,” says Banhart, “then night comes, and I’m singing in Spanish, so let’s go to Cuba! It’s night, and we’re at some weird steakhouse in the jungle, this tangly kind of night jungle thing. Then it’s a snapping-back almost into reality. Almost the song travels.”

It’s indie and it’s a little of everything — but primarily the cleansing energy of the smile. Banhart, like all indie, is on the road. What’s that like? He whirls again: “Touring is a different experience of time, it feels sometimes a little bit like a typical, ritualistic, predictable, day-to-day experience in a stationary, non-peripatetic way, in which every sprocket-hole is accounted for in a roll of film, but on tour at some point the sprocket holes get off track. Stable images become a wash of color, saturated light. Touring is a very beautiful thing, but it can also be intense.”

As can Devendra Banhart and the music he brings.

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