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Portrait on the Artist as a Young Eccentric: Devendra Banhart in Person

Andrew Phillips

Say the name Devendra Banhart and many adjectives may come to mind, but normal isn't one of them. But has the folk singer been unfairly pigeonholed? PopMatters investigates.

"When I'm not singing I'm drawing, when I'm not drawing I'm singing. Sometimes images that can't be drawn are sung. Things that can't be sung are drawn. Sometimes things begin as a drawing and end as songs or begin as songs and end as drawings. They've been side by side since the beginning."

This is, of course, said much faster.

Devendra Banhart speaks frantically, championing a sort of circular, existential madness, and all day I've been falling prey to the same psychosis, bordering on the edge between insight and insanity, falling irreversibly ahead of myself.

Devendra Banhart. Where to begin? With the beginning, right? You know, by beginning at the beginning, where beginnings really begin to begin, you fittingly, like, begin your beginning. Right?

Devendra Banhart looks like Charles Manson; that's really the first thing I notice. Don't get caught up in the connotations -- it's not a fair comparison. Banhart is harmless, an eccentric sure, but hardly the dangerous type. On stage though, beard blazing, his eyes go glassy, reflective. Piercing through long, tangled hair, they exude an indeterminable zeal. In this moment he really is a dead ringer. My heart starts beating erratically when I think about it, something between excitement and mild distress. What's at work behind those eyes?

Banhart's music is a tangible embodiment of the ebb and flow of the manic personality. There's no other way to explain it. The 23-year-old singer plays simple finger-picked folk guitar ornamented with obtuse lyrical imagery and erratic, often shrieking vocals. His music has been described as irreverent, discordant, labeled "psycho folk," and mistaken by some for simple ineptitude. So which is it?

"I don't know," says Banhart, surprisingly soft-spoken on the telephone. "I'm just done with trying to be a guitar player. Now, I'm just confident in being a bad guitar player. I'm confident with being a bad singer."

A modest eccentric? Don't buy it. The music's not bad. Banhart's recent companion releases Rejoicing in the Hands and Nino Rojo are, in fact, relatively accessible recordings. At times Devendra's voice rolls softly over simple acoustic riffs, the perfect embodiment of the neo-folk troubadour. With just these recordings to go on, things seem hardly askew. But of course, there are other artifacts to consider.

"The earlier stuff was way more confrontational," say Banhart. "I was freaking out. I was just really sick of seeing some whiny confessional singer-songwriter guy get up on stage."

It shows. Banhart's 2002 debut Oh, Me, Oh My featured its fair share of terrifyingly dissonant lo-fi moments, but it also managed a moving intensity -- Banhart's energy alone is enough to make a it an exciting, if disconcerting, listen. The songs were certainly affecting enough to attract the attention of the equally odd Michael Gira, founder of Young God Records and member of legendary avant-garde act the Swans. Upon hearing the slew of four-track demos Gira snatched up Banhart's entire collection, releasing them exactly as they were, tape-clicks and all. It's this material that more accurately reflects Banhart's live persona, and maybe his personality too.

"If I have to play 40 shows doing anything but being myself, this is gonna kill me."

Banhart's definition of "being himself" used to mean he'd "hold the guitar, strum the first chord and sing the rest of the song acapella, really just screech it...trying to reach some trance."

This didn't fly. "The reaction of the crowd, I don't remember," says Banhart. "I just remember never ever believing anyone if they said they dug it."

Banhart says that he's toned down a bit out of respect for his audience's ears.

"I really respect everyone that's there," he says. "When you're just screaming at somebody, giving them your bad trip or trying to prove something, it's not that respectful. It's kind of pretentious, and I realized that."

Of course everything is a matter of degree. Banhart's toning down doesn't preclude standing atop stools and screaming at his audience; it just requires that he wait for a key point in the song.

It is this kind of circular logic that seems to define Banhart. Everything he does seems slightly off-kilter, not enough to raise serious concern, but certainly to inspire that unexplainable squirm in your stomach.

The quiet edge on his voice through the phone, the way he seduces you with acoustic melody then demands that you "put me in your dry dreams, put me in your wet, if you haven't yet." His fascination with crustaceans, plastic surgery, toes, Michigan State, and borrowing teeth; where the hell did they find this guy?

It's enough to make you wonder, where Devendra would be without his music? Wandering the streets screaming at people? Maybe. He's certainly happy wandering. Even with his particular musical success, he's still without a home.

"At least I've graduated to a futon or a bed," says Banhart. "Because I've never settled on living anywhere I have all my records in a storage unit in Florida, and I have all my books in someone's house in New York, and I have all my clothes in someone's house in San Francisco, and right now I live in the south of France. But I'm pretty sure I'm going to move to California in December."

Frantic again, his words are mostly sensical, but still, you get the feeling that something's not quite right. This is Banhart's power, his appeal. His music, is reverent enough to arrest you attention, but also frantic and disconcerting. His performance, equally so. Is he just a kook? He seems have clear musical vision:

"It's real important to not to eliminate all those exterior, natural occurrences. I feel like these majestic and divine collaborations are gifts from the moment. It really gives it a sense of place too," Banhart says referring to the bevy of sounds caught in the background of his recordings, the result of his continued insistence on staying away from studios.

Train tracks, gun shots, cicadas, and the dull tar of his calluses stroking guitar strings. This is brilliant, I think. But then he teeters again, into the mildly uncomfortable, his aesthetic.

"When I was in jail for a bunch of tickets," says Banhart "in New York the cops almost beat me up because they said I looked like John Walker."

And at airports?

"Are you kidding? They search my asshole. You know what I mean? My name, and the way I look. I look at them and I'm like, 'I obviously look like a drug dealer, so I obviously ain't one.'"

He does look like a drug dealer, but he's not. He's a remarkable artist, one of stated integrity. But then...

"I heard Pizza Hut used the beginning of "Will is My Friend" but it's not my version, it's somebody just playing my lick."

Shouldn't this piss him off? "I like pizza, I don't care. I wish it were like a prune juice commercial or something that I'm more into."

Nothing seems consistent, but at least you can trust the aesthetic, right?

"I shaved a few weeks ago, then I just forget and I grow it back. It's fine when people confuse me for a woman too. I'm very sexy without my beard."

A joke? I don't know anymore.

The duality, the contradiction, the subtle weirdness. See-saws. Beginnings. The sun. Circular logic. Psychedelic squids. The existential flow. Goddesses. Endings. Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artesan Mimicry...

It's happening again, I've lost track of...Let's begin again. Devendra Banhart looks like Charles Manson; that's really the first thing I notice. Don't get caught up in the connotations, it's not a fair comparison. He's not dangerous.

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