Music

A Refugee From History

Audra Schroeder

If Devendra Banhart, a barefoot wandering time capsule in a dress, and his 'Family' of like-minded musician friends make you think of California hippiedom circa 1968, the fault's entirely yours.

It's hard to tell when Devendra Banhart is telling the truth. In conversation, he tends to weave his way through non sequiturs and bizarre stories. On this particular October day, he claims to be on his way to a bluegrass festival near San Francisco, and he sounds genuinely stoked to be going. He's telling me what he thinks of a recent report of chain-reaction vomiting at Japanese noise artist Merzbow's New York City show, a report which may or may not be true. He whispers with an air of wonder, "That's the ultimate, like, purging. It just extracted the waste from people's bodies. When we played the Roskilde festival two people in the audience were having sex right in front of the stage. If only they had puked on each other."

While it doesn't necessarily induce vomiting, the new generation of indie-folk musicians seem to share a concern with purity, creating music that seems to exist in neither present nor past. There's Joanna Newsom's wood-nymph pluckings, Sufjan Stevens's jubilant road stories and Iron and Wine's Appalachian wanderings. Barefoot at the top of the heap is Banhart, the perpetual wanderer. The 24-year-old singer/guitarist has passed through Texas, Venezuela, California and Paris, weaving a loosely knit web of shiny, fantastical tales laced with his quivering voice. He's also lived in Paris, where he just played seven different French television shows, ("It was fine," he says. "I don't really feel any different") and more recently New York City, where he played a CMJ showcase in September that had the line stretching around the corner. (His first gig in New York was at the Puerto Rican Day parade.) We may fear a future of terrorist madmen and perpetual war, but Devendra Banhart's future is one of ecstatic peace and electrified oneness, of California sunsets and squirrels with human teeth.

His penchant for weaving tales comes out often, whether he's revealing the one song he can't get out of his head (EMF's 1991 hit "Unbelievable") or how he dressed in his mother's clothes and sang to himself in the mirror as a child. Then again, Banhart's upbringing was hardly traditional. He was born in Houston, Texas, in 1981, and named by Prem Rawat, an Indian mystic whom his parents followed. Banhart left Texas "about when I started to speak" and headed south with his Mom to Caracas, Venezuela, where, he remembers, "it was green. There were lots of mangoes." When Banhart's mother remarried, the family moved to Los Angeles, and in the fall of 1998, he was accepted on scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute to study art. San Francisco offered a creative environment for his burgeoning art and music, and when his roommates -- a couple he refers to as "Bob the Crippled Comic and Jerry Elvis" - asked him to play a few songs at their wedding, he had his first real gig. Banhart remembers how he dealt with his nervousness: "Well, I drank some of Jesus' blood before the show, and then I did "How Great Thou Art" and "Love Me Tender," in Jesus' house."

There is something eternally romantic about the vagabond experience, which comes through Banhart's music. When he was still a nomad bouncing between Los Angeles and San Francisco, his wayward music caught the ear of Siobahn Duffy, vocalist for New York band Gunga Din, who in turn told Michael Gira, of Swans fame, who in turn signed Banhart to his Young God records.

Scraps initially recorded on friends' answering machines became real songs, and his first proper record, 2002's Oh Me Oh My, crept up from the Delta, where Banhart channeled Southern bluesmen that sang about the devil and wrapped them in his home-studio tape hiss. His tales of teeth and legless love and monkeys swinging from fig trees became part of his bizarre odyssey. 2003's Black Babies EP further stretched his crystalline optimism and his music on 2004's Rejoicing in the Hands and Nino Rojo was neatly arranged by trembling hands, which in turn made his voice sound otherworldly and hyperbolic. At times Banhart's voice recalls Bessie Smith's, but when you see him -- all dark locks, healthy beard and bright-eyed optimism -- you wonder what NoCal wilderness he floated out of.

His inherent wandering nature takes him through a rainbow spectrum of sounds, and the music is both everywhere and nowhere at once. His duet with 1960s folk icon Vashti Bunyan on Rejoicing illustrates this infinite quality. "It's just a shame she's not more well known," he says. "It's amazing that an album like Just Another Diamond Day can come out, and then all this time passes and then she puts out a new one [the upcoming Lookaftering] and it's still as pure. There's a timelessness."

Bunyan's 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day, which focused on themes of nature and children, has evidently been absorbed by Banhart, as is demonstrated in lyrics such as "And hey there, Mr. Happy Squid, you move so psychedelically / You hypnotize with your magic dance all the animals in the sea" (from Nino Rojo) and "Clouds of birds are governing her dark blue sky / Clouds of birds are governing her sky / A rush of wind is gently playing with their wings / And yellow stones are standing on her eyes" (from Rejoicing).

In 1967, sure, Banhart would have been called a hippie. Partial to wearing dresses, the lithe Banhart goes barefoot on stage and often plays sitting on the floor. Hearing his relaxed, comfortable voice, vibing on his laid-back outlook and wonderment at nature, reminds one of the singers of the 1960s and how their music was in direct conflict with the political climate. And yet, today, Banhart feels more comfortable being known as new age. Just don't call what he does "freak folk."

Banhart's most recent album, Cripple Crow finds him in a more communal vibe. The album was recorded with the help of those he calls "the Family," a small group of friends from various bands (Vetiver, Cocorosie, Bunny Brains, Joanna Newsom, Feathers, Espers, Tarantula A.D.). The Family, Banhart reveals, is something he came up with to ward off the tiresome freak-folk label that's been slapped on everything he and his group of musician friends do. "I was just trying to give an alternative to a lame name, and I thought that sounded pretty," he explains. The whole recording process, done at Bearsville studio in Woodstock, New York, took about a month. Banhart says "making the mead" that was served to his friends was what actually took the longest. The album is a solid farrago of Southern, Latin, and Native American styles. The doo-wop "Little Boys" ("I see so many little boys I want to marry / I see plenty little kids I've yet to have"), written from the perspective, Banhart says, of a "schizophrenic hermaphrodite," may clash with "Some People Ride the Wave", a stompy Southern declaration that "Me I ride the wave of never gonna drown", but that's Banhart's trip. He's the wanderer, he may never drown, and he may just be fooling around. He's a man out of synch with any specific time, but he says all the right things. When asked what he would be doing if he weren't singing and playing music, he thinks a moment before concluding, "Wiping carrot dressing from your table in a restaurant."

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