People are talking about Devendra Banhart, and not without reason. At the age of 22 he's already appeared in Rolling Stone in his underwear. You might be thinking that a number of people have accomplished this, but perhaps only in this case is such an achievement due to natural musical talent rather than some plastic good looks. Over the span of a couple months, Banhart's debut album, Oh Me Oh My... has created a storm of critical attention proclaiming him a prodigy who is creating some of the freshest and most distinct new music.
Love it or hate it, Banhart's music is unique. He combines fingerpicking acoustic guitar with crooning falsetto vocals and idiosyncratic, absurd lyrics. Either it sounds sublime and strikes a very special chord with you, or it's excruciating to listen to. The album is full of overdubs and Banhart's voice sings over itself repeatedly with a haunting, unworldly quality. But this is no slick achievement of studio engineering. To describe Banhart's music as low-fi is an understatement, as the crackles, pops, and hisses indeed sound as if they were recorded on an answering machine, as he claims.
The Hideout was packed on a recent Friday night for Banhart's billing with Steve Carlton of Entrance (for the unfamiliar, a one-man unplugged punk with a hipper-than-thou Strokes hairdo and glitter rock suit). Before the show, Banhart sat down to talk with me about his music, inspirations, and new tattoo over a shot of whiskey. He doesn't seem to be overly fussed about his new fame and talks of all his acclaim with a definite irreverence. "I have no idea [why everyone is paying so much attention]. Maybe it's because when I used to have a beard I kind of looked like Jesus. He is pretty popular."
Banhart's songs might sometimes seem peaceful and serene if they didn't clock in at around a minute and a half on average. They never get a chance to get going or get tedious, depending upon your tastes. This is certainly folk music for the hyperactive. "If I drag them out no one will listen," says Banhart. "People will get bored. But sometimes in concert I do feel like they're too short. People will think it's too weird if it just stops, so I start to make stuff up so I don't feel too awkward just sitting up there, done after 30 seconds."
Given the bizarre sound of his voice, it's no disappointment to hear that his songs are full of dadaist, nonsequitur lyrics. "My friend has my favorite teeth / they bend backwards when she breathes / and whistles." Even when there's more of a logical thread to follow, it can be difficult to see where Banhart is coming from, like when he shouts over and over again "Michigan Michigan State / How I'd love to live in you / I've never been to Michigan State / Still I want to live in you."
"What's going on with that?" I asked him.
"It doesn't mean anything. It's not really about Michigan and I've never been there and I don't want to go. I could definitely never play there. It would just be too weird. But that song almost more than any other is just a collection of lots of different things pieced together and that's why it sounds that way. But each one means something to me."
Even the title of Banhart's album is appropriately cryptic. The full title is Oh Me Oh My...The Way The Day Goes By The Sun is Setting Dogs are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit. What does that mean? "I just like the sound of it. Also, it's 22 words long and there are 22 songs on the album. And when you write out the first letter of each word, the only thing it spells is 'MOM and DAD.' They're the two most important people in my life so it's appropriate." Or "MOM IS DAD" I pointed out to him. "Yeah, that's even cooler," he replied.
With music that's as unique as this, listeners are inevitably desperate for reference points. Unsurprisingly, Banhart gets compared to a disparate group of musicians ranging from Nick Drake ("That's just ridiculous. He was a genius," Banhart says.) to Tiny Tim ("I've actually never heard a single Tiny Tim song in my life."). But with Banhart's equally attention-grabbing sounds, the comparisons are difficult to quibble with.
Meanwhile Banhart offers a more obscure influence as the reason he's even playing music at all. Some time ago he contacted the reclusive Vashti Bunyan, a 1960s English folk singer whose recently re-released album, Just Another Diamond Day, has a 30-year-old cult following. "A couple of years ago she realized that her record was selling for hundreds of bucks on e-bay and she couldn't believe that anyone was still listening to her stuff." Banhart was, and he was so inspired that he tracked her down in the remote Scottish Hebrides and posed the simple question, should I keep on playing my own music? "She just said, 'Send it to me.' And I did. Because of her reaction and support I kept on going." Banhart was then quick to add in some worshipful appreciation of folk artist Fred Neill, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Karen Dalton. "A book I really like is Mulatta by Miguel Ángel Asturias and Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine-Drinkard."
Banhart ended up in New York after hearing about a Damo Suzuki show when he was making an appearance at John Zorn's club Tonic backed by Cul De Sac. "That was the reason I first really came to New York and it was awesome. He played an incredible version of "Mother Sky." But Malcom Mooney actually sang my favorite Can song. "She Brings the Rain." I like all that stuff. Some of my lyrics are ripped off from Faust."
"Settling" in a squat in New York, Banhart played some shows and sold cassettes for a dollar each. One of these cassettes found its way into the hands of Siobhan Duffy, drummer for the band God Is My Co-Pilot. She took to it immediately and passed it on to the founder and operator of Young God records, Michael Gira, formerly one of the creative forces behind the legendary Swans. Gira responded by offering Banhart a praising letter plus a copy of his Angels of Light CD. A record contract was not far behind.
"Actually I had several offers for a record contract. But I took the offer from Young God because of Michael Gira. You know, he's put everything he has behind me and I have so much respect for him and appreciation for him. The Swans began around the same time as Sonic Youth and they just don't get the same attention. It's only because Sonic Youth sold out to the big record labels while the Swans refused to give in to the establishment. People need to know about that."
Banhart's debut will be followed by another album. "And I'm publishing a book," he added, reaching into his bag to pull out a collection of pencil drawings and writings. The style unmistakably reflects that of his album's cover art (which he drew himself)--childlike but with a compulsive attention to detail. "There are drawings and there's a story too. I've got to go to Kinko's and get this photocopied." Judging by his quick rise to critical and cult-circle acclaim, there are many who can't wait to hear more from him.