Devendra Banhart: The Essence of Things

Something in me was giving me instructions and I didn't totally follow them. I was worried in the end this wouldn't work out, and the instructions change every time. It's like the voice of the creative spirit.

-Devendra Banhart

Photo by Lauren Dukoff

The Dreaded Freak Folk

Devendra Banhart by Lauren Dukoff
One of the challenges with Devendra Banhart is describing his music to others. For those who get it, no black and white definitions are necessary but the slippery, evolving character of his music makes it tough to wrestle into words. Sadly, the term "freak folk" has caught on in reference to his work and anyone associated with him or those prone to quiet, often acoustic flavored exploration.

"It's inescapable for anyone who appeared on Golden Apples [i.e. The Golden Apples of the Sun, a landmark compilation put together by Banhart in 2004 for Arthur Magazine] or who's working with any aspect of that stuff," says Jana Hunter, who's released albums on Gnomonsong, the fiercely indie label run by Banhart and longtime pal Andy Cabic (Vetiver). "[That phrase] is absolutely degrading. It's a write-off of somebody's music from the beginning. It's frustrating to me because a lot of my songs are coming from a completely different space. When I started I didn't know anything about folk music and these aren't even folk songs, let alone any sort of freakish tweak on folk. I understand with the proliferation of music in the past few years where people try to find a descriptor for things. But, of course, it's always frustrating from the vantage point of someone making music and believes in it to try and sum it up in five words or less."

"The whole assumption that it's classifiable as folk – unless you're using my definition, which is music made by and for the people – is ridiculous. Most of the time I just say, 'Fuck it,' and don't get involved with definitions," says Banhart. "With [Smokey Rolls], it's the first time I've gotten a lot of bad, confused, even angry reviews. It's a new thing but you gotta deal with it sometime [laughs]."

Other musical fellow travelers are equally effusive about Banhart's infectious spark. Matteah Baim and Rio en Medio, whose 2007 releases, Death of the Sun and The Bride of Dynamite, respectively, JamBase praised to high heaven, have only nice things to say about their connection with him.

"I think we feel entirely natural around each other, so that the moments become full of possibility and always new," says Baim. "It's like the conversations become songs and the songs become us and we walk home and drink coffee."

Devendra Banhart
"He has always been remarkably supportive of my music. He was one of the first people who heard it, and without his and Andy's enthusiasm I would likely have kept it only within a small circle of friends," offers Rio en Medio. "We haven't made any music together yet, so I can only imagine what he is like to collaborate with. But, I'd guess he manages very well in a delicate balance of give and take, vision and spontaneity."

One aspect Banhart and his peers share is an embrace of stillness and subtlety. Often, their work doesn't immediately reach out and grab you. Instead, one is welcomed into a quiet world we don't have to find entry into.

"That's just kinda my speed," chuckles Hunter. "Modern pop music plays to shorter attention spans, but then again, I write songs that are two minutes long [laughs]. I'm a quiet person when I'm writing. It's intimate music made in an intimate fashion to be enjoyed intimately because it's intimate subject matter. That does set it apart from modern pop music, which tends to avoid intimacy all together."

"Dynamics are everything. Without it, music is mud," observes Greg Rogove, who drummed on Smokey Rolls and has taken on an increasingly larger role in Banhart's touring band, Spiritual Bonerz, where Rogove handles a number of spoken story sections live. "Music, in the end, tells a story. You're not always using spoken language all the time, when you play guitar or whatever, but to get up there and have a moment where you get to tell a story like that makes a concert more of an entity, more of a full performance experience. There's a bit of theatre to it."

Despite being painted as cosmic hippies, this is no a flesh and blood retro exercise. Andy Cabic has gotten used to it, saying, "When people maybe don't get the histories right or they're skewed to some other perception, I figure those things will get untangled with time. It doesn't frustrate or upset me when things aren't represented as they are."

For the most part, Banhart is equally blasé about wrongheaded interpretations of his work but now and again someone goes too far.

"We played the World Café [syndicated radio show]," relates Banhart. "We did 'So Long Old Bean,' which I sing in a lower register. At the end of the song, the guy says, 'I guess I see where some of the Tiny Tim comparisons come from in that song.' And I feel like no matter what I played he had that comment and wanted to use it. First off, have you ever heard Tiny Tim? Where the comparison lies I have no idea! Do I sit and talk about Elizabeth Taylor for four hours? No! He wrote a song called 'Santa Claus Got The A.I.D.S.' I think that's a pretty funny title but I would never joke about that. We're playing an A.I.D.S. benefit at the end of this tour. I don't know anything I have in common with Tiny Tim. It's one of the few comparisons I was actually shocked by."

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