Devendra Banhart - Biography
Devendra Banhart is a Venezuelan-American artist, singer, songwriter and traveler. He is, at heart, a folk musician, and has been identified as a leader and major influence on an evolving genre of new folk music that incorporates elements of psychedelia, world music, pre-rock folk and post-rock and is variously called psych folk, freak folk or even New Weird America.
Devendra Banhart was born in Houston, Texas in 1981 and was named after an Indian mystic that his parents had followed. His parents divorced two years after he was born, and his mother, being Venezuelan, moved back to Caracas. Devendra was raised in his mother's upper middle class family, and though life wasn't terribly hard for young Banhart, he was aware of the poverty and danger around him. Banhart began writing songs while he was a child, but as with his artwork, he considered it only a hobby. After Banhart's mother remarried, his stepfather moved the family to Los Angeles. By the time Banhart was 17, he had earned a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute, and moved to the city in 1998. Feeling increasingly frustrated by the constraints of academic art and wishing to concentrate on music, Banhart dropped out of school in the summer of 2000 and moved to Paris. In Paris, while busking on the streets, he was discovered by the owner of a small rock venue, and was chosen to open shows for touring indie rock bands. At the same time, Banhart was busy recording songs and ideas on both a friend's borrowed four-track recorder and an answering machine. Banhart moved back to the US that fall and divided his time between San Francisco and Los Angeles. During this period, he gathered some of his primitive four-track recordings together and released the album, The Charles C. Leary (2002 hinah). The album was named after a ship owned by his great grandfather. Banhart continued performing at any venue that would book him.
At one particular show at The Fold in Los Angeles, Banhart was running through his set during a sound check when a woman named Siobhan Duffy happened to hear him. Duffy was a fan of old time bluegrass and folk music and also a close personal friend of Michael Gira, former Swans frontman and owner of Young God Records. Duffy was blown away by how similar Banhart's style was to some of the old folk artists she loved so much, and asked Banhart for a CD-R of some of his material after the show. Sensing that Gira would like hearing Banhart's material, she sent a CD-R to the label head, and he had a similar reaction to Duffy's. Gira soon got in contact with Banhart. Gira heard something unique in the original primitive versions of Banhart's songs, and desired to release them “as is” rather than have Banhart re-record them in a studio. The resulting album, Oh Me Oh My... (2002 Young God) was released to favorable reviews. Many reviewers and music lovers took note of Banhart's quirky songwriting style, bizarre lyrics and quivering, almost falsetto voice and wondered if this was some lost tape of an old eccentric folk singer that Gira had found someplace and decided to release. The fact that it was performed by a photogenic young singer/songwriter with a flair for hippy weirdness further intrigued the record buying public and the album did remarkably well for a release of its nature. In 2003, the album was followed by an EP, The Black Babies (Young God), which included more of Banhart's early material.
After the unexpected wide-scale success of Banhart's second album, the question both Gira and Banhart faced was this: Do you record the next album on dodgy four track recorders to retain the veneer of primitive authenticity, or do you put Banhart in a big, modern studio and see what he can do with more generous resources? They split the difference, and recorded 57 songs of Banhart singing and playing guitar at engineer Lynn Bridges' house on the Alabama/Georgia border. Gira and Banhart then took the tapes back to Gira's homebase of Brooklyn, New York and added dashes of extra guitar, percussion, cello, trumpet and piano. The pair selected 32 of the original 57 songs and released them as Rejoicing In The Hands (2004 Young God). The album's almost seamless mix of ragtime, Appalachian folk, country and blues, mixed with Banhart's distinctive voice and lyrical content, made for another album that was a success with both critics and his growing fan base. Nino Rojo (Young God), the companion album to Rejoicing In the Hands, was released later in September of 2004. Nino Rojo included the rest of the tracks recorded with Lynn Bridges. Banhart left Young God and moved to the larger London/New York-based independent label, XL Recordings. During this time Banhart also began working with his old friend from art school, Andy Cabic (formerly of the Raymond Brake), in his new band Vetiver. He played guitar with Vetiver until 2006.
In 2005, Banhart and a free-floating group of friends, sometimes called the Hairy Fairy Band or Fried Hummingbird or by their current name, Power Mineral, retired to famed Bearsville Studios near Woodstock, New York, and recorded the album Cripple Crow (2005 XL). The album was a cross-stitching of Banhart's influences, including touches of reggae, flamenco, psychedelic rock, jug band blues, and Brazilian tropicalia. It also included songs sung in Spanish. The cover artwork also was different from other Banhart releases, using a photo collage that referenced the Beatle's Sgt. Pepper album cover — a veritable who’s who of the San Francisco “freak folk” scene-- rather than Banhart's child-like illustrations that had graced previous releases. While there was initial trepidation from fans and critics, the expanded sound eventually won them over and even increased his audience. Also during 2005, Banhart and Cabic founded the small label Gnomonsong in partnership with the distributor Revolver USA. Banhart released a split vinyl-only album with Gnomonsong artist Jana Hunter in 2005, Devendra Banhart/Jana Hunter on Troubleman Unlimited, each artist taking a side for their songs.
After another round of international touring, Banhart settled down and built a home studio in the famous hippie stronghold of Topanga Canyon, in Los Angeles County. Gathering together friends and collaborators, he recorded Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (2007 XL). The album featured guest turns from the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson, actor Gael Garcia Bernal, re-discovered British folk artist Vashti Bunyan (who had also appeared on Rejoicing…and who Banhart was partially responsible for re-discovering), Nick Valensi of The Strokes, and a host of other musicians and singers. Smokey continued Banhart's string of critically praised albums, landing on many critics’ “best of” lists for the year.
Bringing him strangely full-circle, a collection of some of Banhart's artwork was exhibited along with the late Swiss artist Paul Klee's in an exhibition titled “Abstract Rhythms” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in early 2008. Also in 2008, Banhart joined Megapuss, a band composed of himself and Gregory Rogrove, with Fabrizio Moretti of the Strokes and many of the usual players backing them. An album, Surfing (Vapor), was released in October of 2008.
Banhart released What Will We Be (Warner Brothers, 2009) to end the decade and kept a low profile for a few years. In the Spring of 2013, he resurfaced with a new album, Mala (Nonesuch, 2013) and relocated to New York City.