Devendra Banhart


Ingredients for a great record:
Duct tape
Rusty nails
Spices and horns
Old chicken feathers (from Chinatown)

Devendra Banhart, whose name was given to him by an Indian guru his parents followed (“nothing cultish,” he says), was born in Texas in 1981, but spent most of his childhood in Caracas, Venezuela. He later moved to Southern California, where he petitioned unsuccessfully for a skate park to be built near his home. After high school he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute, dropped out a couple of years later, and started recording songs on a 4-track lent to him by a friend.

What he came up with was a cobbled mix of acoustic guitar, singing, mumbling, clapping, stomping, and hissing tape. Some songs came to him so spontaneously that they had to be retrieved from friends’ answering machines. The ultimate result was the rambling and beautiful Oh Me Oh My… The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, released in 2002. He has since put aside the solo stuff and started playing with a full band, the Queens of Sheeba, with whom he’s been making music he calls “space reggae.”

Banhart is a gifted and prolific songwriter (he released two full-length albums last year, Rejoicing in the Hands and Niño Rojo, despite an uninterrupted two-and-a-half year tour) who plays in a range of styles, having drawn comparisons to Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett, William Blake, Tiny Tim, Marc Bolan, Beck, and Billie Holiday. Listening to his records or seeing him perform live, it’s easy to feel like Banhart is channeling just about every musical genre imaginable. But what he’d really like you to pay attention to are the stories in his songs.

His latest album, Cripple Crow, was released in September.

—John O’Connor


THE BELIEVER: You said that you make music mostly for your friends, but that it’s also meant to be shared. As time goes on and your audience grows, does this aspect of making music change for you?

DEVENDRA BANHART: I do wonder about that. Like, is U2 thinking, “Man, this is going out to bazillions of people”? I don’t know. I’ll write a song about, say, a leaf, or about my mom, or my friends. When I’m recording it, I’m just singing to them, or to that thing. That’s all. Maybe it would sound different if I thought I was writing to this huge thing, to a huge audience. But the things I write about are things that I feel I have intimate relationships with. The way I started recording songs was that my friend Noah gave me a 4-track and said, “I’m gonna let you borrow this in exchange for the tape that you record.” And I did that. So it was always meant to be shared. I’m aware now that maybe more people know about it, but it just feels like I’m sharing it with more friends.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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John O’Connor is a foreign correspondent for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper. Neither young nor idealistic, he recently had the honor of being the sole gentile on the notorious Brooklyn kickball squad The Idealistic Young Jews.

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