Young singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart has made a name for himself in independent music by performing barefoot with flowers in his hair. An old hippie soul trapped in a youthful body, Banhart found himself part of a new scene dubbed "neo-folk" or "anti-folk," a group of like-minded musicians who use folk music as a blueprint to create postmodern rock 'n' roll. By his early twenties, Banhart was drawing comparisons from critics that ran the gamut from Marc Bolan to Nick Drake, Syd Barrett and even Tiny Tim (thanks to his warbling falsetto). With three releases under his smock in only two years, Banhart has a long future ahead of him, even if his eccentric looks put him on the fringes of the mainstream music community.
Born in Texas on May 30, 1981, Banhart's unusual first name was chosen by an Indian spiritual teacher whom his parents admired. When his parents divorced, Banhart and his mother relocated to Caracas, Venezuela, where he spent his adolescent years. After his mother remarried, Banhart moved again, this time to Los Angeles. He had been composing songs since his early teens, but never performed his work in public. Art, it seemed, was Banhart's true passion throughout childhood and he won a scholarship to the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute to continue his studies. Serendipity would step in, however, and alter Banhart's destiny. During his education, Banhart found himself living with a gay couple, whom he nicknamed Jerry Elvis and Bob the Crippled Comic. It was the faith of this couple that gave Banhart his first public performance—the couple's wedding. Banhart remembers that ceremony as his first official show. "I played my own adaptation of 'How Great Thou Art' and 'Love Me Tender,'" he wrote in his own biography for Young God Records.
With his first taste of playing to others, Banhart, who was studying interdisciplinary art in college, eventually dropped out. By now an accomplished musician and artist, Banhart sought inspiration in Paris in the summer of 2000. These cosmopolitan travels and experiences led to a musical sound that echoed a peculiar drifter and resonated somewhere between lo-fi blues and acoustic British and American folk all wrapped up with ardent yet bizarre lyrics. Jim Haynes of the Wire summed up Banhart's sound as, "… Using voice, guitar and (a) four track, his raw songcraft is terrifyingly effective at communicating the breadth of human emotion."
After spending time in France, Banhart was homeward bound, sharing his time between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was then he caught the attention of Young God Records owner, Michael Gira (a member of the New York bands Swans and Angels of Light). "To say Devendra is unique is an absurd understatement," Gira wrote in a press release for Banhart's 2002 debut album, Oh Me Oh My … The Way the Day Goes By the Sun is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of theChristmas Spirit (commonly referred to as Oh Me Oh My…). "When I first heard his voice I could not believe it. His occasionally warbling falsetto is alternately bizarre, soulful, comical, gentle and often a little frightening." The nonsensical album title and lyrics, odd orchestration, and Banhart's overall style drew numerous comparisons to Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, a musician known more for his stint in a mental hospital than his music. This only made Banhart more appealing to critics. Rolling Stone said, "Banhart sounds like he's strolling along the edge of madness, but this magnetic crudity makes perfect sense."
Recorded on various borrowed four-tracks, the very lo-fi recordings on Oh Me Oh My … were never actually meant to be heard by anyone. Banhart began recording the ramshackle songs when he was around 18, but the tape hiss, background noises and honest flaws only made the naked sound of Oh Me Oh My … more intimate. Critics wondered if the faintly psychedelic folk songs (22 in all) were slightly damaged purposely, perhaps like their creator was. Jay Babock of Arthur Magazine called the record "… Strange, haunting, beautiful demented elfstuff …" Critics worldwide put the album in their top ten lists, hailing it as one of the rawest, most honest albums of the year. The New York Times named Oh Me Oh My … their number two alternative album of 2002 and said, "The quiver in Mr. Banhart's voice is as shaky as his songs' connections to every day reality … his songs and fragments ponder animals, apparitions, logical leaps and childlike certainties, all with credible eccentricity." The guitar picking, and off-kilter almost trembling and tender voice of Banhart caused All Music Guide 's Jason MacNeil to comment, "Throughout the record, Banhart is never guilty of being artistic just for the sake of being artistic. Each track rings true and can't be deemed contrived."
Banhart had so many songs that couldn't fit on his acclaimed debut that he released six more of them, including two tracks from Oh Me Oh My …, on an EP in the United Kingdom entitled The Black Babies. After moving to New York in 2004, Banhart released two more albums; Rejoicing in the Hands and Niño Rojo, securing his place as one of neo-folk's most promising contemporaries. This time, Banhart recorded in a real studio and used backing musicians for the first time, when the musician and his producer, Michael Gira, were invited down south to record with veteran Lynn Bridges. Although Banhart had a handful of musicians and pros at his disposal, Rejoicing in the Hands still sounds raw, with the same immediacy and naturalness of his previous recordings. Numerous critics noted the noises of the Georgian cicadas chirping in the background on songs; natural noises that became an essential part of particular songs.
Sixteen songs from the session were released on Rejoicing in the Hands; another 16 from the same followed a few months later on the release Niño Rojo in 2004. Essentially, the two albums work as a double album and were in fact later released together on a double vinyl record. Banhart's bewitching eccentricities and vintage sound became as compelling as they were confusing; all of which made the musician alluring to those interested in the anti-folk or neo-folk movements of the early 2000s. James Jam of NME commented, "… Banhart assembles his delicate and whimsical folk songs with the naivete of a three-year-old at play. And so while his songs are as earnest as soil, they're also as beautiful and joyous as spring in full bloom. Banhart makes music that could charm the birds from the trees …."
With four acclaimed releases by his twenty-second birthday, Banhart, along with a handful of other musicians, has signified a new direction for modern folk music. Although he's currently living between New York and France, Banhart remains a traveling troubadour, unable to settle his body or his music.
For the Record . . .
Born on May 30, 1981, in TX; raised in Caracas, Venezuela. Education: Attended the San Francisco Art Institute.
Began playing music in and around San Francisco, CA, late 1990s; discovered by Young God Records founder Michael Gira, early 2000s; released Oh Me Oh My… on Young God, 2002; toured the United States and Europe, 2002-04; released Rejoicing in the Hands and Niño Rojo, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Young God Records, P.O. Box 150-031 Van Brunt Station, Brooklyn, NY 11215, website: http://www.younggodrecords.com.
Oh Me Oh My…, Young God, 2002.
Rejoicing in the Hands, Young God, 2004.
Niño Rojo, Young God, 2004.
Dream #3, September 15, 2002.
Free Williamsburg, February 2003.
Mojo, November 2004.
"Devendra Banhart," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (October 11, 2004).
"Devendra Banhart," BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/later/interviews/devendrabanhart.shtml (November 9, 2004).
"Devendra Banhart," Splendid eZine, http://www.splendidezine.com/features/devendra (November 1, 2004).
"Devendra Banhart," Young God Records, http://www.younggodrecords.com/Artists/DevendraBanhart/ (November 1, 2004).
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