The word came from Three Monkeys Online Spanish editor, in Barcelona, first: “hey, have you heard this guy Devendra Banhart? Everyone here is talking about him, you should check it out!”. A hop, skip and a jump later, I sat pleasantly bewildered by Banhart's latest album (his second) Rejoicing in the hands, with its gentle acoustic settings, Banhart's strange falsetto, and his acid-fried lyrics. We were intrigued, so got in touch, to find out who Devendra Banhart is. In retrospect it was probably optimistic to expect someone who has written songs with titles like This beard is for Siobhan and Tit smoking in the temple of Artemis to reveal too much through the medium of an email interview, though his responses by and large brought a whole new meaning to 'elliptical'. But we plough on, to bring you the Three Monkeys Online introduction to a curious genius – Devendra Banhart.
Born in Texas, in 1981, and given his unusual name on the suggestion of a spiritual teacher (nothing cultish or strange, he insists), which, while being reasonably commonplace in India, must have struck locals as strange in Texas, or indeed in Venezuela, where Devendra moved, at the age of two, with his mother after a family split.
Surely having such a strange name has an effect, perhaps in this case contributing to his development as this idiosyncratic artist? “It helped me develop my feminine side”, he responds, having been mistaken for a girl on his return to the States at about 13. “That's what started me singing – dressing in my mothers clothes and singing with a hairbrush”.
To this day Banhart, when he shaves, gets mistaken for a girl due to the name, falsetto singing voice, and slight build no doubt. “Not being gay, it gave me this weird comfort confidence I can't explain” he says.
He spent his formative years in Venezuela, going to school in Caracas, labelled by many the most dangerous city in South America, a continent not shy of violence. And while you might have expected that turbulent atmosphere to foster a love of Sepultura or Motorhead, his music couldn't be further from that, recalling hippie love and idealism, and introspective singer songwriters. He is animated though when asked about Venezuela, and for example whether he follows events there. “Venezuela was insane”, says Banhart. “You don’t go out after 8 because it’s too dangerous. You don’t wear nice sneakers because, while here you may get assaulted, there you just get killed… It's Fucked [Emphasis]! Truly. I've seen [emphasis] it. Corruption is ALL there, in the water even!”. Intriguingly, he continues: “they kicked my father out for being CIA which he is not. My family is not rich, I have SEEN it!!!”
His youth in Venezuela though provided him with a bilingualism which has him singing in Spanish on Todos los dolores, and has a proposed Spanish language album Nina Roja for release later this year. Is there a difference in songwriting for him between English and Spanish? “One is easier to be(pauses) more direct or plain in. I get more poetic in English. In Spanish I can say things like , “the sea is beautiful and I love you” and feel like I can get away with it.
His lyrics, while at times whimsical, are the product of a labour of love: “They all come from hours and hours of editing , of getting to an essence, from a full notebook comes one line”. This is part of the appeal, at least to me, that in the midst of lyrics that seem nursery rhyme mantras or childish poems, there are some beautiful and haunting images, for example, from The body breaks “The body stays and then the body moves on, and I'd really rather not dwell on when yours will be gone”
The art work for Rejoicing in the hands is Banhart's own, and he divides his time between songwriting and painting. After an uneventful high school education, he went to San Francisco on an Art school scholarship. Art school didn't suit him though. “All it taught me at the end was to stay away from 'schools'”.