Gracious Guy on the Move

A homeless hippie wanderer just a few years ago, Devendra Banhart brings faux-naïve songs and spry guitar work to the Hotel Congress

Folk-rock singer Devendra Banhart may be the sweetest and most gracious interview subject in all of music, or at least of the 20-plus years I have been interviewing musicians.

Speaking on a cell phone from backstage just before sound check for a gig in Portland a couple of weeks ago, he answers the phone with a friendly "Ciao!" and signs off 40 minutes later with, "I mean this when I say it, it has been a pleasure. Thank you."

One of the most creative musicians in contemporary music, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter and guitarist creates unbelievably beautiful songs--sometimes haunting and often playful, unselfconscious compositions full of ornate swooping melodies, unusual structures, spry guitar work and Banhart's high, quavering, trilling and androgynous voice. Although he is a true original, Banhart also sounds at times like a combination of Marc Bolan, Nick Drake, Cat Stevens, Billie Holiday and Jeff Buckley.

Touring to support his recently released second album, Rejoicing in the Hands, Banhart will headline a gig in the air-conditioned banquet room at Hotel Congress on Tuesday night, July 6.

The gig will mark Banhart's second visit to Tucson. Last year, he opened for and played as a member of The Angels of Light, a group led by former Swans front man Michael Gira.

Gira also happens to own the record label Young God, which has released Banhart's two CDs.

When Gira discovered Banhart, he was a 20-year-old homeless hippie wanderer. Soon, Gira released the younger man's debut album, Oh Me Oh My ...The Way the Day Goes by the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, which consisted of crude home recordings unadorned by any overdubs or studio effects.

Of Banhart, Gira has written, "He's the most genuine, least cynical and calculated artist I've ever known ... He's also one of the most innately talented, magical performers I have ever heard. Period. ... Whether the songs are pained, twisted, whimsical or even sometimes weirdly silly, aside from being fantastically musical and expertly played, they are also utterly sincere, and devoid of a single drop of post-modern irony."

Such comments about Banhart's preternatural talent--from fans, fellow musicians and critics--have become almost commonplace. But he hasn't learned to take them for granted.

"I mean, no, I don't hear that all the time. In fact, if maybe someone had said something like that to me before, it's like the first time when you say it. It's shocking to me, and I am so very grateful."

Born in Houston, Banhart spent his early years in Caracas, Venezuela, and was named Devendra by his parents' guru. Suffice to say, Banhart and his family moved around a lot. "I have continued to do so. That's what I am doing on this tour, moving around."

But Banhart doesn't feel that living in different places or experiencing different cultures necessarily affects the way he makes music.

"I wouldn't know what it's like to do anything else than move around. I'll tell you one thing--it has made me become very aware of details, what it is like in that town, what it is like in that city. In the end, the more you move around, it all turns into one big detail. It's kind of like when you are on acid and it's all connected."

Unfortunately, Banhart isn't able to forge such connections with the cities and towns he visits on a concert tour.

"It's a little different now. When I was traveling on my own, I had time to get into the town, to get drunk here and to go swimming there, and to visit people there. Now, it's more like I play and sleep and play again and sleep again."

Banhart started singing when he was 9, and began playing guitar only a few years ago, at 19. While growing up, he listened to a diverse assortment of music. Among his favorites were Neil Young's Harvest, Nick Drake, Caetano Veloso, Julio Iglesias, Donovan and Menudo.

Under the influence of Rejoicing in the Hands, listeners will perceive increased sophistication in both Banhart's faux-naïve songwriting and lovely guitar playing.

"Well, I appreciate when people say that," says Banhart, "but I do not think so at all. I feel like a retarded elf learning the alphabet. I don't actually know what I am doing at all, but maybe I just have gotten better at not knowing how to do things."

And he doesn't find the cleaner, professional sound of his new record--which was produced by Gira and engineered by Muscle Shoals associate Lynn Bridges--much different than the last.

"Both were recorded in various houses. Well, one was in recorded in various houses; the other was recorded in a house. The big difference was better equipment and instruments."

Banhart considers music a communal thing. He values the relationships created during its making.

"Working with Michael (Gira) is always an honor, and a lesson each time we get together, because he is such a disciplined person and artist. And a lot of people might not know this, but he is a really a fun person."

Banhart also is a member of the chamber-pop band Vetiver, which will play on the same bill Tuesday night (along with singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom).

"Well, Vetiver is really all about (singer-songwriter) Andy Cabic and his music, and lots of people who are various friends such as Hope Sandoval and Colm from My Bloody Valentine and Joanna Newsom and I come in, and we add things to his compositions. He also happens to be the only other person I can write songs with."

Although he says he may be biased, Banhart calls Cabic his favorite songwriter. "If you listen to his songs closely, they are like the mellow Velvet Underground and Neil Young stuff from the early 1970s. It's so definitely of that caliber."

In conjunction with the Devendra Banhart concert, Club Congress will present a show by on-the-rise garage-rock band The Pleased (apparently known associates of Banhart and Newsom) and robust psychedelic-blues group Thee Shams on its main stage the same night. Admission is free for this gig if you buy a ticket to Banhart's.

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