Key Albums: Oh Me Oh My... the Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit (2002), Rejoicing in the Hands (2004), What Will We Be (2009)
Devendra Banhart is a bearded, oddball American singer-songwriter most closely associated with the freak-folk uprising that captured the public's imagination in 2004. Though Banhart did much to cultivate the sense of a 'movement' through Golden Apples of the Sun, a compilation he assembled for Arthur magazine in 2004, the name rankled him.
"'Freak folk,'" Banhart sighed, in an interview with Perfect Sound Forever, "I don't really know anything about it. I didn't think of it, I didn't say it, I don't know anybody who calls themselves that, it's something that will pass."
Born in Houston, Banhart's given name was suggested by Prem Rawat, an Indian religious leader of whom Banhart's traveling-yogi father was a follower. After his parents divorced when he was two, Banhart grew up with his mother in Caracas, Venezuela.
Growing up "in a third-world country where we really didn’t get any music," Banhart was uninspired by the "EMF or Milli Vanilli or Garth Brooks" he heard on the radio, and so, at nine years old, "started writing songs and singing songs before [he] started listening to music, just a cappella."
When he was 11, Banhart first heard Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and that served as a direct inspiration. After moving to California as a teenager, Banhart took up the guitar. He discovered he was incredibly prolific ("that just means I write a lot of bad songs!" he gags) and wrote intently whilst studying at the San Francisco Art Institute. He dropped out as a 19-year-old, and traveled to Paris, before returning to San Francisco with the intent to pursue music, inspired by an album he'd just heard: Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day, a then-obscure folk-revival record from 1970 that had just been rediscovered.
"The first time I heard it, I do remember just crying," Banhart confessed to me, in 2004. "Just completely just crying and crying and crying... It was a very magical time, but it was also time shattering. It was what any true, real art does: transcends time, and shatters time, and stops time; there’s no future and there’s no past."
Banhart was so inspired he sent off some of his own, Tyrannosaurus Rex-inspired recordings to Bunyan, along with a handwritten letter and pages of his drawings. At that point, Banhart still wasn’t sure if his strange ditties would ever amount to anything, but many of those early recordings eventually ended up being collated as his debut LP, 2002's Oh Me Oh My... The Way The Days Go By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs Of The Christmas Spirit; a record he calls “a real document of the moment of creation.”
BeginningsOh Me Oh My was released in 2002 by Young God Records, the label run by longtime Swans main-man Michael Gira. The album's idiosyncratic, home-recorded tunes starting winning Banhart a cult following, and in 2003, he signed with tastemaking English label XL for the world outside of North America.
In 2004, Banhart released his second record, Rejoicing in the Hands (which featured a guest appearance by Bunyan), his third, Niño Rojo, and the Golden Apples of the Sun compilation, becoming the poster-boy for a movement dubbed freak-folk by the clamoring press. In the summer of that year, he performed with friends Joanna Newsom and Vetiver in a break-out tour; but, at the time, he was dismissive of his career longevity.
"You know it, and I know it, it’s totally fleeting, man," Banhart told me, at the time. "There’s an up and a down, and any day I could be back there, and any day I expect to be back there. Read an old copy of Rolling Stone from 3 or 4 months ago, and those people in the ‘what’s going on now’ section have already been forgotten."
Yet, when Banhart released Cripple Crow in 2005, it crossed over to bastions like Rolling Stone, who were drawn to its Beatles pastiches in a way they'd never been to his bizarre folksongs.
Banhart moved to a property in Topanga Canyon in 2006 ("there are coyotes in the night time that sing through the valley," he enthused to Uncut, "if you were here, you'd live here"). There he recorded 2007's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, "I've never recorded in a super controlled environment like a professional recording studio," Banhart explained to Pitchfork, "I don't think it's respectful to exclude the rest of the world."
A more goofin-off LP than Banhart's earlier work, it featured collaborations with members of The Strokes and The Black Crowes, and even bothered the nether-regions of the Billboard chart.
Devendra as Celebrity
In April 2008, Banhart started dating Natalie Portman. They had first met in 2007, when Portman was assembling a charty compilation for FINCA (that also included Beirut, The Shins, and Antony and the Johnsons). Portman repaid Banhart's favor of appearing on the record by appearing in the music video for his song "Carmensita." Later, in an interview with Pitchfork, Banhart would recall of the video: "I was too busy falling in love with Natalie while making it."
For a brief period, Banhart and Portman were a gossip-rag couple —strange territory for an artist as strange as Devendra— before parting ways.
Late in 2008, Banhart unveiled a new band, Megapuss, a collaboration with Greg Rogove of Priestbird and Fabrizio Moretti of The Strokes and Little Joy. The band released their debut album, Surfing on Neil Young's Vapor Records.
In 2009, Banhart signed to Warner Bros ("it was shocking that a major would want anything to do with me," he joked), and released his major-label debut, What Will We Be.