NEW YORK — When a then-teenage Devendra Banhart opened the used Nick Drake cd his father brought back for him from London and found a Radiohead cd inside, “I was like, ‘OK, I’ll listen to this … but who’s this Nick Drake guy?'” recalls Banhart, calling in from a tour stop in Dublin.
While his was hardly the ordinary response to anything by Radiohead in the late Nineties, Banhart was — and remains today, at 24 — anything but ordinary. Case in point: The title of his debut album in 2002, “Oh Me Oh My the Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit,” speaks for itself, really.
Now, on his fourth album, “Cripple Crow” (XL Recordings/Beggars Banquet), to be released Sept. 13, Banhart, when pushed to give a label for his music, prefers “New Age-Brazilian fisherwoman-rock ‘n’ roll” to “folk” — a word he and his musician friends use only “to make fun of each other,” he says. And the reason is simple: “I don’t think the album I just made falls into the folk category.”
While the young musical types of his day have gone for the bells and whistles of hip-hop beats and loud electric guitars, Banhart’s delicate vibrato leads a menagerie of sounds, including those of a sitar, cello, violin and flute, as well as the more expected acoustic guitar and rhythm section.
Spouting lyrics that sound like they’re straight from the lips of a worldly old man, Banhart seems to come from a different time and place. In addition to British folk-rock guitarist Drake, this young man’s flavorful array of influences and favorites includes Sixties English singer Vashti Bunyan and the Seventies’ Gary Higgins, as well as today’s Portuguese band, Caveira; the New York-based Metallic Falcons; Brazil’s Caetano Veloso; Venezuelan legend Simón Díaz, and even a little-known band called Fleetwood Mac.
Coming from a well-traveled background himself, Banhart (who is now touring Europe and is set to hit the U.S. in October) was born in Texas, but spent most of his childhood in his mother’s homeland of Venezuela. He only learned to speak English when he and his mother moved to California when he was a teen.
This story first appeared in the August 9, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
His Spanish roots pop up throughout “Cripple Crow,” adding to the album’s earthy, multicultural feel. And there seems no end to this fellow’s dreamy depth. The month before recording, Banhart rented a house in Woodstock, and read the works of Socrates and Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” before he started songwriting.
“It feels like it comes from a source … outside of yourself, a creative spirit,” he explains of his writing process. “It comes in the way that a ray of sun is shot at the earth, or in the way you can imagine a yawn looks like when it comes, and it’s up to you to figure out how to shape it.”
If you can imagine that.
Lest one think Banhart’s music is only for flower children, however, his soulful croons and grooves caught the ear of visual mastermind Michel Gondry — responsible for videos such as Björk’s “Human Behavior” and the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong.” Gondry directed Devendra’s video for “A Ribbon,” from his 2004 release, “Niño Rojo.”
Likewise, just when you think you’ve got this kid pigeonholed as a sappy tree-hugger, the unexpected — and hardly ordinary — turns up once again. Upon realizing he’s speaking to a fashion newspaper, Banhart exclaims, “That is such a trip. My whole wardrobe is my mom’s and all my ex-girlfriends’ clothes.”