In Conversation: Devendra Banhart

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‘Flying Wig’ sees Devendra Banhart at his most meditative and self-reflective. Here, the playful Venezuelan-American artist opens up to Tom Curtis-Horsfall about dissipating the smog of grief with poetry, nearly making a Grateful Dead-indebted “jam” album, and “psychic mind-melding” with producer and “sister” Cate Le Bon.

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Playfulness has permeated the work of Devendra Banhart throughout his three-decade-spanning career as an artist. From the freewheeling freak folk of his New Weird America emergence, to the preppier psychedelia that followed, to the abstract, Latin-infused indie that has propelled previous albums like ‘Mala’, ‘Ape in Pink Marble’ and ‘Ma’, his metamorphosis through music has been one marked by a desire not to take himself too seriously. Speaking to Devendra over zoom from Iowa City ahead of his first date of his current US tour, his gentle tone feels preternaturally coquettish, despite a minor pang of nervousness about showcasing songs from his latest album, ‘Flying Wig’, for the first time. “The level of dread is at total equanimity,” he joked in an erudite but easy-going way, evidently not taking it too seriously. Though, the new songs in question are some of the most straightforwardly self-reflective and weighty compositions we’ve heard from Devendra. This may very well be the most exposed he’s ever been as a musician. 

“No, not at all. Not at all,” he kindly objects however, after pointing out if that’s the case. “If there’s one thing I’ve been working with is vulnerability that I’m comfortable with. So I wouldn’t say that this record is my most vulnerable ever…” trailing off ever so slightly before U-turning after a brief second thought. “You know what? I take it all back. It is. It’s just it doesn’t seem so scary because I’ve been working with ‘that’ for some time.” The “that” which he refers to is his grief. It’s manifested in a consistent duality in Banhart’s output in recent years. Though his idiosyncratic writing may seem impenetrably surreal and comical at times, there’s raw feelings and confusion he’s communicating, or at least figuring out in real time. On ‘Flying Wig’ he’s allowed himself to soak in it; the good, the bad, the despair, and the hope.

The Venezuelan-American artist was less reticent about the initial form of each song, or lack of, before he took them into the studio. “Talk about vulnerability, demos are rough, man. Demos are embarrassing,” a confession which is accompanied with a shoulder-shuddering cringe. “You use a lot of the wrong words. I don’t even want to tell you what some of the original lyrics were, they’re so bad.” Produced by Welsh art-rock musician and “sister” Cate Le Bon, Banhart’s vaunted appreciation for his Mexican Summer labelmate meant he proverbially tiptoed into sessions with his tail between his legs: “I respect her so much, and love her as an artist. I really wanted to impress her. There’s such a hierarchy. I’m lower than hell. She’s on such a pedestal. That was tough, trying to turn in demos to her that have terrible lyrics.” 

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Once the album’s nucleus of songs were set in place, the pair put their “psychic mind-melding” to work, recognising that “magic forms in the gaps” with Banhart swiftly relinquishing co-producing duties to let Le Bon fully produce the album. “Since the first session we had, it switched from being co-produced by me and Cate to just Cate producing. I just saw the way she was conducting the sessions. I trusted her immediately.” His trust in her was integral, as Le Bon guided his exploration, both spiritually and sonically. 

‘Flying Wig’ is luscious, down-tempo and ruminative, with warm, billowing synths throughout and an ambient adjacent breathability. Coupled with the hopeful, the sometimes despondent, but always mediative lyrics, there’s a palpable sense of vulnerability throughout. During recording sessions, Banhart wore an Issey Miyake dress – gifted to him from Le Bon’s own wardrobe – and his grandmother’s pearls which emboldened him with a sense of maternal protection during the writing and recording process, “like returning to from where I started to sing when I was a kid,” he explains. He’s also worn this dress on stage, at his first ever performance in Caracas, Venezuela – a homecoming that re-connected him to his youth quite literally – as well as more recent shows in Mexico City and Los Angeles where he has encouraged attending fans to “be a mess in your favourite dress” too. 

In 2021, Banhart released ‘Refuge’, a collaborative ambient/experimental album with Noah Georgeson, his Californian confidant who has either produced or featured on Devendra’s albums since 2005’s ‘Cripple Crow’. But the synth-inspired direction of ‘Flying Wig’ wasn’t an off-shoot of ‘Refuge’s meditative musicality, or even a conscious decision at all. “It was more based on images. What imagery we wanted to evoke. Especially that we were surrounded by nature”. To record ‘Flying Wig’, Devendra and his close-knit band of trusted players – which included Nicole Lawrence on pedal steel and guitar, Euan Hinshelwood on saxophone, Todd Dahlhoff on bass, and Greg Rogove on drums – ventured to the serene, verdant surrounds of Topanga Canyon, where they set up stall in a cabin studio formerly owned by Neil Young. But the album would have sounded entirely different if it weren’t for Cate’s orchestration. 

In the thick of a Grateful Dead phase whilst recording, Devendra openly admits: “I wanted to make a jam record, which is pretty dumb. I knew she [Cate] wouldn’t allow that. She won’t even let you say ‘jam’ around her. I think she said ‘maybe you mean more serialist?’ She’d interpret it in a way that felt like we weren’t obviously jamming.” Though, ceremonially, there was plenty of time spent listening to ‘After The Gold Rush’ – Neil Young recorded the majority of his seminal 1970 album in that very studio – being in such a lush environment presented Devendra and company with a “backdrop to focus in on what the opposite image of where we were was. What was the shadow side of this natural environment? That shadow side was this dystopian, desolate bare landscape, full of shadowy figures and ghosts in the distance.” It was imagery that was far-removed from Banhart’s previous confectionary music – the ‘Little Yellow Spider’ and ‘Seahorse’ are a distant dream, ousted by the sleep paralysis figures of grief creeping towards him. It was a landscape that only synthesisers could paint. 

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‘Desolate’ continuously crops up. Not just throughout our interview whenever we discuss the imagery he envisaged, but it’s the mantra of lead single ‘Twin’. “Same desolate space / Same no way out / Same infinite doubt”, Devendra sings in a hushed, resigned manner, whilst the punishing, painfully infectious bassline and jarring guitar riff conjure a gloomy, constrictive cage. This desolate space Devendra explores is uncharted territory, but it’s one of the album’s most compelling moments. 

Album opener ‘Feeling’ eases in the reflective tone of ‘Flying Wig’ flawlessly. Banhart’s voice gently mutters, “I’m looking for a feeling / Hard to explain / I’m looking for a feeling / Might not come again,” and swells with the distant sound of a midnight shoreline, a tangible wave of “solitude washing over you”. We’ve all felt the isolation of a sleepless night laying in bed, waiting for a tide of feeling to engulf us. Sometimes those are the only moments we truly unbottle our deepest emotions, an experience that he willingly embraces: “And when the night comes / Oh, how she comes.” 

It’s not all a relentlessly haunting listen however. Le Bon’s fingerprints can be felt throughout, notably incorporating the wonky, distorted saxophone parts and bulging bass that defined her superb 2022 album ‘Pompeii’. The quirky, wriggling rhythm of ‘Maps’ feels indebted to Le Bon, and ‘Charger’ (Banhart’s personal favourite track) wouldn’t have reached completion without her lyrical prowess, a moment of synergy that left Devendra “freaked out”. ‘Nun’, a song written in a nunnery in northern Nepal, could’ve slotted into any of his recent albums, in fairness. 

‘Fireflies’, arguably the album’s most sincere and sentimental offering, is iridescent in its nostalgia: “It’s a love song. It’s a relationship song, remembering someone you were with. It’s looking back to long ago,” he divulges in a half-convincing sort of way, before fully unravelling the song’s backstory. “You know when you first break up, there’s the pain, the desire, the regret. Just those emotions that are part of the gig. Then a little bit later, there’s the revisionist history. You can imagine them as a total disaster, a caricature demon. Or this saint that was the best person for you, and you fucked it. So you glorify them in some delusional way. Then more time passes and you see it was just a beautiful thing for the time.” I didn’t think it necessary to ask if it was about Natalie Portman – a well-publicised ex-girlfriend – though it was on the tip of my tongue.

“I thought who else do I want to work with? And that was Cate,” Banhart resolutely confirmed once deciding to pursue a new path, given that his and Noah Georgeson’s twenty-year working relationship changed post-‘Refuge’. Devendra and Cate’s friendship was water-tight, and he’d just signed to New York independent label Mexican Summer, so they were labelmates too. The stars aligned it seemed. “But I had to beg her. She has her own music, her own thing. Then Wilco asked her. She’s in demand. So I had to do a lot of begging.” Whilst their creative partnership took some wrangling, the pair’s friendship was a touch more serendipitous. 

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The title of Banhart’s 2002 album ‘Oh Me Oh My’ was the mirror image of Le Bon’s 2009 debut ‘Me Oh My’, and from then onwards “it was a slow inertia bringing us closer together”. The first time they legit met “was at a Crowded House convention,” in an unlikely twist of fate. “There’s a few bands she’s into that I’m not even going to ‘out her’ that she’s into. But there’s a Crowded House convention in Pasadena. She’s a massive fan.” Fandom of the Kiwi legends aside, they bonded over a dodgy haircut using a knife and fork, with Cate at the helm.

The genesis of ‘Flying Wig’ was Kobayashi Issa’s ‘dewdrop’ haiku, a poem about embracing beauty in the impermanence of human life, one that inspired Devendra to start piecing together lyrics and motifs for the album. Where poetry can often seem like a needless luxury in the chaos of everyday life, when people are stricken with grief and loss, poetry can offer sense and nourishment amidst the smog of pain. “It’s so insignificant and useless”, he wryly shrugs, with a tuned-in knowing that a degree of pretension comes with admitting the opposite. “But wait until you have to navigate your way through grief and loss. Which is kind of constantly happening, but those are the big ones. Losing the people you love. Being told you’ve got a terminal disease, maybe losing objects that you really care about, losing a job that’s part of your identity. When those big things happen, poetry can help you navigate through that.”

It’s a haiku that Banhart has read “a billion times”. But plunging into writing his own poetry – his collection of poems Weeping Gang Bliss Void Yab-Yum was published in 2020 – offered him a refreshed perspective, and when he returned to Issa’s poem, it was far more revelatory than he probably could’ve envisaged. “It was like ‘wow this is really encapsulating how I’ve been trying to feel’,” Devendra gushes with an electric enthusiasm. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to feel throughout this experience, that’s still going – but not going – over the past few years. It just summed it up so well, it was so striking.” 

Japan’s distinct atmosphere, environment, and culture has resonated with the artist, making an obvious impression on his music – be it affectionately paying homage to Haruomi Hosono on 2019 single ‘Kantori Ongaku’, or continually trying to distil his lyrics into haiku. “I go there and I disappear. I’m a total ghost,” he says with a tinge more glee than you’d expect. “Pico Iyer described it as the most trans-personal place. It’s so intimate and personal, yet totally not,” using a meticulously wrapped stick of gum to argue his point. It’s a sentiment that shapes ‘Flying Wig’; an intricate and emotionally-invested collection of songs that leaves the door ajar just enough to invite anyone in. On the contrary, listeners could absorb it on no deeper level than a comforting gong bath of gently reverberating guitar and droning synths.

Offering up fragments of backstory to his sizeable social media following as ‘Flying Wig’s release date edged nearer, Banhart posted: “I really do not mind this album, which is, and those who know me can attest to this, the kindest (near gushing) thing I’ve ever said about my own work…” Even storied artists like him still suffer from the odd moments of imposter syndrome, especially after pulling back the curtain to unveil his open heart. So, was it cathartic creating an album this revealing? His deft response: “It’s the colonoscopy I always wanted.”

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‘Flying Wig’ is out now.

Words: Tom Curtis-Horsfall