I Am a Hawk Now: Devendra Banhart’s Back Where He Belongs
Having returned home to LA after his years-long sojourn in NYC, we find Banhart a little less hippie with a little less hair, but still pretty damn mystical.
Yesterday, a hawk flew through Devendra Banhart's living room. This is not a metaphor.
Banhart was working on his computer with the door open when the bird flew in, clutching a mouse in its talons for bonus dramatic effect. It flew over Banhart's head and then back out the front door with the doomed rodent in tow.
"I saw under his wings, the mouse's face, everything," Banhart says on the phone from his place in LA's Echo Park, where this avian tête-à-tête occurred. "It was so close to me I could've reached up and touched it."
This kind of casual mysticism shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the Banhart mythology. In the mid-00s, the singer/songwriter rose to prominence as the face-painted pied piper of the LA freak folk scene, releasing Latin-inspired acoustic lullabies and sprawling psych rock both spiritually nutritious and totally goofy. ("Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are the only Beatles in world," Banhart crooned on a 2005 track. "Do you feel like dancing? / Are you getting hungry? / Do you want to be my girl?") When he performed one of the biggest shows of his career in 2008, opening for iconic Brazilian musician and political activist Gilberto Gil at the Hollywood Bowl, Banhart was at his Topanga Canyon psych-shaman peak: longhaired, barefoot and shirtless—a guitar wielding art school drop-out singing about dragonflies. For fans and critics, he was living proof that the 60s dream of a blissed out Cali coast remained.
Eight years later, having birds of prey casually swoop through his homestead does little to dispel these hippie notions, but Banhart, who released his ninth album Ape in Pink Marble via Nonesuch on September 23rd, is not the same freak folkie he once was. After a four-year stint in New York, Banhart has returned to California seemingly wiser than he was in the barefoot era, but still sold on, and still selling, the sun-soaked promise of the West.
This morning, Banhart is in the million-miles-an-hour mode of a musician with an imminent new album. A box of Ape in Pink Marble vinyl showed up at his house earlier today, and he says holding the tangible result of his work was emotional for him. Loquacious and polite (in a move rare among musicians, Banhart starts the conversation by thanking me for talking with him), he describes the scene outside his window ("I can see 10 different varieties of giant trees swaying in the wind!") while going on a spirited tangent about a man named Luther Burbank.
"He invented the Shasta daisy! He invented like, hundreds of different root hybrids," Banhart says with genuine zeal, recapping the accomplishments of Burbank, a famed horticulturalist who died in California 90 years ago and once rescued Ireland from the potato famine by inventing a new type of tater. "Reading about him kind of resold me on the dream of the West. The West is this place where you either escape or you go to recreate yourself. You get a second chance."
While Banhart's relocation to Los Angeles may or may not be such an escape, it is a recreation and a return. Born in Houston in 1981, Banhart and his Venezuelan mother lived in her native South American country before she remarried and his stepdad moved the family to a guesthouse near the ocean in LA when Banhart was 14. He was an artsy skater kid, attending the San Francisco Art Institute before dropping out to make music that appealed to the cosmic/bucolic yearnings of the art school counterculture.
He flexed his oddball acoustic predilections on early works Oh Me Oh My (2002), Niño Rojo (2004) and others, before solidifying his claim to the canyon rock lineage with a three-LP hat-trick: 2005's Cripple Crow, 2007's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, and 2009's What Will We Be. You could almost smell the eucalyptus. Alongside acts including Animal Collective, Joanna Newsom, and Vetiver, Banhart was heralded as a "freak folk" savant, despite the fact that many of these bands hated that descriptor. A Rolling Stone interview around the release of What Will We Be labeled Banhart the "high priest of the LA freak folk scene" and revealed in him an earthy twee that might have been insufferable if it didn't also seem genuine.
But then in 2012, Banhart abandoned his counterculture cleric status by decamping to New York, drawn there, he says, by the mythology of 70s multi-hyphenate musician Arthur Russell. Banhart's press photos from this time found him not only fully clothed, but wearing button-ups and V-neck sweaters, his face scrubbed clean of eyeliner and his once shoulder length chestnut hair cut short. He suddenly looked more like my high school chemistry teacher than the guru dreamboat a 1000 SoCal yoga chicks had fallen for.
In New York, Banhart immersed himself in the world of Russell, visiting old musical haunts like The Kitchen and The Loft and also meeting and getting engaged to photographer and designer Ana Kras. (The pair has since separated.) After the release of his 2013 LP Mala, Banhart went quiet, focusing on his visual practice and last year releasing an art book he chose to call I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street Drawings and Paintings.
Whether he was truly drawn back to the West Coast by the mythology of a long dead horticulturalist, in California, Banhart has found the space that eluded him on the eastern seaboard, moving into a bigger house than he had in New York and renting out a small downtown studio in which to paint. While he acknowledges that the LA lifestyle contains a certain amount of quotidian brutality in paradoxes having nowhere to park in a city built for driving ("I'm shitting on city planning; I'm not shitting on LA in any way"), in Los Angeles he can have a garden, his art studio, and a place to walk for coffee in the morning. Here, there is quiet and room to breathe. He calls himself a "California gal" at heart. "It's unknown, uncharted territory," he says of the West. "There's land; there's an artist expansion situation where there's space for people. That was why I moved back to LA."
It was in "a little shed in front of my house" that Banhart and longtime collaborators collaborators Noah Georgeson and Josiah Steinbrick recorded the 13 tracks that make up Ape in Pink Marble. Cleanly produced, delicately textured, and frequently funky, the album finds Banhart stripped of his full-on psych tendencies, although the absurdist streak remains. ("I rode a gift horse into town / Free subscriptions all around," he sings on "Fancy Man.") Several people close to him passed away in the last two years, and the whispered lamentation on tracks like "Linda" reflect the quiet horror of mourning. Lyrical rubix cubes like "There is no real you / There is only ever you," match the seeker tendencies of his previous output.
To give the album mood, the guys decorated Banhart's little shed like a dilapidated Japanese hotel lobby and made songs that sounded like they'd be played there. They expanded this vibe by renting vintage synths and a traditional Japanese koto to create the feeling of charming melancholy they were after ("We spent half the record trying to tune the thing"). It was only after the album was finished that Banhart realized that in selling a Western fantasy of an imaginary place, they were embodying the willful illusions of the movies as much as they were emulating the Far East.
"That," Banhart says, "is so Hollywood."
Banhart's altogether gentlest album since Niño Rojo, Ape in Pink Marble doesn't whack listeners over the head with whimsical notions of butterflies and long-haired children, but in its delicacy captures the grace of a sunset over the ocean, or the vital genius of particularly bitchin' root hybrid. In this lies personal evolution. Like many who have fallen into the yoga-doing, juice-cleansing, Landmark Forum-taking "conscious community" of Southern California spiritual seekers, Banhart realized that the particular path to enlightenment he was on, while seductive, also contained a dichotomy antithetical to its alleged mission.
"I was doing something that felt very natural and normal and felt like my style and something I felt very comfortable in," Banhart says of himself during the peak of the freak folk era. "But I don't think I was adhering and practicing the things about that entire counterculture movement that began in the 60s in the healthiest way, or the way that was actually true to the seeds of that movement."
He doesn't deny that there was something delicious about the "hedonist, wasted, free-love-down-with authority-anti-authoritarianism-hippie ethos" he was living, but admits the lifestyle contained "a lot of darkness."
"The real hippie is trying to create something inclusive, something holistic, something loving and healthy which isn't in perpetual conflict with authority and actually knows that the only way to disarm the entire game is to step aside and not take any sides. At the time when you saw me play with Gilberto Gil, it was very much like, 'No, this is our thing. We're this, and you guys are that.' I just don't feel that anymore."
Now, Banhart says the keys to his own happiness are in self-reflection, forgiving those who have hurt him (and also forgiving himself) and telling the people he loves that he loves them. "It's embarrassing to quote Gandhi or something, but being the change you want to see in the world is pretty powerful."
These might sound like platitudes, but Banhart seems to believe what he's saying, and delivers his observations with such clarity it's hard to disagree. There is, it seems, a little bit of guru left in him. Still, his life now is less about high priesthood than it is staying calm while stuck in traffic. I ask what advice he'd give his younger self. He chuckles and says he'd just tell himself to pick up a bar of soap and stop stealing his mom's clothes. He may have stopped wearing quite so much fringe, but Banhart's sonic and spiritual evolution shouldn't undermine the flower child credibility that remains. There are still hawks flying through the living room.
Katie Bain is a writer living in LA. Follow her on Twitter.