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Devendra Banhart Riffs on Britpop, Drag, and German Mystics

Devendra Banhart

Devendra Banhart, 31, greets me with an awkward hug, attempting to not get his paint-covered hands all over my coat. We’re at his studio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which he and fiancée Ana Kraš, a striking Serbian artist, have recently acquired and are in the process of renovating. The colorful lamps she’s designed line a table in the back and Devendra’s whimsical drawings cover the walls. A book on John Cage’s visual art is lying on a table, and Brooklyn-based Latin-folk-electronic maestro Helado Negro is pouring out of his iPod.

The studio isn’t the only evidence that Banhart has been in a creative mood. Mala, out March 12, is the singer-songwriter’s first LP in four years and first after making the move from Warner Bros. to indie label Nonesuch. Precise, intimate, and driven by subdued electric guitar and conversational vocals, Banhart’s eighth studio album is a lovely, lilting meander.

We sat down to discuss the influences behind the music, from dressing in drag to keeping things simple.

World Music:
“Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, the ubiquitous music is salsa, cumbia, merengue, a little bit of samba. When I came home my parents were listening to Pakistani Qawwali music, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, they’re listening to music from Mali, like Ali Farka Touré, they’re listening to Brazilian songwriters, like Gilberto Gil, to opera, to Neil Young even, things you don’t hear as a kid in Caracas. I love all the music they turned me onto. I love all the music I grew up listening to, and it’s informed my music now.”

“As I get older, I get more nostalgic. When I was a teenager I was a huge Britpop fan. I was just a huge fan of Blur, Suede, Elastica and Pulp, of course, even Menswear and Ocean Colour Scene. Ride — that’s getting more into the shoegazing thing. I was also a huge fan of Slowdive, so not so much Britpop but shoegazing. Primal Scream, of course. I just really like British music, and a lot of those bands labeled Britpop led to the discovery of a lot of music.

Keenan Milton:
“On this record there is a song called ‘The Ballad of Keenan Milton.’ Keenan was a skateboarder that died under very tragic circumstances. Supposedly he was at a party and somebody jumped off the roof into the pool and actually hit him, and nobody noticed and he drowned. He died much too young, under very tragic circumstances. He skated for Chocolate, which is part of Girl Skateboards, probably one of the most, if not the most important skateboarding companies of contemporary American skateboarding brands. Keenan had chosen a song [for a video] called ‘007 (Shanty Town)’ by Desmond Dekker, and that changed my life. I had never heard anything like it.”

Hildegard von Bingen:
“There’s also a song on the album [‘Für Hildegard von Bingen’] about a German medieval feminist, Hildegard. She’s a fabulous composer but also she’s a medieval feminist — when there weren’t that many feminists around. For somebody to have the strength to say, ‘Yes we are equal, and also, I’m a composer, a pedagogue, a herbalist.’ These are revolutionary things even today, but imagine then. She’s certainly somebody that deserves celebration, so this is a song for her.”

“A band called Hecuba from Los Angeles was our neighbor while making this record. We would just pop in on them — literally walk next door — and see what they were working on. They also recently just started a label called Germ Records. They’re a couple, Jon Beasley and Isabelle Albuquerque. They make this music under the name Hecuba but they’re really an interdisciplinary collective. They make films, obviously have a band, do graphic design, sculpture; really a beautiful little team that does this amazing work.”

John Cage:
“John Cage is someone I got into as a visual artist, before I even knew his music. I don’t think a lot of people even know that he does visual art. I was going to the San Francisco Art Institute, so my main interest was his visual work. John Cage has a quote, ‘I have nothing to say, and I’m saying it.’ That is everything I’ve ever wanted to do. That quote was so comforting, especially at a young age. The last time I had an experience like that I was eight years old and I wanted to sing like those guys — Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain — but I was an eight-year-old boy so I couldn’t, my voice didn’t sound like that. So one day no one was around and I put on one of my mom’s dresses. I combed my hair, and I was this woman. Suddenly I had permission, I could sing. It wasn’t until I read that quote that I had that feeling, like it was okay to proceed.”