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Whirled Music

I got your freak folk right here, pal: Devendra Banhart.

The real Devendra's never actually done an interview," Devendra Banhart deadpans. "The label just pays people to do it -- like Bozo the Clown. There's an entire fleet of politicians answering my questions. They're the ones who are trained to do that shit. I have an intensive Devendra Banhart retreat in Carmel on how to be a politician who does music-journal interviews. We've trained Alanis Morrisette's people. Bush's people. Courtney Love. All the people. And you can tell it's paid off. Everything's been groovy, man."

Getting a straight answer from Banhart is a fool's errand. Shrouded in worldly, tie-dyed mystique -- "I have Windham Hill parties," Banhart teases. "We all dress up like unicorns and smoke crystals" -- the much ballyhooed 24-year-old singer/songwriter keeps his tarot cards close to the vest. A critic's darling following his 2002 debut, Oh Me Oh My the Day Goes by the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, Banhart became a major player in the so-called "freak-folk" movement. An appropriate poster boy, he sports shoulder-length hair, a thick beard, jewelry galore and a maroon bindi on his forehead the size of a thumbtack. Like an extra from that annoying Coke commercial where the kids "want to teach the world to chill," Banhart has combined romantic '60s nostalgia with acoustic alchemy for a sizable cult following. But who exactly is this guy? A primitive outsider? A calculating trustafarian? A hippie heartthrob with a knack for wordplay and a creepy falsetto that recalls Tiny Tim?

Banhart, whose first name translates from Hindi into "King of Gods," was christened by Prem Rawat, a controversial Indian mystic his parents followed. Born in Houston, the musician was raised in Caracas, Venezuela, by his grandmother and later uprooted to Malibu's Encinal Canyon. After a stint at the San Francisco Art Institute, Banhart lived the life of a wandering minstrel in New York and Paris, flirting with homelessness, sometimes calling friends long-distance to leave tunes on their answering machines. After a crudely rendered batch of Banhart's songs fell into the hands of Michael Gira, former frontman for Swans and owner of Young God Records, the artist-friendly label issued Oh Me Oh My. Garnering rave reviews, the hiss-saturated recordings captured Banhart's stream-of-consciousness in full stride, presenting surreal tales of magical animals, pumpkin seeds and marigolds. Following a 2003 EP, Black Babies, Banhart spent two weeks in rural Georgia with Gira, recording more than fifty tracks that later became Rejoicing in the Hands and its exceptional companion piece, Niño Rojo. Juggling blues, church hymns, Celtic folk tunes and beyond, Banhart earned enough visibility and acclaim to curate The Golden Apples of the Sun, a compilation featuring Antony, Karen Dalton, Diane Cluck, Iron & Wine's Sam Beam and other rustic underground notables. But don't dare call it "freak folk."

"That's such a lame name," Banhart insists. "People who are kind of lumped into this thing are all pretty different, you know? I'm not including myself here, but Joanna Newsom is just Joanna Newsom. CocoRosie is just CocoRosie. There's acoustic elements to all these people's music, but it isn't fully made up of that at all. They're very unique, and no music has ever sounded like them.

"I don't try to mess around in the domain of 'Hey, here's a good suggestion for what to label us,'" he continues. "But if I ever do, I'll try to suggest things like calling it 'the new, new age' or 'the family.'"

A far cry from Charles Manson, Banhart pools inspiration from more playful and irreverent sources. Even so, the barefoot troubadour draws unending comparisons to Nick Drake for some reason. Go figure.

"That's inaccurate and very insulting," Banhart says. "It's already happened so much, and people are always wrong. When I read about somebody who's compared to Nick Drake, I kind of instantly don't even like them. I forget that they didn't say that, that the journalist wrote that. I guess it's helpful for people to kind of put it in a frame if you can't hear the music when you're reading a review of someone you've never heard. But Nick Drake is a saint. Very special to me and to everyone I know."

Even more dear to Banhart is Vashti Bunyan, a wispy British folk chanteuse whose vivid lyrics depict solitary meditation in pastoral fairylands.

"She's one of my heroes and someone I owe a lot to," Banhart reveals. "She made a record called Just Another Diamond Day that really saved my life when I was about seventeen. Let's say it was my pillow. It was my food. It was my blanket. It was my friend."

Banhart's devotional songcraft adheres to the pillowy side, too. Not always intended for consumption beyond a close-knit circle of friends, his earliest efforts blossomed from quick, sleepy sketches into more sophisticated portraits -- thanks in part to guitarist and pal Noah Georgeson.

"He gave me his broken four-track," Banhart recalls. "He said ŒHere, I want you to take this, and in exchange, give me the tapes you record.' And amazingly, Noah ended up being the person who co-produced and co-engineered Cripple Crow."

Banhart's third album in two years, Crow boasts more than a dozen musicians, including Georgeson, the Pernice Brothers' Thom Monahan (who comprise Banhart's backing band, Hairy Fairy) and Veviter's Andy Cabic. Recorded at Bearsville, a barn-studio founded by Bob Dylan's former manager near Woodstock, New York, Crow marks a significant change, presenting Brazilian tropicalia, reggae, British folk, an anti-war sing-along ("Heard Somebody Say") and no fewer than five cuts sung in Spanish. It also finds Banhart at his most accessible -- and his most confessional. The opening track, "Now That I Know," for example, dives headfirst into the tunesmith's own adolescent cross-dressing tendencies.

"It's not a sexual thing," Banhart allows. "I'm not gay. But I enjoy wearing my mom's dresses. I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all. I think it's great -- that I'm comfortable enough that I could do that, even as a young kid."

Innocence lost plays a major theme throughout Crow, whether Banhart is planning his own shaggy bloodline ("Long Haired Child") or lamenting the complexities of adulthood ("I Feel Just Like a Child"). Then there's "Little Boys," an upbeat ode to somebody whom Banhart describes as a "schizophrenic hermaphrodite," and which includes the unsettling chorus, "I see so many little boys I want to marry."

"I've known a couple people like that actually in South America," he explains. "And I always think about them. It was a trip. They were family friends."

With more sideshow curiosities joining his circus, Banhart seems eager to transition from solo artist to fronting a full band. "I toured alone for a long time," he says. "You got to try new stuff. I'm not a purist. I like to make music that can be for sitting down and listening to -- or for getting up and chicken dancing. And it's fun playing with your brothers and sisters. We do a polka breakdown. I think you'll really appreciate it."

Banhart's approach to songwriting has changed a bit as well.

"I still write about what's going on in me, inside and out," he says. "It's possible that on this new record, I started writing a little bit more about what's on the outside than on the world I live in within. So that's all striving for balance, which I think is a healthy thing.

"I don't just fart this stuff out," he goes on. "I don't fuckin' babble and do stream-of-consciousness. I'm pretty pragmatic about it all. It comes from not taking myself that seriously, which is a key element, I think, to being a human being."

Just as Banhart's publicist butts in to call it a day (a fledgling celebrity, his phone time is now measured in twenty-minute spoonfuls), Freak Boy can't help but dispense one final kernel of wisdom: "Dogs are the best ever, but they're not as good as plants," he declares. "They're like...just have a plant-dog! Put a dog in a plant! Love a dog. Love a plant. Rub-a-dub. Rub a dog. Lick a plant. Love a...blog. A blant! Dog, plant...dant?"

If that's free association, Sister Moon, it's worth every penny.


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