It's a bright, blustery December day in Santa Monica, and Devendra Banhart is sitting on the steps of the California Heritage Museum, a rustic building that houses historical artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Surrounded by million-dollar beachfront condos, hip coffee joints, and a Gap outlet, the museum doesn't exactly fit into its landscape. For that matter, neither does Banhart.
The singer-songwriter is attired in a white button-down shirt, a patterned vest, and a tattered black sports coat; his shoulder-length dark hair conspires with wispy facial scruff to hide a young, wonder-struck face. His clothes hang on his thin and scraggly frame as they would on a scarecrow.
Banhart's lengthily titled debut record, Oh Me Oh My . . . The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, is equally out of step. Using little more than an old steel-string guitar and his arresting, alienlike voice, Banhart creates a surreal kind of folk music, full of odd symbols and cracked mantras. Recorded sporadically on lo-fi equipment, the songs feel like fragmentary sketches -- they often consist of only a few chords or notes, plucked in trance-inducing succession. Taken at face value, the album paints a picture of a crazy person, the kind of artist who might show up at an interview high on mind-altering substances, spouting vague, pretentious aphorisms. But as Banhart speaks softly to the museum's geriatric curator, whom he's befriended in a matter of seconds, it becomes clear that he's far from certifiable. As a matter of fact, he seems downright sweet.
Although many of Banhart's peers are ironic, this 21-year-old is utterly sincere. Where they are transfixed by bombast and bling bling, Banhart is humble and gracious; where they are dispassionate and reserved, Banhart is invigorated. Such differences are what make Oh Me Oh My so riveting and what have caused numerous critics to liken Banhart to '60s stars Syd Barrett and Marc Bolan. In a world of cynicism and angst, Banhart's plaintive backwoods jingles stand out like flares. While Oh Me Oh My may be challenging at times, Banhart's music -- along with his life and worldview -- makes a sore thumb like the Heritage Museum seem like just another Starbucks.
Maybe this is because Banhart has long been something of a sore thumb himself. He was born in Texas in 1981 and named by an Indian mystic whom his parents followed. When his folks divorced two years later, he moved with his mom to Caracas, Venezuela, where he was raised amid the shanties and sweatshops. Though his family had enough money to stay above the poverty line, life wasn't easy. "Venezuela was insane," says Banhart. "You don't go out after eight, because it's too dangerous. You don't wear nice sneakers because, while here you may get assaulted, there you just get killed."
When Banhart's mother remarried, his stepfather moved the family to Los Angeles. In the fall of 1998, having written songs since he was 12, Banhart left home with a hefty scholarship to begin school at the San Francisco Art Institute. Shortly thereafter, he had an epiphany.
While vacationing in Bish Bash Falls, a state park in Massachusetts, he and his girlfriend were quarreling about the Rolling Stones. "The argument was about 'Street Fighting Man,'" he recounts. "And I'm like 'That's bullshit. Mick Jagger wasn't fighting nobody.' And she was like 'Well, how do you know? Maybe they just made it up.' And I was like 'Well, I can make up a song about something!' And it turned out to be this little song . . ."
Banhart proceeds to sing, limerick-style: "There once was a man who really loved salt/So he tied his nose to the sea/And then God came down from his silver throne/And said, 'Honey, that water ain't free.'"
"That's when I realized I could write about anything I wanted," he adds casually. "It was like being constipated and then taking a suppository."
Thus began Banhart's days as a wandering minstrel. He commenced to play anywhere that would have him -- be it an Ethiopian restaurant, an Irish pub, or just about any other locale you could imagine. At a gig at the Fold in L.A., Banhart was doing a sound check when Gunga Din vocalist Siobhan Duffy overheard his set. A lover of old bluegrass and folk music, Duffy is also a close friend of Michael Gira, the onetime frontman for New York gloom-rock legends the Swans and current owner of Young God Records.
"She couldn't believe it," says Gira of Duffy's reaction. "So [Banhart] gave her a CD-R, and I listened to it and had the same response. His voice is so unique, his songwriting is just amazing."
Having decided to sign the young singer, Gira sifted through Banhart's 70 home recordings in an attempt to shape one cohesive album. Clocking in at just over 50 minutes, Oh Me Oh My is like 22 pieces of a giant puzzle -- profound yet elusive glimpses of a truly odd mind. Each song features Banhart and his guitar, with the occasional handclap or sound of a car driving by outside. Banhart's rickety voice doesn't so much appear on the record as haunt it. He can reduce it to a terry-cloth whisper on "The Charles C. Leary," or jack it up to a banshee screech for "Certainly Are Nice People." On "Lend Me Your Teeth," he makes his vocals dance implike around a pagan campfire fanned by his fiery finger-picking.
What makes this collection an X-ray, when others like it are mere Polaroids, is the rawness of the recordings. Banhart throws his uncensored thoughts and feelings onto tape as if they're hot potatoes. Recurring symbols such as body parts and snails mean something. It's just never really clear what -- and Banhart doesn't feel as if he has to explain.
"It's not stream of consciousness at all," he says. "I've got piles and piles of [journals], and I just go through them and go through them, and I'll get maybe two lines out of the whole fucking thing, but they'll be two good lines that mean something to me -- and maybe they mean something to someone else."
Banhart is most often associated with volatile singer-songwriters such as the aforementioned Bolan and Barrett, as well as Karen Dalton and Daniel Johnston. These assessments are not entirely unfounded -- in addition to his lyrics, he's known for his inspired improvisational performances, during which he often slips into a trance -- but they only serve to obscure the beauty Banhart achieves. Like the great steel-string guitarists John Fahey and Robbie Basho, Banhart is a psychedelic alchemist, capable of turning a simple arpeggio and a few disjointed sentences into something alive with feeling. The only reason his music seems strange is because it's so rare.
What Banhart knows how to do is make artful music worth mulling over and arguing about with your friends, music you can rediscover each time you listen. Like two of his idols, Delta blues legend Mississippi John Hurt and British folksinger Vashti Bunyan, Banhart simply shares his vision in a way that's as unadulterated as possible. It's as if he were receiving transmissions from some other world -- a world in which he fits just right -- and he's turning up the volume for all to hear.