Devendra Banhart's Exuberant New Songs
A scant five months after the release of Rejoicing in the Hands, "new folk" artist Devendra Banhart is back with Nino Rojo, an album recorded in the same marathon session in rural Georgia last year. These 16 tracks are not outtakes from the first album, however, but rather a musically and conceptually distinct collection of songs.
"The idea is that Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Empress is
written from the point of view of the sun as an old woman; the golden
empress is the sun," said Banhart, speaking from London in a recent
telephone interview. "She's been around for a long time and she's already
experienced a certain amount of living and is just sitting back in a
rocking chair telling a story... commenting on things in a gentle and
tired, lethargic sort of language."
Nino Rojo, he explained, was
meant to be told from the perspective of her child. "The reason I titled
it in Spanish was so that I wouldn't have to write "Red Son" using a 'u' or
an 'o,'" he added. "I wanted it to be open to meaning both 'son' and
'sun.' It's a red sun, and it's her son, coming out to the world and
experiencing the world for the first time. He's really excited and
That exuberance is reflected in the music, in tunes like "At the Hop" and
"Be Kind," which have a lighthearted, celebratory feel. "The new
direction of the songs without me trying to do it has been songs
like 'Be Kind,'" Banhart said. "They're really more about dancing, instead of
sitting down to listen. So I've been writing songs that are almost like
reggae, reggae-Motown-space songs really."
Banhart spoke from the UK, where he had been doing a few shows, but he
has been living in the South of France for the last few months, in a tiny
town called St. Marie de la Mer, where his girlfriend's mother has a home. "I
didn't know this when I moved here, but the town is a Mecca for Gypsies, a holy
Gypsy town," he said. "Gypsies from all over the world Spain,
France, Romania, India all make their yearly pilgrimage to the Gypsy
saint, the Black Madonna, there. And, there's just wild horses and
bullfights every night, and flamenco music everywhere."
Banhart has been sitting in with some Gypsy guitarists, but don't look for flamenco
on his next album. "That music is just so unbelievably sophisticated, I really
can't play it. I'm years and years behind," he admitted.
Since recording Rejoicing… and Nino Rojo, Banhart has also put
together Arthur magazine's Golden Apples of the Sun. Many
reviewers feel that this compilation, including tracks from Joanna Newsom,
Vetiver, Six Organs of Admittance, Espers and White Magic, has codified
the emerging psyche-folk scene in the same way that No New York did
for the no-wave movement of the late 1970s.
Banhart made an exceptional curator, because he is a passionate and omnivorous lover of music, but
these same characteristics keep him from being fully satisfied with the
results. "The thing is, there wasn't enough space," said Banhart, of an
album Mojo named essential. "I submitted way too many songs, and I
didn't know how to choose, so it was done randomly for me. But if I could
do it again, or have a second volume, I would definitely have Animal
Collective, the No-Neck Blues Band, Sunburned Hand of Man, and M. Ward on
there for sure."
As always, Banhart had a long list of artists he was excited about he
typically much more interested in promoting the bands he's discovered than
in talking about himself. Banhart's favorites are always worth checking
out last time, he sounded an early warning on Joanna Newsom and
Vetiver. This time, his picks include Josephine Foster, Bobby Charles,
Chris Smither, Janet Hunter, the Secret Machines and the Icarus Line. In
addition, he has recently rediscovered Lowell George (both through his solo
material and Little Feat), Jorge Ben and early Milton Nascimento.
Soon, Banhart and his friend Andy Cabic from Vetiver may have another
platform for telling the world about the music they love. Banhart says
that indie distributor Revolver is talking about setting the two up with a label
of their own. "It's going to take a little while, but I think we're going to
do it. Because there's a lot of reissues, old African stuff and even some electronic
stuff that he's way more into, and some reissues, and also some really new people
like Janet Hunter and some other bands that we'd love to put out," Banhart said.
Banhart is preparing for a U.S. tour this fall with Six Organs of Admittance
and Scout Niblett. He'll also perform two West Coast shows with Clive
Palmer of the Incredible String Band. For a full list of dates and venues check the Young God Records site. Jennifer Kelly [Thursday, October, 21, 2004]