Devendra Banhart On The Moment He Became A Songwriter He was nine, and his song horrified his family when he sang it for them. But the experience also showed the songwriter and musician what performance could make him feel.
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Devendra Banhart On The Moment He Became A Songwriter

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Devendra Banhart On The Moment He Became A Songwriter

Devendra Banhart On The Moment He Became A Songwriter

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Devendra Banhart has made a name for himself as something of a musical sponge, drawing on traditions from blues to salsa to psychedelic folk. But he'll be the first to tell you that his work is as much about writing, acting and storytelling as it is about the music itself.


DEVENDRA BANHART: (Singing) Well, how's about tellin' a story?

When I first started making music, I guess I was trying on different kind of outfits and masks, and that still continues to happen to this day. It's really fun to play characters, and it's really fun to create these imaginary narratives and to think of the song itself as a kind of little scene in a movie or a story.

SINGH: To hear the outlandish, often gender-bending characters he's brought to life in his songs, you might not guess that he had grown up in a conservative Venezuelan household in Caracas.

BANHART: I was kind of disregarded early on. I was too feminine. And so roles and identities were kind of dished out by the family at a very young age. And, you know, the other cousins were - he's going to be a doctor. He's going to be an architect. He's going to be a politician. And when it came to my identity that they were deciding, it was just, I'm too feminine and there's no hope for him.

SINGH: It wasn't until he discovered songwriting that he found a way to explore his identity on his own terms. He was just 9 years old and he had just written his first song, so he gathered his whole family in their home to hear him perform.

BANHART: And their response, their reaction, was never do that again. Never do that again. They were horrified. It was - I mean, I can't blame them. It was a song called "We're All Going To Die." I had just been told what plastic surgery was. And it goes, you don't need no plastic surgery 'cause we're all going to die. And there are more lines to it, but that - that I remember very distinctly.

And so when I sang this song, it further put me in that outsider position in the family dynamic. But it also gave me a strange platform, too. Like, they kind of paid attention at that moment and that felt good. After I sung them that song, I felt like, OK, I want to really do this. I want to write songs.


BANHART: (Singing in Spanish).

SINGH: And songs he has written aplenty since then. Over the past 15 years and eight albums, Devendra Banhart's music has shifted and morphed into a kaleidoscopic array of sounds and characters. He's played the psychedelic rocker, the sugary pop star.


BANHART: (Singing) Well, I - I want to be your lover.

SINGH: He's even moonlit as a Hasidic crooner.


BANHART: (Singing) My shabop shalom baby...

SINGH: On his latest record, "Ape In Pink Marble," Banhart and his collaborators wanted to explore an eerie Japanese-inspired musical soundscape, so they set the album inside a make-believe dilapidated old hotel on the outskirts of Tokyo and built the music around that fantasy.


BANHART: (Singing) I know the whole world says to you, but I'm going to say it, too. There's no one I ever knew quite as beautiful as you.

One of the songs, we set the narrative in this imaginary hotel. It's a song called "Fig In Leather," where this older person is trying to seduce a young person by impressing them with this obsolete technology.


BANHART: (Singing) I've got Frigidaire to keep it cool.

They're, of course, not aware that it's obsolete. And it's a fruitless seduction.


BANHART: (Singing) Hello, is that you? Come right in. Have a seat. Remove your shoes. Enjoy some fruit. Did I mention have a seat? I'm real high-tech authority. That's right, I'm quite an ace. I'm cutting edge, I think you'll agree. Have you seen my carrying case? For my...


BANHART: "Linda" was a song that was written while driving from Taos to Santa Fe. I started thinking about this character, Linda. I identify with Linda. You know, she's kind of this spinster character who lives on her own and has this freedom to be able to kind of disappear and withdraw from the world. At the same time, Linda, this character, is not present. She has the feeling that the world has kind of passed her by.


BANHART: (Singing) I'm a lonely woman alone in the world, drifting through town.

I know that it's a gentler record than the ones I've made in the past, and I know that, personally, I'm not trying so hard to prove that I know about music in different genres. And I don't think it's because I've proved it either. It's just because I just - I've given up. I don't care about trying to show off. And I don't care about presuming that there's such a thing as knowing a lot about music. It's unbelievable how much more there is to explore and discover.


BANHART: (Singing) 'Cause when love shows its face, the rest just falls into place.

SINGH: Devendra Banhart's new album, "Ape In Pink Marble," is out now.


BANHART: (Singing) All of the pain that followed the lady in waiting.

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