Devendra Banhart: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

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Life after 30 finds the original freak folker putting away hippy-dippy things. Meet Devendra Banhart Version 2.0: shorn, showered, shaved, engaged, focused and wearing a shirt. He’s also making the best music of his career. By Jonathan Valania

It’s the crack of noon on a frigid winter day in Greenwich Village. Devendra Banhart has risen, and with the help of a caffeine injection from Joe’s Coffee, he’s ready to shine. But first we need to stop by a bodega around the corner where they have, by Banhart’s description, the most extraordinary donuts.

He simply must have one. From there, we swing by Electric Lady Studios where Banhart will have a quick word with his pal Ric Ocasek, then it’s back to his place. He currently resides in a fairly upscale high-rise apartment building, just off Christopher Street, in the same Greenwich Village neighborhood where—as Banhart, ever the student of 20th-century bohemia, points out—E. E. Cummings once lived; Bob Dylan first met Allen Ginsberg; James Baldwin, Frank McCourt and Norman Mailer once held court at the long-gone Lion’s Head Pub; and in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, in a down-market, Mafia-owned dive called the Stonewall, fed-up gay men rose up against perpetual police harassment and said, “No more.” Banhart’s pretty sure Stephin Merritt also lives in his building, although he’s never seen him.

He just got back from a tour of Russia. “In Moscow, all the taxi drivers can recite the work of their 10 favorite poets,” he says as we make our way to his apartment. “They’ll still kidnap you, but they are very well-read. We would play a game called Whoever Gets Kidnapped Last Wins.”

The lobby of Banhart’s apartment building has the faded, post-Czar glamour of a Russian tea room—high-ceilinged, edged in gilt and benign neglect. The thermostat must be set for the low 90s, and you smell that telltale aroma of roach spray everywhere.

A dozen or so floors up, Banhart shares a modest, two-room apartment with his fiancée, Ana Kras, a model-gorgeous photographer and high-end furniture designer from Serbia. They met two years ago when Kras came to shoot him for a magazine assignment, and Banhart proposed within five minutes of meeting her. They have been together ever since. Despite media reports to the contrary, they are not yet married, just engaged.

As she puts on her coat to run some errands, Banhart takes her face in his hands, looks deeply into her eyes and implores her to return.

“So, listen—come back when you’re done, and then we’ll walk to the studio, OK?”

“I will, I will. I’ll come back,” she says.

“I say it every time; I say, ‘Please come back,’” he says to me by way of explanation. “I’m always shocked when she does each time.”

“Each time I come back home, he just hugs me and says, ‘Thank you for coming back home,’” she says as she walks out the door. “Where would I go? So sweet.”

Their apartment is barely furnished, with a futon, a couple of desks, and a guitar and amp. They’ve only been living here for a few days. For the better part of the past decade, Banhart has been ping-ponging back and forth between the East and West Coasts, with no fixed address.

If a Devendra Banhart didn’t exist, we would never think to invent one: half-Venezuelan, holy-fool, head-shop mystic beardo, long-haired leaping gnome, who came singing songs of love at the awful dawn of the 21st century, spreading freak-folk spores across the land like a nouveau hippie Johnny Appleseed. That’s the old Banhart, not to be confused with the new Banhart, or perhaps more accurately, the current Banhart. The beard is gone, replaced with gray-flecked stubble. So, too, are the long, inky locks. He is currently rocking a high, bedhead fade last seen on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Also gone are the velvet bell-bottoms and the turquoise. These days, he dresses more like a hip prep-school kid raised in the tonier precincts of Williamsburg. All part of his grand plan, he says, for growing old gracefully, along with publishing a book of poems with Brother In Elysium. A limited edition with letterpress print run. That and getting more serious about exhibiting his art, maybe another group show in Italy or a solo one in New York.

His detractors may dismiss him as some kind of airhead hippie space cadet, but in fact he has a sharp inquisitive mind and an expansive knowledge of 20th-century music, contemporary art, underground cinema and Japanese poetry. He speaks in long, labyrinthine sentences, rich with cultural allusions, shot through with surreal humor and detours into the provocative and the absurd. Most of our rambling three-hour conversation is devoted to correcting misperceptions about his public image and untethering himself from outdated or inaccurate stereotypes. He’s really not that guy. Never was. Or at least he’s not anymore.

banhart: People are always disappointed when I don’t want to get high with them after the show, so I’ve learned to let them down easy. When someone offers me weed or something I go, “Aw, man, that’s cool of you, thanks, but I already got super high, bro!” But when I smell weed, I run. I run away.

MAGNET: Because?
Banhart: Just, I hate it.

MAGNET: You don’t like marijuana?
Banhart: I’ve never, ever, ever, ever, ever liked it. The whole hippie-dumb and hippie-ness and folky-ness—all that stuff is really funny. I played with it and I contributed, and that became sort of a caricature.

MAGNET: So, you’re telling me you never liked marijuana? You tried it once or whatever, and … just not your bag?
Banhart: Yeah, no, never. I can’t stand the way it makes me feel, so I literally have to run away if I smell it, or hold my breath. It’s so disappointing to people to find out that I don’t smoke weed. And not only that I don’t smoke it, but I actually [whispering conspiratorially] hate it. But I don’t judge people that do, of course! It’s great! It’s wonderful!

MAGNET: What do you mean—do you hate the idea of it, or the way it makes you feel?
Banhart: Yeah, for me, I can’t stand the way it makes me feel, so I literally have to run away if I smell it, or hold my breath.

MAGNET: What about psychedelics?
Banhart: I remember I was given a handful of tabs at a show on that first tour or two. Like, here’s a bag of LSD that I’m being given, assuming that this is going to be a gift that I’m going to be so happy about. These things are not recreational. Psychedelics are not recreational. They’re not. You can do it with the right frame of mind, prepared, with a guide; it’s a wonderful thing. But I’ve only done it once or twice in my whole life.

MAGNET: Are there any controlled substances that you do enjoy?
Banhart: No, but I just recently quit smoking.

Longtime musical partner and album producer Noah Georgeson backs him up on this when we talk later. “I’ve never seen Devendra smoke marijuana one single time, ever,” he says. “People pinned this whole free-love, drug-culture, hippie thing on him, which—even though it was partly his fault for wearing too much turquoise jewelry and stuff—was never accurate.”

Still, he is not completely free of totems from the Age of Aquarius these days. Up until just recently, he was in possession of Jim Morrison’s couch. You see, Banhart’s manager is also caretaker of Mr. Mojo Risin’s estate. “I was just borrowing the couch; I just had it refurbished and gave it back,” he says with a mischievous grin, before directing his gaze at the chair I am sitting on. “Though I might have kept Jim’s reading chair.”

Devendra Banhart was born in San Antonio on May 30, 1981, the son of a Venezuelan mother and an American father. His parents were adherents of Indian guru Prem Rawat, who suggested the name Devendra, which means King of the Gods in Hindu. For good measure, they gave him the middle name of Obi, as in Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi master. His parents divorced when he was four, and his mother took him back to Caracas, Venezuela, where he would live for the next 10 years. He would have no contact with his blood father for another 20 years.

In Venezuela, his mother met and married the man Banhart would come to consider his true father, an American telecom professional and part-time poet named Loring Baker. “I guess you could say he’s my step-dad, but he’s really my dad—he’s the only person I’ve ever called ‘dad,’” says Banhart. “One day when I was about six, I said to him, ‘Can I call you ‘dad’?’ I remember that. I was like, ‘It’s so beautiful; I’m old enough, you know, that I get to choose.’”

Banhart’s connection to his Venezuelan ancestry is bittersweet. “I do love it, but it’s complicated,” he says. “I feel very Venezuelan when I’m not there, but I feel very American when I’m there. There’s a deep sense of just a get-out-while-you-can sinking feeling that permeates my generation.”

Though he is reluctant to be drawn into a discussion of politics, I wheedle out his opinion of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez: “I don’t know a single person that lives in Venezuela that supports Chávez, and I know plenty of people that live here that are all about him,” he says. “They think he’s a wonderful guy, the underdog that socked it to America. To them, he’s a superhero. But I don’t know a single person living in Venezuela that has anything good to say about the guy. What has he changed?”

When Banhart was 14, his stepfather moved the family to Southern California. Shortly thereafter, his stepfather gave him his first guitar. “It’s Christmas, the day goes by and nothing, I don’t get any gift,” says Banhart. “I go, ‘OK, now you’re a man, now you don’t need any gifts—who gives a shit?’ And then it’s, like, 1 a.m., and he’s like, ‘Oh god, I left my luggage in the car. Will you go get it?’ To myself, I’m like, ‘Fuck, dad, you don’t even give me anything for Christmas and now you want me to go get your luggage?’ And then I open the trunk and there was this guitar case … and it was such an incredible, beautiful feeling.”

In addition to guitar, he’d begun to try his hand at art. A perceptive and sympathetic high-school art teacher nurtured Banhart’s talents, turning him onto the likes of Billy Bragg (still one of his all-time favorites) and the Jam, and giving him hours alone to draw during the school day. He was good enough to be awarded a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute. It was during his tenure at SFAI that Banhart befriended then-unknown Joanna Newsom, Andy Cabic of Vetiver and musician Georgeson, who has served as Banhart’s sideman and/or producer ever since.

“I met Devendra on Halloween 1999,” says Georgeson. “I lived in the Castro district, and there used to be a huge Halloween party in the streets every year—tens of thousands of people would be there, and it felt like the whole city became a giant gay dance club. So, for the few years I lived in the neighborhood, my house was sort of the headquarters for me and my friends. I was sitting out on the front porch, and a cab pulled up with my friend Tahiti and two guys he went to art school with, one of whom was Devendra. He was wearing a skirt and no shirt. To this day, I have no idea what his costume was supposed to be, but it’s not often you see someone get out of a cab without a shirt on, so I took notice. I was dressed as Björn Borg, but apparently Devendra didn’t realize that it was a Halloween costume, and he told me later that he had thought I was a French drug dealer.”

When Banhart moved to San Francisco, the light shined on him. Songs began pouring out of him, usually at the most inopportune time, when he was far away from his four-track. So, he started leaving songs on his friends’ answering machines so he wouldn’t forget them. His first public performance was at a gay wedding, where he serenaded the groom and groom with “Love Me Tender.” His second show was at an Ethiopian restaurant. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

Around this time, his blood father reestablished contact. He told Banhart he wanted to make up for all the birthdays and Christmases he missed. He would buy Banhart a round-trip plane ticket to any destination in the world. Banhart chose Paris and, armed with his notebooks, sketchpads and trusty nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, jetted off to the City of Light. Once there, he managed to scam his way into opening slots for Black Heart Procession and Sonic Youth. Somebody turned him onto Vashti Bunyan, a Brit psych/folk protégé of Donovan, and Karen Dalton, an American folkie with a voice that sounds like a shivering Billie Holiday. Both would have a profound effect on the way he wrote songs and, more importantly, the way he sang them.

When Banhart’s money finally ran out, he tried busking in the subway, only to learn the hard way just how territorial and quite literally cutthroat the underground busking scene is in Paris. “I started playing,” he says, “and this guy with a guitar comes up to me and pulls a knife on me: ‘This is my spot, get the fuck out of here.’ And he was like, ‘Don’t try it anywhere else, because other people probably won’t be as nice as me.’”

From Paris, he headed to Los Angeles to check out the Silver Lake scene and, unwittingly, bump into destiny. In December 2001, Banhart was booked to open for Flux Information Sciences, a three-piece noise-rock band from Brooklyn that was signed to Swans mainman Michael Gira’s Young God label. The drummer in Flux Information Sciences—one Siobahn Duffy, soon to be Gira’s wife—was outside the club smoking a cigarette when Banhart was doing a sound check. “I had to go see who it was because I’d never heard anything like that,” says Duffy.

“She was pretty amazed that this creature from another planet suddenly appeared before her,” says Gira. “And she got his little CD-R that he made. It was barely audible; it was so quiet. And she brought it home and I listened to it, and I was really entranced and amazed, and emailed him immediately, a very long email. And I guess from my powers of persuasion, I convinced him to move to New York City and be on the Young God label, and then we went from there.”

When Banhart moved to NYC, he was broke and—given his long hair, beard and penchant for shirtlessness—not exactly day-job material. He slept on Gira’s couch for a while, and then he found out about an abandoned salsa restaurant in Brooklyn where he could live for free if he was willing to put up with no heat, water or electricity.

“I found my bed in the trash,” says Banhart. “In the trash. I mean, not near it, but inside of it. There was a rat next door that was trying to eat through my wall every single day. I had a pet mouse named Mr. Journey. I let it loose one day—it was a painful experience, but I just couldn’t … this rat was going to eat him. There was this troubled man that would break in in the middle of the night. Multiple times I would wake up with a dark figure standing over me muttering some gibberish. That was truly scary.”

Despite such humble beginnings, Gira was fairly confident that Banhart was destined for big things. “I still think that he’s one of the most magically talented human beings that I’ve ever met,” says Gira. “He’s an avatar through which the forces of the universe pass. There’s a few people like that who I consider to be that way, and I guess one of them would be Bob Dylan. But it’s just people who have no choice in the matter. They’re just a vehicle, and I was always pretty astounded and probably jealous at his ability to just flow with his creative profundities. And he also had a quality about him: He’s one of those people that he’d walk into a room and instantly everybody wanted to know him and help him.”

It was around this time that Banhart met and befriended Adam Green, then of the Moldy Peaches, whose naïf anti-folk was the-then cause célèbre of indieland. “Devendra was very charming and enthusiastic; he had great knowledge of folk music and psychedelia,” says Green. “I’d bump into him on the street almost every day; he always carried around a satchel with him. He was multi-disciplinary—he drew amazing pictures, wanted to write this crazy book about a golden baby with 10 legs or something. Physically, he was very striking; he looked a little bit androgynous with really beautiful black hair. He always had cool boots and bell-bottoms. And he had mysterious origins. He was from Caracas, and I was a kid, and that seemed very far away.”

Meanwhile, Banhart and Gira began assembling those early answering-machine recordings into his Young God debut, Oh Me Oh My … The Way The Day Goes By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs Of The Christmas Spirit. Banhart wanted to rerecord the songs, but Gira liked the crackly otherworldly quality of those early recordings.

“They sounded like something that you might discover in your grandmother’s attic,” says Gira. “That first album raised some interest and also got him some shows. The first one, he played it outside in Brooklyn on the street. He was just so nervous he couldn’t even finish the song. And then the next time I got him a show at Tonic, which was a great club in New York City for a while that hosted experimental music shows. We put the word out to everyone we knew, and the room was packed, and he came on and he probably knocked his guitar over when he sat down. He was very nervous, and he started to play, and then he just put his guitar down and he stood up and sang a cappella in his jittery kind of … I don’t know what would you say, his hallucinating grasshopper mode. And people went nuts. He’s become sort of a pop commodity, but at the time he was just like this wild man. I remember when we were doing a sound check before the show and he kept getting feedback, and I told him to make sure he didn’t point the mic at the monitors because that why it’s feeding back, and he goes, ‘What’s a monitor?’”

As a result of steady gigging around New York, Banhart was fast developing a reputation as a mesmerizing, one-of-a-kind performer who had to be seen to be believed. Antony Hegarty was one of the early believers.

“My first really strong memories of Devendra are seeing him perform one afternoon standing on a table in Other Music,” says Hegarty. “Maybe he was singing ‘A Sight To Behold’ or something, and I had such a strong feeling that I was watching the spirit of an elderly feminine man jumping out of the body of this 21-year-old hippie. His singing was really like channeling. It was unbelievably intimate; it was all teeth and ghosts.”

Gira took him out on an Angels Of Light tour as both a sideman and the opening act. “By the end of the tour, he was bigger than Angels Of Light,” says Gira.

“His rise struck all of us as really crazy,” says Cabic. “It kind of corresponded with the rising influence of (websites like) Pitchfork. They were always talking about him. I mean, I remember a couple months after he moved to New York, him calling me up and … he wasn’t bragging, but he was like, ‘You’re not going to believe where I was today.’ I was like, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘I hung out at Ric Ocasek’s house.’ He went on to become friends (with Ocasek). Just a month or two before, he was bumming around San Francisco, and now he’s hanging out at Ric Ocasek’s home personal studio. Blew my mind. I was like, ‘What?! How does that happen?’ Definitely when he moved to New York, everything happened for him, as you would expect.”

Banhart was incredibly prolific during this period, and Gira wanted to get him back into a studio as soon as possible. Gira had been contacted by an admirer who lived near the Georgia/Alabama border; he said he had a bunch of recording gear from the legendary Muscle Shoals studio, and Gira was welcome to come record whenever he wanted. So, one day Gira and Banhart got in the car headed south of the Mason-Dixon line.

In the studio, Gira could be a harsh taskmaster. “I had very little say,” says Banhart. “Michael insisted that I sing and play guitar at the same time. Michael was like, ‘That’s not how they did it back in the day. That’s not how the real guys did it. You gotta sing and play the song.’ It was a real pain in my ass. I wanted just to be able to get the guitar down right, and then just focus on the singing. I’m not that kind of musician, anyways. Well, I guess I became one, thanks to Michael kind of forcing me to do that kind of thing.”

They recorded for two weeks and went back to New York with enough songs for two albums that would eventually bear the titles Niño Rojo and Rejoicing In The Hands. “He’s told me about those sessions, and it doesn’t sound like it was very fun,” says Georgeson. “The image I have is of him in a sweaty shack in a swamp being forced to play take after take, getting yelled at in German until he got it right. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but that’s the impression I’ve been left with. Those records don’t sound particularly good, but I think they were effective in that they mostly just presented performances of the songs, and, while they may have been motivated by fear and anger, they were good performances. The lack of character in the sound of the recording makes you focus on the songs, which are wonderful, so it worked.”

The release of both albums in 2004 was greeted with louder critical acclaim and swelling crowds at his shows. That summer, Banhart booked a five-week tour with longtime friend and collaborator Cabic, and his friend Joanna Newsom, who had just released a much-buzzed-about debut LP called The Milk-Eyed Mender. He invited his filmmaker friend Kevin Barker to tag along and make a tour documentary. Barker shot more than 100 hours of film, and managed to catch some drama along the way. Mid-tour, Newsom’s best friend was killed in a car accident back home in Chicago; upon returning from the funeral, Newsom totaled her touring van. Meanwhile, Banhart was reunited with his biological father at a show in Houston.

By the end of the tour, both Banhart and Newsom would be full-blown indie-rock stars. Barker eventually edited the footage down to a 81-minute freak folk travelogue called The Family Jams, which had a brief theatrical run and garnered somewhat mixed reviews. “It got a critic’s pick in the New York Times, and it got a really good review in the Wall Street Journal, but it got a terrible review in the Village Voice, which called me an ‘asshole with a camera,’” says Barker, who will release The Family Jams on DVD this spring.

Barker sees Banhart as a transformational figure, somebody who befriended like-minded but far-flung musicians and brought them together to connect the dots on a bold new scene.

“To me, he was just this guy who brought people together,” says Barker. “Like, he was the guy who introduced everyone to everyone. That’s who he was to me. And you know, kind of like one of the first big gestures he did when he was done meeting everyone was putting together the Golden Apples Of The Sun compilation for Arthur magazine.” A big Sgt. Pepper-style photo spread in the Sunday New York Times—featuring Espers, Feathers, Vetiver and, of course, Banhart—heralded the arrival of a new scene: freak folk.

By 2005, it had become painfully obvious that Banhart’s star had risen beyond the capacity of Young God’s one-man operation. Luckily, offers from bigger labels started rolling in. With Gira’s blessing, he jumped ship to England’s XL Recordings, which shelled out a proper recording budget for what became a double album christened Cripple Crow upon its release in September 2005. Banhart asked his old friend Georgeson help produce the album along with Thom Monahan of the Pernice Brothers, and the three of them set up camp at Bearsville Studios near Woodstock in upstate New York.

“Making Cripple Crow was hilarious,” says Georgeson. “We were in this beautiful old studio in a barn in the woods, and none of us except for Monahan knew what we were doing. Devendra had asked a ton of people to show up and play or sing. I don’t think he actually expected most of them to show up, but every single one of them did, so there were constantly people coming and going, recording like one little thing and then sticking around for a week. It was absurd. We recorded 30 songs in three weeks, and then mixed them all in another 10 days or so. I’m surprised we were even able to make a record out of it.”

During those recording sessions at Bearsville, Georgeson noticed a somewhat disturbing trend that would continue for the next two albums. “Devendra was retreating from the spotlight on his own albums,” he says. “I think it was a combination of generosity and a misguided lack of confidence in his own abilities—like if he thought that one of his friends was technically a better guitarist than he was or something, he’d have them play a part instead of him. As a result, I think the next two albums lacked his personality, and were not as interesting. Cripple Crow had a sort of recklessness to it that I think redeems it, but I’m not so sure about the next couple of records. I produced Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, so I’ll take my share of the blame for that. There are individual songs I think are good, but the records as a whole were inconsistent. The last one—which I didn’t produce, but did play on—was the nadir in this regard, I think.”

Georgeson was not the only one to notice. “(Banhart) moved away from intimate music, and that bothers a lot of people,” says Barker. “His first, like, three records were extremely intimate, and the appeal of them, I think, was that his personal charisma came through. I think the records after that were less successful because the instrumentation was less simple, and they were more about his influences than they were about him.”

Declining record sales and the diminished enthusiasm of critics would seem to bear out Georgeson and Barker’s assessment of Banhart’s artistic trajectory. Devendra Banhart was officially losing his mojo. Still, it wasn’t all downhill. There were plenty of perks to being attached to Banhart’s star. Like dating Natalie Portman. Or hanging out with Brian Wilson at Neil Young’s house.

Georgeson was tapped to produce Bert Jansch’s The Black Swan, which would prove to be the last album the legendary British folk avatar recorded before his death in 2011. “I remember he came with me and Devendra to play at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit concert a few years back,” says Georgeson. “The night before the show, there’s a dinner party at Neil’s ranch, which is one of the coolest places on earth, as you might imagine. It was such a bizarre experience—Brian Wilson was greeting people at the door, and later he was sitting at the piano playing with Neil, who had an acoustic guitar. I mean, it was his living room, so of course he was comfortable, but it was blowing our minds. Later in the evening, there was a bonfire, and we were standing around with Bert when Neil walked up and introduced himself to Bert, and told him he was the reason that he started playing acoustic guitar. It was a very touching and unforgettable moment.”

We are somewhere deep into the third hour of conversation, and Banhart has his shirt off. He’s giving me a guided tour of the extensive tattoos that cover his anatomy. A few years ago, he bought a tattoo gun and started tattooing himself on tour to kill the hours between sound check and performance. Despite the gun, they look like prison tattoos.

There’s sayings like “Thy Will Be Done” and “Mother May I” written in Russian. The one on his calf says “Fuck Them All.” Some are just the names of friends, like Hegarty, Cabic, Fab Moretti from the Strokes. There’s a bunch of hermaphrodites writ like hieroglyphics.

“My entire ass is covered with a snake and a cloud, but I really don’t want to take my pants off,” he says. “And the rest are hermaphrodites. I really love the hermaphrodite. What I really never got to finish explaining to you is that I started singing as a woman. I’m seven, eight years old, and I wanna sound like these guys. I wanna sound like Mick Jagger and Axl Rose. There’s this band, the Rolling Stones, they’re played on the radio. And there’s this band, Guns N’ Roses, they’re played on the radio. Then there’s this band, suddenly—Nirvana comes out. Whoa, this is the most lo-fi thing I’ve ever heard. I’m eight years old. This blows my mind. Yet, when I try to sing like these people, I don’t sound like Kurt or Axl or Mick. But man, why? I wanna sound like them. It’s just frustrating.

“My mom leaves the house, I just have this thing. I don’t know—it just takes over. Let’s just try … it wasn’t a sexual thing, but I go into her closet and I just put on one of her dresses. I put it on, then I walked to the bathroom, and I pull my hair back and I have the comb and I just start (singing in falsetto), “Oooo la la la,” and I start doing it. It works. As this woman, I can sing. I now have permission to sing. Holy shit. And my mom came home, and her friend was with her. And he called me a faggot. I’m eight years old; I didn’t even know what that was. My mom wasn’t exactly pleased. She wasn’t like, ‘What a cool son I have.’ I would be really happy if I found my son wearing a dress at eight years old. But they weren’t really stoked about it. But that was the permission to sing. So, I was singing from that place, that perspective. It really wasn’t a sexual thing. But suddenly I can sing. As a woman, I can sing.”

When Devendra banhart started working on his new album back in the early days of 2012, he had no label, no pressure, no buzz and no expectations. He no longer had long hair or a beard or turquoise bangles. He was now a man without a scene. Freak folk, a term he always considered insulting, has had its turn in the sun. The last Espers album got a 6.1 from Pitchfork, Animal Collective went acid house, and Joanna Newsom was banging Andy Samberg.

Somewhere in the middle of all those things he no longer had is the reason Mala (Nonesuch) is the best thing he’s done since his debut. Back then, there were no movie-star girlfriends, no palling around with the dude from the Cars, no six-figure recording budgets blown in the hippie meridians of upstate New York, no dinner parties with Brian Wilson at Neil Young’s house. Back then, all he had was a beautiful mind and the shirt on his back—and sometimes not even that. There is a similarly reductionist quality to the new album. The instrumentation is spare and simple. Guitars are scarce, and synths are used inventively. Guest appearances are few and far between, so what comes through is the thing that’s always been Banhart’s greatest asset: himself.

“I think one of the reasons that this record is successful is that we weren’t going for anything in particular,” says Georgeson. “As appealing as it can be, I think we both wanted the opposite of the classic sun-dappled canyon vibe that seems to be omnipresent these days. There was no pressure—Devendra didn’t have a label or anything, so we took as long as we needed, and really were only guided by our own thoughts. Except for a couple very specific spots, we really weren’t trying to recreate or even evoke a specific artist or musical style, either in the music or the way we recorded it. In fact, we specifically used equipment that would generally be considered undesirable by most people. It wasn’t new and high-tech, and it also wasn’t classic or esoteric vintage gear—it was more like what you could get at Radio Shack in 1986. Like the first record, this one is a projection of what’s going on in Devendra’s head, unfiltered by a lot of other people, pressures and other nonsense that had been around during the last few records. The things in his head definitely aren’t the same as they were 10 years ago, but they’re just as compelling.”