All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Devendra Banhart




DEVENDRA BANHART IS BOTH a Venezuela-reared, Los Angeles–based musician and the symbolic leader of a movement: between his many collaborations with younger musicians in the psychedelic tradition, the label he founded with Vetiver’s Andy Cabic (Gnomonsong), and his advocacy of overlooked acoustic musicians of the 1960s and ’70s such as Vashti Bunyan, he’s been perhaps the central force behind the freak folk genre. While Banhart has said he does not understand the term, his music shares with Joanna Newsom, Grizzly Bear, and a few others a vocal eccentricity, a full-bore eclecticism, and a fascination with the stranger edges of the British folk tradition.

Banhart arrived at a coffee shop in Echo Park recently to discuss his reading and the making of his reflective new LP, Ma (Nonesuch). The album ranges from songs recalling early Leonard Cohen (“Memorial”), to others that could have come from a mournful Latin American singer-songwriter five decades ago (“October 12”), to cheerful, angst-free pop (“Taking a Page”). Some are sung in Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese. (Pitchfork calls Ma his “best and most cohesive statement in more than a decade.”) 

In person, Banhart is wide-ranging, soft-spoken, expansive, and a good listener. This is a distilled and lightly edited version of the conversation. 

Banhart plays the Theatre at the Ace Hotel on Thursday, October 24.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: A lot of musicians read seriously. I guess what I wonder is, does your reading stuff from the past, stuff from the present, filter into your music at all — lyrics, what you do as a musician? Because it doesn’t have to — it can just be a separate part of your life.

DEVENDRA BANHART: I think it depends on what you’re reading, because it’s a pretty vague term just to “read.” I turn to literature for such a variety of reasons that it’s hard to say how it doesn’t influence an album, because there’s so many ways that it does.

It can seep in subconsciously, yeah.

There’s that, the subconscious seeping in, because if your day includes a portion of reading, regardless of what it is, it’s going to seep into your work no matter what, because you’re working on this thing. If you’re reading every day, then that becomes part of your practice. So subconsciously something will come out from what you’re reading.

Like personally, researching is a big part of making a record, because you start with these seeds that can become songs. And you go, “This is an interesting idea for a song.” Or I’ve got a chorus, or even one line, and I want to build around that whole thing. Where are you going to find all the materials to build an entire song? So it doesn’t ever come out fully formed, for me at least. You start out with that idea for a song or one line or a chorus, and so literature is so important, just as a way of — in your mind you think you’re cheating. You’re like, I’m going to go to the public library and check out 50 books. I mean I’ve literally done this with every record.

This record, because it was about maternity, I went downtown to the LA public library, and I said, “Where’s your maternity section?” And I got books about babies for dads, what to expect when you’re expecting, breastfeeding in the animal kingdom. I just went for it, and I found nothing. I left going, “I found nothing.” But I think even in that exercise, in looking in the wrong place, it clarified where the right place is. So it had its benefit, and also, me feeling that I found nothing was just that initial sense of failure. But later on, I realized that it was helpful and something of the titles of the chapters ended up helping a little bit.

And when you said you found nothing, you mean the books you were looking for didn’t exist, or they didn’t feed your imagination in a real way?

I thought I’d leave with a stack of notes — “Wow, this is gold, and this is really going to basically fill in the story that I’m trying to tell with this song” — because at the moment when I go in there, I’ve got just the chorus. The chorus is maybe “nice coffee” — alright, that’s going to be a good chorus. But then what am I trying to say here? Am I trying to say the day was terrible, but it was nice coffee?

So sometimes you don’t even know. You have a phrase and you fill it in not just by looking inward, but by doing research.

Yeah, you have to build around it. So a big part is the going out to the library and hunting and synthesizing. The same is applicable to poetry. Poetry can be a wonderful game that I can even compare to augmented reality video games, because that’s what you’re doing: you’re going hunting. For me at least, it’s not something that you sit and wait for that inspiration to happen. You’re really going out there searching for it, and it requires attention. When I read about Pokémon GO, I was like, “This is what poetry is — same thing.” You’re just out there going like, “Oh, I think I see a little thing! Oh that could be a line.” So it’s a very interactive thing.

With songwriting, that’s how you utilize the library or your own collection of books. Also there’s the game of just randomly pulling out books and then just seeing where that can take you. Now that we have a core theme, and the theme is, “I like this coffee, good cup of coffee,” maybe I’m going to pull a book about the beauty of advanced mathematics, because I have some random books like that. Two more of my interests: art books, poetry, and to some degree, let’s say, Eastern philosophy and religion. And then how does that fill in the mundanity of mentioning what a nice cup of coffee it is. So maybe it’s a song about counting the threads on the holy body of a famous monk or on a mummy. I’ll try to figure out how to incorporate this book on math. All of that ends up helping you finish this.

So these books will take you in an unexpected direction. You don’t know where it’s going, but somehow it fills in the song and gives it some kind of a dream logic.

Absolutely. Or it’ll just get you out of your mind. It’ll just stop the thread of thinking and worrying. For example, I’ll watch my thoughts accumulate to this avalanche, to the tsunami-like space, and then I’ll reach for a Mary Oliver poem and it’s all just a blank page. She helps reset. I read a poem so clean, so well written, that it just goes “Kshoo” and it resets the page. It’s an aid in working and it wipes the slate clean, if it’s a really great poem like that. And hers in particular I find to be the most cleansing.

Yeah, there’s something meditative about her work. It’s often outdoors, and there’s a spiritual side to it.

Exactly. She kind of resets the blank page, and you can take a breath. There’s a lot of room and space that she creates after I read her work. And someone like Gary Snyder, I want to go deeper. He gives me that “get the fuck out of your house, go on a five-hundred-hour hike, and maybe you’ll find it there.” So that works as this kind of propulsive engine of go out and finish the song, but it’s not going to be where you’re sitting in your little hovel. Just because there’s such an adventurous, outdoors … he really creates this kind of inner landscape by going out there.

So these kinds of authors are so helpful in writing a song. And if not indirectly, in a way that they just encourage you to finish the song, and how to do that. It’s basically: Get out of your comfort zone, which I don’t want to do. I don’t want to leave my house, but they can inspire you enough that you go, “Okay, fine, I’m just going to go on that hike I’ve been putting off.” Because I need to do this work, and ironically, the only way I can do this work is if I go on this hike.

So let’s go back to the new album. You hit an impasse, after looking for stuff that would take you there, right? How did you resolve that, how did you find a way to those songs?

The thing that started subconsciously shaping the record was reading the news every day. And what’s beautiful about this totally frightening algorithm that’s aware of my interests is that it started to get wise to the fact that I’m looking up Venezuela and I’m looking up Tibet, and that’s kind of it. From that point on, my thread will always have something about Venezuela or Tibet or the Dalai Lama.

So a lot of people these days, including people like me who are supposed to pay attention to it, are avoiding the news because it’s been so depressing and frightening recently — Venezuela especially, but lots of places are melting down right now. But for you it helps the process.

It became a big part of the record, because I was following it and reading about it every day. And I’m still doing that, because it’s an ongoing thing. It’s just really kind of getting worse, because right now the negotiation is, do we basically give in to the worst kind people, the ones that have committed the biggest crimes, in order to get a real change happening in the regime. And it’s wonderful in that actually maybe some change will happen, but also heartbreaking because there will be no justice. But that’s on my mind and I’m reading the news about it all the time, because I’m so personally invested, having my family there.

And I guess I feel the same way — I feel like there’s such a relationship between Venezuela and Tibet right now. You just can observe from a distance; you can’t do anything. I think today it was 143,000 relics have been confiscated, and an entire Buddhist community has been evicted. Three hundred thousand nuns or something like that. It’s really, really incredible, and it’s happening and no one can do anything about it. And so that helplessness is where I see a real relationship with what’s happening in Venezuela. You really cannot help. You can observe; you can hold your breath; you can just try your best to do something.

But that is a big part of the record, and that comes just from reading the news and having family there and these obvious things. And then what’s around, you really pick up what’s around. The first record I made, I was living in a squat in Brooklyn in an abandoned Salsa club, trying to get out of there. And the first record is … Actually the first record was a little bit different, maybe that’s the second record I was living in the squat. The point is, we write about our environment.

Maybe the reading helps you interpret the environment in some way.

Absolutely. What you’re reading definitely interprets your state of mind, your state of being, how you write about your own environment. An author’s voice can be — it’s like watching Curb Your Enthusiasm and suddenly you notice how hilarious and tragic everything is. It’s like you can’t really watch that show, you can’t really watch 10 episodes in a row and not be affected by that show after. Try going to the airport after watching 10 episodes of Curb. It’s amazing. It shapes the way you read the world.

You notice every little annoying thing becomes totally intolerable. No, I definitely wouldn’t want to do 10 episodes of that all at once. That would be a lot of bitterness to take.

I think I did 10 seasons — how many seasons are there, eight? I might’ve done like a handful of seasons in a row, and I was just living in the show and I loved it and hated it at the same time. But an author — and that’s very much someone’s voice — can definitely shape how you view your own environment.

So I’m in a squat, yet I’m reading maybe at that time it would’ve been, thanks to Boris [Dralyuk], a lot of Russian authors. Just the basics: Pushkin, Bulgakov, these kinds of Russian authors that were so intense. I think it’s a known thing how intense these Russian poets are. But it really helped me feel very authentic and it really helped me not feel so alone. It just shapes the way you view your own environment.

Were they writing about the kind of bohemian poverty that you were living in and around?

Well, mostly it’s more about helping me gauge my own sense of what I’m considering to be a real challenge. I didn’t have electricity and I had to fill up the water at the top of the tank in order to flush the toilet every time and there are a couple rats that are gnawing into the room every night. And then there are random people that walk in. So these are my big issues. But when I’m reading about somebody having memorized a poem or they’ll be killed after their family’s been murdered, it helps gauge a little bit my own sense of what I’m considering to be some real struggle here.

Puts things in perspective.

Absolutely. So I think those Russian poets definitely helped do that. And Russia, in fact, is the only place I’ve ever been to where the cab driver didn’t ask me where I was from. He said, “Who’s your favorite poet?” I thought that was amazing. That blew my mind. And there’s like 5,000 Pushkin Cafés there. They still really admire their poetry. And it’s amazing, the cultural side of Russia, the artistic side of Russia, has been really swept aside in this new anti-Russia madness that we’re living in. But plenty of people in Russia are opposed to their own government, just like many people here are opposed to their own government. Suddenly are we all just like Trump people? No, but that’s how we’re viewing all of Russia at the moment.

What did you tell that cab driver?

Probably just said Pushkin to just not engage in conversation.

Yeah, he’s beloved in a way that’s hard for Americans to understand.

I might’ve said Gogol or something to just try to be cool.

So are you a longtime reader of poetry? Is that something you’ve been up to for a long time? Back to high school, art school?

Yeah, a hundred percent. Definitely high school. I mean what gets you through high school is Rimbaud and Kenneth Patchen and Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima, Beat writers. Beat writers will knock your socks off when you’re in high school. That’s super important. And then Richard Brautigan of course: The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster is the perfect collection of poems, and you read that and then you go, “Oh, this is the perfect collection of poems. This is it. This is perfect.” And it makes sense that the Beatles would put that out as the first thing they released on Apple Records, is the readings of those recordings.

And then that kind of succinct style of loving, friendly, and approachable poetry led to haiku, leads to getting into Japanese poetry. But it’s just like music. You love these bands and you go, well what bands are these guys or gals into? And so with the Beats it leads to this whole Eastern thing, so you get into Basho, Ise, fall in love with Japanese poetry and its ability to tell you so much in so few words. And then Gary Snyder, of course.

Kenneth Rexroth, too, I think championed those — I think he translated Chinese.

Women Poets of China, that book is really mind-blowing.

Yeah, Rexroth was the cool, complicated cat.

Totally. Rexroth, so cool, Kenneth Koch. They have these books that really are about teaching poetry too. Then we move into the fact that when I was in college my teacher, my only teacher that I really connected with, was Bill Berkson. And so Bill’s turning us on to Joe Brainard and to Frank O’Hara, that New York School. And that’s totally tied into the Beats, but it’s also a different other kind of thing, and that kind of blew my mind.

And he’s this person who — you know he passed away a couple years ago — but he would throw parties and you would go to his house and there’d be Philip Guston, who says, “Hey Bill, sorry I was late for dinner.” There was that community. And when there really is a community of artists, everybody is an interdisciplinary artist or everybody’s trading works. You know, that was really influential. There wasn’t this division between the literary world and the music world or the artistic world.

[Note: Guston died in 1980]

You know, I think for most musicians I talk to, not all but most, they go through phases of their lives, their albums. As you say, “This is my theme for the album so I’m thinking and reading about this.” Or they just get caught up in a writer and they read everything or every part of the genre or decade. Do you have people that you’ve been into since high school or college that you keep coming back to — poets, novelists, spiritual writers, people who are almost a permanent part of you?

Oh, a hundred percent. I feel like I mentioned some of them. I definitely still when I’m feeling really, really, really like being totally engrossed in a world and really missing a particular comfort, a mothering comfort, I think I will always read Kurt Vonnegut, always.

He was my favorite writer for much of my teenage years.

Me too.

[Mikhail Bulgakov’s] Master and Margarita blew my fucking world apart — I remember reading that book, looking around like, “What’s going on. How could somebody time travel?” Because the way he writes about the crucifixion of Christ was so vivid that it really was scary. I thought that this person, while they’re writing could time travel back then maybe they’re time traveling now and the author is watching me read his book. And this whole paranoid world developed, just because of how well he wrote about what it must have been like to be Pontius Pilate.

After that it was Breakfast of Champions, and just that drawing of a butthole, it was just — a light went off and I thought, “I’m in love. This is perfect. This is everything I’ve ever wanted. I always wanted to just open a book and see a drawing of a butthole. This is perfect.”

So I still will turn to Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan and John Cage actually, because John’s poetry and visual art was visualized so poetically that I will still put it under the poetry. But his writing and his mind is something that at a young age I was so blown away by and I still turn to when I kind of hit a wall. Because infamously he said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it,” which is the same thing as saying, “Hit the wall, you’ll always hit the wall.” He also had a line literally about a wall, “Well I’ll bang my head against that wall [until it breaks].” I can so relate to these things.

It’s interesting that you responded to Cage that early, because he’s somebody that I studied in college and I was fascinated by him but wasn’t quite ready for him, and it’s taken me decades to understand Cage, I think.

I know what you mean, and my intro to Cage had more to do with him as an interdisciplinary artist, and so it was such a turn on to see that there was someone who’s a composer, a mycologist, a poet, a visual artist. So then immediately I was drawn in. That was late high school. But to this day favorite authors have to definitely be Gary Snyder, definitely Diane di Prima, who still is putting out amazing work. She just put out a new book of haikus — incredible, I love her.

I love Chögyam Trungpa. He passed away, but he was founder of Naropa Institute, and Shambhala Publishing puts out a lot of Chögyam Trungpa. I read all the kind of basic spiritual superheroes. I love Pema Chödrön, and I love Krishnamurti, and I love Paramhansa Yogananda. Autobiography of a Yogi is a book I still read. Just for fun I turn to it, it’s amazing. And the audiobook is Ben Kingsley.

At the moment, I’m reading a really interesting book called In Love with the World by Mingyur Rinpoche. And he’s this huge deal — I mean a real-deal Lama, has his own monastery, and kind of lives in that protected world. And instead of doing the traditional three-year retreat, which many rinpoches or, say, spiritual adepts will do, just be in a cave for three years, he went for a different type of three-year retreat where he just escaped into the world, for three years wanders the world with no money. And so it’s an account of that — really powerful, really beautiful.

So that stuff, it gives you something you need personally. Does it feed directly into the work some of the time?

Absolutely. It also helps suss out what you really want to write about, what’s worth writing about. What lines survive after you have something like … A profoundly spiritual book will help you identify what you deem worthy, what you’re singing about or sharing with the world.

So you might not be writing or singing about the subject matter, but it sharpens your brain to find where you’re really going.

Yeah, it just helps you be selective about it. Just like that thing about reading Russian poetry and going, “You know what, my complaints are really…” Now that doesn’t diminish them, because the thing is so deeply subjective. But it kind of puts into perspective what’s really the main essence of what you’re trying to convey.

And then I still read Japanese poetry. I still read Basho and I go, “Wow.” There’s a new depth to each reading. And so some of these people still get me going. Kenneth Patchen, I still read Kenneth Patchen, and I go, “Wow, it took me 10 years to understand what you were trying to say there.” Mary Oliver is still completely a daily thing. I daily read Mary Oliver.

I really love Alexandra David-Néel, who wrote Magic and Mystery in Tibet. She’s written like 20 books. But she was the first kind of Western woman to ever travel through the Himalayas and so kind of helps create this Shangri-La myth of Tibet. But I like her writing, and the stories are incredible, some really wild, mystical stuff that’s happening in the world. It’s like science-fiction fiction, so amazing. And I still read Isaac Asimov.

Another favorite of mine from childhood. Foundation books?

Yeah, absolutely, where you’re just like, “Oh, wow.”

Yeah, the sweep of those is pretty incredible, right?

Incredible. Really you have a whole world. And also, you know what, as a kid, Alan Moore. I love all of his stuff, and then that kind of led to getting into Jodorowsky’s graphic novels, which I really love. Because at one point, after [the films] El Topo and Holy Mountain, he’s just like, “I’ve got ambitious ideas, but I don’t have the budget, so I’m just going to put it into graphic novels.” Those graphic novels are better than any of his films, because he can just go nuts. In fact, infamously, he sued The Fifth Element, because they stole The Incal. [Note: The French publisher of the Incal publisher sued Fifth Element director Luc Besson over similarities, and lost.]

But it’s incredible, so I love his graphic novels. I really, really love them. So Jodorowsky’s graphic novels were a big thing many, many years ago, and I still go, “Oh yeah, I need to reread some of those.” Same thing with Alan Moore. I still enjoy — like Swamp Thing is huge. It was like this basically the hippie superhero. He’s a vegetable, he’s vegan, he’s the ultimate vegan, and he’s just teaching you how to really water a plant — like, “Eat of my tuber and be connected to the root of nature.” That was really influential.

Some of your songs are in Spanish; you grew up largely in Venezuela. To what extent has Spanish-language literature mattered to you?

Yeah — I think everyone in high school, at one point, comes across Neruda. And then you say, “Oh, it’s like a Hallmark card or something.” And then time goes by, and you realize, He’s so good. He’s so good. He’s like Leonard Cohen: How did you put together those two words that are so mundane, but totally blow my mind? How did you write something so simple and clean but still so powerful?

So Neruda was really big and still is. Gabriel García Márquez was really big and still is. Bigger than both of them was Lorca — Federico García Lorca. I was in love with his poetry, but his visual art freaked me out so much. I thought this was a Cagian thing — an interdisciplinary element —

And a great playwright …

Of course. But they’re all kind of related — his poetry looks like his drawings. Same thing with Cage. I loved that — this disregard for the discipline. His expression is so individualistic. It’s why I love Caetano Veloso’s music so much — Caetano is an author, his book Tropical Truth, his filmmaking … It’s all flowing through him.

What’s his film like?

His film is very experimental — it’s just friends talking at a party. But it works.

For Brazilian authors, it would have to be the translations in English. You know, Mário de Andrade …

Right, you don’t read Portuguese.

I don’t read Portuguese; I don’t speak Portuguese. On this record, I sing a song in Portuguese, saying I wish I knew Portuguese.

The cool thing about so many Brazilian songwriters — so many of them put out novels at some point. It’s a natural part of the art to have a multitude of disciplines you work in.

You seem drawn to people like that.

Tell us a little about the new record. Did your thinking about Tibet and Venezuela lead you to the album?

I think it was having a family of musicians and friends — people I’ve played music with for over 20 years, all of them have children. Suddenly they’re all parents. That presence, observing that relationship, and having the luxury of not having children … So I get to be in the studio, or on tour, and observe that relationship. I can go home and write about it. That became a big part of the record.

And the question began to arise: What if I don’t have kids? Maybe this record is everything I want to say to my child whether I have them or not. And then, Who am I a parent to if I have no child? And maybe the point of what it really means — expanding, or working on yourself — is to begin with this one specific person you call “Mother.” And as you grow, you see Mother everywhere. You have a nonspecific feeling you call Mother. And it becomes very animistic — it becomes the ocean, it becomes the Sun, and it becomes other people.

And for me, without a doubt literature has been a Mother, music has been a Mother. And art has been a Mother.

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.

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Featured image: “Devendra Banhart photographed by Cal Quinn at The Granada Theatre 2.15.17” by Cal Quinn is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.


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