Devendra Banhart is without a doubt the key artist of New Weird America. Banhart has received the most media attention out of all the acts, mainly due to his charismatic and mysterious persona, which he keeps growing and embellishing. Arguably, it is also Banhart who has the most connections with the scene, having collaborated with artists from both folk spectrums, from Six Organs of Admittance to Vashti Bunyan.
Music author Jeannette Leech notes: ‘Devendra Banhart was am extrovert and an enthusiast. Already friends with many other artists, including Joanna Newsom, he forged links with most of the emergent artists in the growing communities of psychedelic and experimental folk. He was well liked and respected, his sincerity never in doubt.’ (Leech, 2010, p. 252)
Banhart was born in Houston, Texas, but moved to Venezuela as a child after his parents’ divorce. At 14, he returns to San Francisco and begins busking and playing small shows. He also starts recording songs, usually with no means, wither by borrowing equipment from friends or even leaving songs on their answering machines.
‘For Devendra, he feels, that Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Karen Dalton, Vashti Bunyan, and Fred Neil are the most important musicians there ever was, thank god for them.’ (Arthur, oct. 22 2002, full biography retrieved at: https://arthurmag.com/2002/10/22/na-32/)
After a first official release in 2002 in the form of The Charles C. Leary (2002), Banhart is contacted by Swans founder Michael Gira who expresses an interest to work with him. The pair then went through Banhart’s demos and released Oh Me Oh My ... The Way The Day Goes By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs Of The Christmas Spirit (2002) on Gira’s Young Gods label. The collection of weird, lo-fi folk songs already shows the artist’s array of influences, ranging from traditional acoustic blues to child-like nursery rhymes.
Interview with Banhart and Michael Gira from 2003
Banhart started working on his two follow-ups: Rejoicing in the Hands (2004) and Nino Rojo (2004). Both followed the path undertook with Oh Me Oh Me and are [...] examples of his creative depth. Even though the production is more meticulous, the songs maintain this immediate creative spark Devendra is known for. ‘At the Hop’ (co-written with Andy Cabic) was released as a single and garnered commercial attention due to its inclusion in an television ad. The Californian magazine Arthur also helped in Banhart’s rise in popularity by extensively covering his works and that of the scene and curating the seminal The Golden Apples of the Sun (2004) album, compiled by Banhart.
In 2005, Banhart signed with XL Records, a bigger independent label and released Cripple Crow to widespread acclaim. The album feels like a patchwork of sounds, Banhart truly drawing inspiration from the vast array of folk’s history. The album cover itself is a nod to the Incredible String Band’s influential The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968). Devendra Banhart became the flourishing scene’s spokEsperson, promoting artists with his Gnomonsong label (co-founded with Cabic) and organising events (his Arthur-curated Naturalismo Festival in 2006)
With Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (2007), he started a shift towards a more focused, indie-tinged sound. His following releases, What Will We Be (2009) and Mala (2013) have little in common with his early sound, the latter album even featuring synth-heavy tracks.