The Colourful World Of Mr Devendra Banhart
The musician gives a masterclass in laid-back bohemian style
Rain is falling on Los Angeles, pouring down the boulevards, freaking out the motorists and steaming up the windows of Kitchen Mouse, a bohemian-vegetarian café in Highland Park. Mr Devendra Obi Banhart, 35, is busying himself with an avocado and eggs special, contemplating his surprise elevation to arbiter of style.
“I love fashion, I really do,” says the Venezuelan-American singer-songwriter and painter. “I love going to shows and observing the pieces as if they’re drawings. Whenever I see someone with their own individual look, it makes me so happy. When you realise how difficult it is in some parts of the world just to wear a different colour shoelace, it re-instills that appreciation.”
MR PORTER has made no secret of admiring Mr Banhart’s style. His cult-healer-who’s about-to-be-rumbled look, combined with his gnomic Snapchat output for Missoni, made him a surprise hit at the SS17 men’s shows in Milan last June. He has proved that if you stay more or less in the same place, the world will revolve and find you all over again. His 2016 album Ape In Pink Marble was his ninth, and its shimmering undercurrents and sly magnetism were a reminder of the charm of early releases such as Oh Me Oh My and Cripple Crow, from the early 2000s. A friend of his described it as “psychedelicate”, which pleased him. “Everybody else said, ‘I haven’t heard it. I’ll get back to you,’” he deadpans. One song, “Fancy Man”, could almost have been written by one of his heroes, Mr Ray Davies, looking askance at his jet-setting. “In one sense, it’s a song about an asshole,” says Mr Banhart. “He’s a despicable person, totally self-centred, no respect for anyone else, completely materialistic. But in another sense, it’s semi-autobiographical.”
The self-deprecation is part of Mr Banhart’s mercurial magnetism. He is a hugs-and-tea sort of guy, drifting around the café in a furry black sweater and long skinny khakis, catching up with various friends. Kitchen Mouse is owned by Ms Erica Daking, who is the partner of his guitarist, Mr Josiah Steinbrick, and it’s just down the road from the house where he’s lived and gardened for the past couple of years. When I confess I’m a little jet-lagged from my flight to LA, Mr Banhart seems genuinely pained. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “I have such deep empathy and sympathy for you. I really know what it’s like. I just got back from Caracas, but that’s peanuts.” Maybe in terms of time difference, but his recent visit to Venezuela has put him in reflective mood.
Mr Banhart had been reading reports of the unrest in the country obsessively, and felt he needed to see for himself. “What I learned was that it’s all real,” he says. “The bread lines are all real.” He was born in Houston, Texas, to a Venezuelan model, Ms Maria Eugenia Risquez, and an American hippie, Mr Robert Gary Banhart. They were both followers of the Indian spiritual leader Mr Prem Rawat and, yes, his middle name was inspired by Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. His parents divorced when he was two, whereupon Ms Risquez moved back to Venezuela, where Mr Banhart spent much of his childhood against a backdrop of political unrest.
He recalls the morning of Mr Hugo Chávez’s attempted coup in 1992. “I wake up to go to school,” he says, “And my mum tells me I can’t go to school. I turn on the TV and Chávez is on every channel, flanked by two masked guys with AK-47s, saying, ‘This is a coup. We’re taking over the country. We’re giving it back to its people.’” Mr Chávez was imprisoned, but was elected president in 1999, and led the country as a Bolivarian populist before his death from cancer in 2013 returned the country to chaos. Mr Banhart says the atmosphere of distrust, uncertainty and conformism he encountered on his recent visit brought back memories of his childhood. “You didn’t leave the house at night,” he says. “And now, the atmosphere is the same. It’s dystopian and Orwellian. On TVs and on billboards, they literally show Hugo Chávez’s eyes – just his eyes – watching you from the grave. It’s this tremendous paradox, because the people are so fun-loving and passionate. They want to dance, they want to be out.” He shows me a picture of a lush rainforest lacerated by barbed-wire fences. “That juxtaposition says a lot. It’s always night and it’s always day there. How about that? It’s always night and day.”
Mr Banhart had been wanting to play music in Venezuela for many years. He realised he should stop waiting for an invitation and simply go and sort it out himself, and seems heartened by the underground scene. He also caught up with his mother and family who still live there, and organised a shipment of food and medicine to donate to a children’s hospital. “You can’t send money to them because there’s nothing to buy,” he says. He found his efforts hindered by police raids. “It’s not some demonic darkness of the heart. They’ve been reduced to that state because they’re in survival mode. They might be able to sell it so they can feed their own children. Now that I’m back, just to be able to walk around my neighbourhood fills me with tremendous gratitude. At least we can still lose our shit.”
There’s a story he’s told often about how he started singing when he was 10. As a boy, he always thought he should sing like Mr Axl Rose or Sir Mick Jagger – proper macho rock stars – but his voice hadn’t broken and it always sounded terrible. One day, when his mother was out, Mr Banhart put on one of her dresses and started to sing as a woman. “It wasn’t a sexual thing,” he says. “It was more of an unlocking of my feminine side. That embrace of a feminine side within a male, and vice versa, is so not supported in Venezuela. Anything counter-cultural, anything remotely non-heterosexual is just dangerous.” He doubts very much he could have become a musician in Caracas. He may have had to channel his energy into being a botanist or a librarian, or a go-go dancer at best.
I suggest that the fact his songs are so wilfully eccentric – this is a man who once sang of taking his teeth out dancing on “This Beard Is For Siobhan” – seems less like whimsy and more touching. “That was a reaction to the chaos inside of me, to the lack of peace inside my heart,” he says. “And it was also a result of having grown up in an environment where individual expression is not supported in any way. The first thing I did when I moved back to America was pierce my ear. When I tried to do that in Caracas, they literally had to shut down the school because so many people wanted to kill me. ‘Who’s the fag? We have to kill him!’ I was 11.” He is currently dating the French-American actress/model, Ms Camille Rowe (past girlfriends include the Serbian-born designer Ms Ana Kras and, for a while in 2008, actress Ms Natalie Portman).
When Mr Banhart referred to his fashion lineage, he wasn’t fooling around either. Back in the 1970s, Venezuela had a brief period of looking outwards. His mother was voted Best Dressed Woman Of Caracas in 1970 and went on to have an international modelling career. “She was friends with Yves Saint Laurent,” he says. “They were so proud of her in Venezuela. And I feel so proud of her now, that she represented this moment of glamour that Venezuela had. Gio Ponti designed this beautiful house in Caracas at that time. There’s a Jean Arp sculpture and a Fernand Leger mural. There are some fantastic kinetic artists there, some of the greats, even a Victor Vasarely. It had this rich moment. And I’m confident it will return. People are still proud of where they’re from. They’re still making art and they’re still trying to tell their stories.”
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Conversation with Mr Banhart is meandering and surprising. We touch upon the Japanese use of the word sorry, the differences in international beeping culture, and about whether animals make the same noises in different languages. “A bee buzzes in English. But what does a bee do in China? I’ll bet it doesn’t buzz.” He tells me the worst joke I have ever heard – “What does Allen Ginsberg do in the bathroom? He takes a ‘Howl’ movement” – and pauses to mark the anniversary of the death of jazz pianist Ms Alice Coltrane, one of his heroines.
He also reflects at length on the unavoidably dark mood in the US. “I feel a tremendous need to do more,” he says, “And then I zoom back to the other end of the spectrum, where I just think what’s the point? But what you can do is tend to your own garden, find out what you can do within your own sphere. It comes down to: how can I enjoy my life without it being at the expense of anyone else? I think that’s an intimate, personal question.”
I feel bad about raising the tweet (now deleted) sent last year by the British musician Mr Devonté Hynes (aka Blood Orange), who said Mr Banhart’s music was “so insufferable I feel sorry for the entirety of Los Angeles, you deserve better”. “That was strange to me,” he says. “I think he’s a wonderful artist. I’m not sure that had much to do with me, so I tried not to take it personally, but that’s easier said than done. Anyway, I agree with him.”
Mr Banhart is particularly hard on his younger self, and says he cannot listen to his early songs without “anxiety and regret. I never hear anything and feel happy about it.” He seems to regret his former arrogance. “We romanticise this idea of doing things by ourselves so much,” he says. “There are all these people who say they’ve got to places with no one else’s help, but that has nothing to do with being a human being. I don’t think we should accord that anything like the respect that we do.”
And he doesn’t mind if people think he’s not being entirely serious. “I’m really not trying to fool anyone,” he says. “What I do is really from my heart. I’m still falling on my face and I’m still embarrassing myself constantly. But at least I do it now with a little more consciousness. I’m a very honest charlatan.”
Ape In Pink Marble is out now