Devendra Banhart: I only finish ten percent of the stuff I need to do
Photo by Ana Kras
Devendra Banhart is a strange one. The Brooklyn-based indie-folk artist has been making music of his own unique creation for over a decade, and his 8th album, Mala, is arguably his best to date. Not that Banhart would really know -- he eschews popular criticism and probably popular thought, too.
Mala is a vibey, synthy 14-track collection spanning just over 40 minutes. On it, Banhart presents himself as an electro-soul captain on some gentle shoegaze seas, and my, does it work for him. The Texas-born, Venezuela-raised artist lets his daydream chords and vocals roam freely, anchored here and there by the sultry tinges of a Spanish guitar. In it all, Mala comes across as effortlessly charming.
Ahead of his gig at Mill City Nights on Thursday, Gimme Noise caught up with Banhart to discuss his new record and his thoughts on art.
Gimme Noise: Let's talk about the album. You titled it "Mala," and I've read lots of reviews analyzing whether you meant that as a Serbian term of endearment or as the Spanish word for "bad." Can you tell me what you meant?
Devendra Banhart: In terms of the title and its origin, the word "mala" exists unchanged in many different languages... Maltese, Hindu, Spanish, Serbian, Gaelic -- it's the same word with a different explanation. Looking into that word was when I found out that in Serbian, it means "small." Also, aesthetically, it's a very pretty word, so it was the right word that way. Also, how something is said is very significant, very important. It makes a difference in how you interpret it.
This is your eighth studio album. What do you like most about making albums?
I wish that was true [about liking making albums], but I really have this feeling of like, "Oh, jeez, now that the record is done I have to learn how to do this stuff all over again." I really don't have that feeling of getting better at it over time. We try to change the situation via the concept, the philosophy, the architecture, I guess -- I think there's this misconception that I own a studio or a house or have been living in a place longer than six months, which I haven't in over a decade. That's the way I make music: a perception of perpetual instability. It's not something everyone desires, but it works for me.
Help me understand your musical process. You've cultivated a very strange sound over the years, so I'm just wondering how you inform that.
I'm not really considering myself as a musician... I studied fine art, and my focus was interdisciplinary art, but I was coming from that place of writing songs... The words are the most important thing for me, but not the subject. The construction of the words. That's it.
So beyond the music, you make visual art. You seem quite busy creating things. Where do you find regular inspiration?
Oh, I don't really feel that way... I really feel like I only get ten percent of the stuff I need to do done. I don't... I don't know if I'm even inspired by anything. I don't do anything other than do, and I'm not reliant on inspiration.
I guess if we're talking in context of me creating, it's something that I would do regardless of acknowledgment from other people, really. I would rather listen to music and look at art, and that's, to me, the biggest start. Maybe it's so important and inspiring for me listening to music that moves me, or looking at art that moves me, that I wouldn't even put it in the same light as what I do, even though there are certain influences most of the time. I love things like songs from a genre of music to a particular geographic location or time in history, and then it's up to me to filter it down to what rings true to me or has some sort of sliver of my own identity of thought.
Would you say you're creatively satisfied?
Hmm... [long pause] Hmm!
Is that a hard question?
Mmm... Well, it's just that I can't answer it immediately. If I can't immediately say "yes," does it mean the answer is "no"? I don't think so. ....How do you answer it? It's a challenging question. Maybe it's not a yes or no question. I don't think it's a yes or no answer. Maybe that's my answer.
It's usually so obvious. Why not due the work for some sense of satisfaction? It took me 31 years to think that maybe I should do things for my own happiness, so I think that's a question that will resonate for a while. I'll meditate on it. Thank you for that.
You have a really extensive tour lined up, national and international. Are there any places you're most excited for?
[In affected accent] Well, Minneapolis, of course, darling! [Chuckles] I'm excited to go anywhere, really, that seems so much more stable to me than being here in New York. I'm already on tour in my mind, really.
Devendra Banhart will be performing at Mill City Nights on Thursday, May 30. Doors at 8 p.m. $23 ahead, $25 at door. 18+. More info here.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.