With an effortless and magical songwriting style and a quivering croon, Devendra Banhart was a key player in the freak folk movement of the early 2000s. Cross-referencing the woodland mystique of T. Rex-era Marc Bolan with emotionally rich and often surprisingly vulnerable lyricism, Banhart's poetic, acoustic songs grew from the intimate lo-fi of early critically acclaimed albums like 2004’s Rejoicing in the Hands to the more polished recordings and experiments with style, arrangements, and instrumentation on genre-hopping albums like 2007's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon and stylistically varied excursions like 2019's Ma, or 2021's ambient collaboration with Noah Georgeson, Refuge.
Banhart was born in Houston, Texas in 1981 and raised in Caracas, Venezuela and Los Angeles. Growing up, he was always playing music and drawing, but it wasn't until his brief stint at the San Francisco Art Institute in the late '90s that these disciplines became his constant companions. With the encouragement of poet and SFAI professor Bill Berskon, Banhart began experimenting with all kinds of art. He also began recording songs around that time, usually on shoddy, hand-me-down four-track machines. Brief, half-finished, or written in stream-of-consciousness form, the recordings weren't initially intended for release. But friends encouraged Banhart, and he sent out a few tentative demos. He also left SFAI in favor of busking and wandering, and his travels led him from the Bay Area to Paris and eventually back to L.A. By then he was performing regularly, but he hadn't recorded or released anything officially. That changed when Michael Gira (Swans) issued the first Banhart material on his Young God imprint in October 2002. Oh Me Oh My... was an immediate critical hit, and comparisons to legends of songwriting, eclecticism, and tragedy were frequent (Tim Buckley, Syd Barrett, Marc Bolan, et al.). The Black Babies EP arrived in 2003, followed by Banhart's first full-length, Rejoicing in the Hands, in April 2004. Young God released its companion, Niño Rojo, in September. Acclaim for both was nearly unanimous, and Banhart's audience continued to expand. He jumped to XL for September 2005's Cripple Crow, an ambitious set and his most sonically expansive album up to that point. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon continued in that vein and was recorded at Banhart's new home studio in Topanga Canyon. A jump to Warner Bros. brought a more straightforward set (relatively speaking), What Will We Be, in 2009. Released in 2013, Mala organized some of the overstuffed elements of Banhart's multifaceted muse into a more cohesive set of songs than on his previous few albums. He dialed back those tendencies even more for his sparser 2016 LP, Ape in Pink Marble. In 2018, he released a cover of Joan of Arc's "Shown and Told." February 2019 saw Banhart issue Weeping Gang Bliss Void Yab-Yum, his first collection of poetry, as well as the single "Bright Future Ahead," which was written with L.A.-based musician Kera, with all proceeds going to the trans-led organization Trans Lifeline. Later that year, his tenth studio album, Ma, arrived on the Nonesuch label. In 2020, he offered up the Ma companion piece Vast Ovoid, a four-song EP released on limited-run vinyl that included three new tracks and a Helado Negro remix of Ma tune "Love Song." In the spring of 2020, Banhart began working remotely with longtime collaborator Noah Georgeson while both were quarantining during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two friends had bonded years earlier over similar childhood memories of being exposed to new age culture, and had long talked about joining forces to record an ambient album with new age undertones. They finally did just that, enlisting the help of friends like harpist Mary Lattimore, pianist Tyler Cash, pedal steel player Nicole Lawrence and others. Banhart even had some of his Buddhist teachers appear on the recordings, contributing spoken parts to the meditative sounds. The resultant album, Refuge, was released in August of 2021.
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