Banhart emerged seemingly out of nowhere in 2002 with his first CD collection, Oh Me Oh My…The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, compiled by Swans frontman Michael Gira for his Young God label from homemade recordings the itinerant Banhart had amassed as he traveled the world. He was born Devendra Obi Banhart in Houston, Texas, but spent his childhood in Caracas, Venezuela; as a teenager, his family returned to the States, relocating in Southern California, where he soon became enamored of skateboard culture. “Ballad of Keenan Milton,” in fact, is an homage to the legendary skateboarder, who died tragically in 2001 in a freak accident.
Music was always a passion for Banhart, and he discovered it in ways both magical and haphazard. As a boy in Caracas, says Banhart, “I was surrounded by salsa, merengue, cumbia, some bossa nova—that was ubiquitous, you’d hear it on any street.” In what could be an excerpt from a David Sedaris monologue, Banhart claims he found his own voice one day when he was home alone and impetuously donned one of his mother’s dresses, grabbed her hair brush and started to sing. What came out was a prepubescent sound he could call his own, a touchstone, something that echoed, years later, in the falsetto of his early albums. In high school, Banhart became obsessed with rocksteady, bluebeat, and ska, which he’d learned about via skateboarding videos.
Finishing high school, he thought he would pursue a visual arts career so he enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, but he soon dropped out in favor of exploring music. He has, however, successfully maintained a parallel career as a painter: Banhart’s distinctive, minutely inked, often enigmatic drawings have appeared in galleries all over the world, including the Art Basel Contemporary Art Fair in Miami; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels; and Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. He has created the cover art for most of his records, and in 2010 his artwork and packaging for What Will We Be was nominated for a Grammy.
San Francisco had an indelible influence on Banhart; the flamboyant dressing he adopted that entranced the fashion crowd (and fueled the “freak folk” and “New Weird America” labels the press attached to him) was inspired in part by the seriously subversive cross-dressing culture of San Francisco’s legendary performance troupe the Cockettes.
Like Nonesuch label-mates Caetano Veloso and David Byrne, with whom he shared a stage at Carnegie Hall, Banhart has embraced an astonishingly wide range of musical ideas, from folk to blues to the avant garde. He extols the late Arthur Russell, a relentlessly eclectic artist who was impossible to pigeonhole in his brief lifetime, and Banhart has brought back into the spotlight forgotten artists like late-’60s singer Vashti Bunyan, whose psychedelic folk he championed. He has collaborated with Brazilian legends Os Mutantes, the Swans, Antony and the Johnsons, and Beck, among others, and has engaged in art projects like conceptualist Doug Aitken’s monumental 2012 Song 1 video installation on the façade of the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, DC.
For Banhart, his career remains “an adventure and an exploration.” Banhart admits, “I don’t really take care of my voice, but, just like with playing guitar, you get more familiar with it, and you get better at it. I’ve always said that I’m very good at not knowing how to play the guitar but, really, it’s just that I’m very comfortable with the utter uncertainty of my approach.”