DEVENDRA BANHART with ANGELS OF LIGHT at Healey's (178 Bathurst), Saturday (March 29). $12. 416-703-5882. Rating: NNNNN
Every so often an artist comes along with such a strikingly unique voice, it takes just a few notes to know something special's going on. That's the way the sound of Jeff Buckley, PJ Harvey and Beck hit me the first time around, and the same goes for 21-year-old Devendra Banhart.
It's not the kind of thing that can be easily quantified, except to say that magic happens when he sings. A bluesy warble just pours freely from his spindly frame, shuddering with the creak of an ancient soul, to form unsettlingly twisted two-minute vignettes.
Guns blast, birds chirp, fireworks crackle somewhere in the background while Banhart playfully weaves fantastic images of teeth that bend backwards and olive-eating ticks around the quirky hand-clapping melodies that populate his delightful debut disc.
Banhart has titled it Oh Me Oh My... The Way The Day Goes By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs Of The Christmas Spirit (Young God Records), and that's a good indication of the surreal estate that's his stock-in-trade.
You may hear momentary flashes of Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, Caetano Veloso or, strangely, even Karen Dalton, yet that's all part of Banhart's deep mystique -- just like his songwriting, at once sharply detailed and impenetrably oblique.
"I have a very selective memory, just like everybody, I guess," explains the fast-gabbing Banhart from New York City, often asking and answering his own questions in the same breath.
"No one really remembers every little bit of everything they experience, do they? No, only certain things. I might not remember all the words someone spoke to me but I may recall how they said them, and that might go into a song. The details are important.
"I don't write hokey-cokey-crappy universal sort of songs like, "Oh baby, let's do it tonight.' That's just a bullshit formula people like Paul McCartney use to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Each line in my songs deals with specific things. There's nothing arbitrary thrown in. Every colour is chosen for a reason, just like every word and chord."
Considering the four-track and two-track technology Banhart used to record the 22 songs that make up Oh Me Oh My, it's clear that wide popular appeal wasn't his primary goal.
In fact, the album was culled from 54 tunes Banhart documented on the fly, frequently by singing ideas into a friend's answering machine or using a cassette recorder in a bathroom if it had the right echo.
From the time Banhart started writing songs at the age of eight while growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, the music he made has always been for himself and was only really intended to be heard by family and friends -- although he'd happily sell a CD-R of his music to anyone willing to part with a dollar.
That's how Michael Gira (ex-Swans, Angels of Light) heard Banhart and knew he had to release his budget audio-verité creations on his Young God Records label as is. There was no way to recreate the many fortuitous accidents and mysterious apparitions that helped define Banhart's original recordings.
"It was Bastille Day when I happened to be recording by an open window, and just as I started playing, some birds came by and started singing. Amazing. Another time I was recording I saw this dude with a gun walk into the room next door and then fire a shot. All that stuff became part of the songs.
"Because I didn't have access to a real recording studio, I used a few answering machines, a couple of hand-held recorders and actually five different four-track recorders. I ended up breaking each one of those four-tracks -- even the one my sister Isabelle got for Christmas.
"It wasn't on purpose, I just didn't know how to work them properly. They didn't come with instructions, and I'm no technical genius. It got to where nobody would let me near their recorders any more."
Resourcefully using whatever tools and materials are at hand is something Banhart picked up from innovative cult filmmaker George Kuchar (his film The Devil's Cleavage screens at the Cinematheque Wednesday, April 2; see Rep Cinema, page XX) who taught Banhart's film class while he was studying "everything but music" at the San Francisco Art Institute. Working closely with the twisted Kuchar no doubt helped to further warp Banhart's aesthetic.
"George is an awesome guy, so it was a fun class. He'd show us some of his early stuff, these incredibly radical and bizarre films, and then afterwards we'd build a set out of foam while he gave directions like, "OK, aliens over here, and, um... sexy space goddess comes in from there.'
"I wound up being in one of his films in my underwear. The last thing he said to me was, "Need me to shave any part of you? No problem.'"
Having finished writing songs for his next album, tentatively titled The Date Of Birth Of Eternal Corn, for which Banhart is considering a few duets in Spanish with his mother, he's now trying to complete his new illustrated novel, Rejoicing In The Hands Of The Golden Negress.
Evidently, it won't be another "psychedelic joke" like his two prior published works of fiction, The Thumbs Touch Too Much and In The Pool Of Athletic Swimming.
"It's more of a folk tale, something like (Nigerian writer) Amos Tutola's Palm Wine Drinker. My story is about a village where god is a golden woman who looks kinda like Bessie Smith. She watches over the people who live with animals and these hands. Everything in the village comes from the hands. If you want a Walkman or maybe some wallpaper, you just ask the hands, but to get it you must give them something in return."
Despite growing interest in Banhart's music and a number of big-money offers tabled, the wise-beyond-his-years upstart seems immune to the lure of the quick cash-in.
"I'm not trying to sound arrogant, but there were a lot of people from different labels interested in signing me, which is kinda weird, but it's the truth. They talk about all this prestige blah, blah, blah, but I was very suspicious.
"Most of the conversations were about them trying to convince me they weren't evil. But how can you trust that they're going to treat you fairly when there are all these books like Fredric Dannen's Hit Men and Fred Goodman's Mansion On The Hill that reveal the horrors of the business and tell you exactly what kind of fucking gangsters these people are?"
"No matter what they tell you, if your records don't sell, they'll drop you. And you'll still get charged for all the phone calls they make to their wives!"email@example.comOutsider's guide
After leaving Venezuela, Devendra Banhart quickly discovered that there was more interesting music being made in the U.S. than the Guns N' Roses and Garth Brooks junk in Caracas stores. Here are the magical musical discoveries that changed his life.
A captivating singer/songwriter with Brill Building chops, the late Fred Neil -- best known for penning Everybody's Talkin' -- was a powerful presence on the emerging Greenwich Village café folk scene that influenced Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons.
"In this horrible warehouse music store I found this compilation called Folk with an amazing song called Rocky Road. I loved it so much, I started playing it before I found out it was by Fred Neil. Then I started looking for his other stuff and found Bleecker & MacDougal. It's one of the best records ever made."
Sometimes called the Hillbilly Holiday because of her vocal resemblance to a countrified Lady Day, the mysterious Karen Dalton recorded just two albums of captivating country blues that became an early template for Lucinda Williams.
"Karen Dalton is the shit. A friend of mine in San Francisco made me a tape with her song Ribbon Bow on it. That freaked the fuck outta me. I bought her It's So Hard To Tell album, and I still listen to the thing every day."
Using the call-and-response participatory techniques gleaned from her gospel background on Chicago's South Side, Ella Jenkins has had an amazing four-decade run as one of the world's most beloved children's music artists.
"She does these records for kids, but her songs are just amazing. I'm going to cover Wake Up, Little Sparrow from her Rhythms Of Childhood album for this compilation of men doing women's songs and vice versa called Gender Bender. It's beautiful."
Linda Perhacs emerged from obscurity in 1970, recorded the delicately pastoral folk-psych masterpiece Parallelograms for Kapp, then vanished in a puff of smoke.
"I heard that Linda Perhacs was a dental assistant who was singing in the office and someone suggested she make a record. So she did. Parallelograms is incredible. It's better than anything Joni Mitchell ever did." TPdevendra banhart