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'Rejoicing' With Devendra Banhart

Devendra Banhart's 2001 debut Oh Me Oh My (Young God) was simultaneously one of the oddest and most beautiful records of the new century, trembling with emotion, bursting with talent, but held back somewhat by thick tape hiss, iffy production and, on one song at least, the bleed-through of gunfire from outside Banhart's Paris apartment. It was an outsider album through and through, but sung and played in an unforgettable folk-into-blues style that felt both traditional and utterly new.

Banhart's follow-up, Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God) is an altogether different kind of record, not exactly smooth, but clear, clean and serene. Banhart sounds calmer, more assured here, yet he loses not an ounce of his skewed, elliptical charm. You realize, on listening to Rejoicing, that you were looking through a dirty window before, but that now the glass is clean and the view is as good, if not better, than ever.

"Oh Me Oh My was something I could never do again," Banhart said during a recent interview. "That record wasn't just capturing a song, it was capturing a time in my life, because I really was traveling with 4-tracks and answering machines and rudimentary equipment, and dumping everything that was happening psychologically at that time."

Much of Oh Me Oh My, he explained, was recorded on friends' answering machines, phoned in from various places he was staying in Europe. The songs were often recorded only once, with little chance to fill out and develop. "I was trying to record songs as quickly as I possibly could," he said. "I was always rushing. I had to leave or something."

By contrast, Banhart played the songs on Rejoicing in the Hands more, including at live shows, and had a chance to work out his ideas more fully. "So these are more like songs, I think, and a little more fleshed out," he explained. "There are feelings in the songs, but the last record was just feelings. Maybe it's like I was entering a place full of cobwebs in the first one, and in this one, the cobwebs have been cleaned out and I was exploring an underwater cave or something."

The album was recorded at an old house (owned by engineer Lynn Bridges) on the Alabama/Georgia line in, as Banhart calls it, "the realm of manicures and liquor stores." The house, he said, was spacious, creaky and filled with animals, but perhaps its oddest features were the glass spiderweb sculptures that hung everywhere. During a little over a week, Banhart — helped by Bridges, Young God proprietor Michael Gira (Swans, Angels of Light) and percussionist Thor Harris (Shearwater, Angels of Light) — recorded some 57 tracks, enough for two albums (the second is set for release this summer). The tapes were then taken back to New York, where various instruments, including piano, strings and percussion, were overdubbed, creating a much more varied sound than was on Banhart's previous, voice-and-guitar-only album.

Sessions for the album took place during intense 12-hour days. "It wasn't exhausting, actually," Banhart said, when asked about the schedule. "It was just, wake up at around 9 and we'd be done around 10 p.m., but for some reason it wasn't exhausting, because all I was thinking about was making a version that I could live with. I didn't get an opportunity to do that with the first record. I was aware that this would be the version that people would hear, and I was really just concentrating on making sure that that was the version that I would be happy with, that I could listen to."

The result is near-masterpiece of simple, beautiful songs sung in Banhart's distinctive lost-folk-master voice, accompanied by country-blues-ish guitar and a light wash of piano, stand-up bass and drums. The songs are clearly more developed and thought-out than those on Oh Me Oh My, and the production — nothing fancy, just clean, clear sound — allows them to shine through.

The spiritual center of Rejoicing in the Hands is its title track, in which Banhart sings a duet with his musical idol, British folk singer Vashti Bunyan. "Vashti is the reason I play music, and the first person ever to support me musically, and one of the reasons I want to write music and play music," Banhart said. "I got to know her through email and talk, and I've met her many times, and I got the courage to write her this song, and I sent it to her, and she sent it back...."

Despite the fact that Banhart and Bunyan weren't actually in the same room when they recorded the track, their voices blend perfectly. And, surprisingly, Bunyan's voice sounds nearly identical to the way it did on her Joe Boyd-produced Just Another Diamond Day, originally recorded in the mid-1960s. (Long out of print, it was re-released on Phillips in 2000.) "She really has not lost any of anything, you know. She's the same person. It's unbelievable," Banhart said. He added that Bunyan has a new record coming out later this summer, and said the songs are just as good as, if not better than, her 1960s material.

"Will Is My Friend" is another highlight, one of the gentlest, warmest tracks on the album. Banhart explained that he really does have a good friend named Will, who does, in fact, sing like British bluesman John Mayall. "He's always singing that John Mayall song, 'Goin' Back to California,'" he said, quoting a line from the song, "And the song is an ode to him. I love that guy."

The song is remarkably, transparently simple, feeling like a long-forgotten folk song more than a contemporary composition, so I asked Banhart if it was hard to hone in on that kind of elemental clarity. "It's really interesting, isn't it, that it would be difficult?" he answered. "But the way that my process is going, usually, I start off with a notebook and then I just edit it, edit it, edit it. Get rid of the lines, cross out, cross out, until I get to what feels like an essence, and that essence is the song."

The album also includes a beautiful psyche-tinged ballad called "When the Sun Shone on Vetiver," which is a nod to the San Francisco folk band with whom Banhart currently shares living quarters. Banhart recently moved back to the Bay Area from New York City; hes a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute. Hes currently writing songs with Vetiver's Andy Cabic, and the whole household is growing a garden.

One of the really great things about talking to Banhart is that he's always got 10 or 20 bands that he's just discovered and is dying to tell everyone about. Banhart has excellent, eccentric taste, and his recommendations are always worth checking out. For instance, last year he was focusing on older, in some cases little-known (and, to a one, brilliant) artists such as Karen Dalton, Vashti Bunyan, Linda Perhacs, Judy Henske and Fred Neil. His current recommendations are more current and include the Children's Hour (out on Rough Trade), Espers, Six Organs of Admittance (and the related, but much louder Comets on Fire), Xiu Xiu, Vetiver, Joanna Newsome (out on Drag City), Little Wing, Viking Moses, Iron & Wine and Antony & the Johnsons ("He has the most gorgeous singing voice that I've ever heard in my whole life.")

Banhart is touring Europe through the end of May. For touring and other info, check the Young God site. When Banhart returns, he and Cabic will travel to Brazil to work on a new record theyll sing in Spanish and Portuguese, inspired by Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa's first record, 1967s Domingo. — Jenny Kelly [Monday, April 12, 2004]

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