Within a minute, Devendra Banhart is turning the concept of our interview upside down. Just as he prefers to approach his art, a change of perspective is something he is really fond of. So he does exactly that and quickly becomes the person setting the agenda for our conversation at his label’s office on an afternoon in Berlin. However, not in the slightest way that feels forced. More in a way that feels like a subtle gesture. A pleasant exchange between two strangers trying to find a common ground by sharing their views with each other.
Devendra’s posture and overall attitude both seem very calm. Despite choosing his words carefully and addressing sensitive as well as profound topics during our relatively short amount of time together, his sense of humor and a certain lightness in his voice become apparent from time to time.
The other way
Returning with his new studio album simply titled Ma, Devendra Banhart is setting the record straight about the meaning of its content:
‘These songs are about my life and yet, I don’t know what they are about. It’s that paradox. It’s like – oh this is easy, this is definitely about my life, but what it’s about, I have no idea. In fact, I know less.’
Having said that, the American artist has an idea to spice up the process of making music in the future:
‘Maybe we should do it another way – talk about the record, then do the tour and then record the album. I should give that a shot. We start off with an interview about the record and while we’re touring, we would write the songs. I suppose during the interview, you would do all the talking and tell me what the record is about. This is the concept for the next record. It starts off with me having the tape recorder and you tell me what this next record is about. I’m saving all of that and then turn it into an album while I’m on tour. The record only comes out afterwards.’
Still pondering on his new found approach, Devendra Banhart looks back at the core of his new songs that all revolve around the theme of motherhood in one way or another and says:
‘I was encircled by mothers at this stage in my life. Everyone in my band, they are mothers. I have seen them as kids and now they have children. I can see their beautiful relationships between parent and child. I don’t have any children and I live alone so I go home and I can write about it. I realized, maybe I won’t have children so this record became what I would want to say to my child.’
Further elaborating on the album’s theme, he adds: ‘It’s also influenced by this environment like me being an auntie to all these kids. Definitely not the uncle. The auntie. That’s one aspect of this mother theme. Of course, there is this expression of gratitude towards the mothering qualities of music as well. Like today, the airport lost my luggage so I got into the car and put on Carole King and Vashti Bunyan. They are both on the record. I turn to their music and their art to be comforted. I’ve had a long day, I smell, and I just wanted to go to the hotel and change my shirt, but I couldn’t do that. Instead, I listened to Carole and Vashti and I feel ok. At least I feel comforted, loved and held in their arms. I still turn to music for that.’
While, sadly, male dominance and masculinity is widely setting the tone in our society until this date, Devendra Banhart’s appreciation and understanding of motherhood, in particular, lets him explore it in an open way that also allows him to reflect deeper on his relationship with art. The emerging parallels between a good mother and good art are much more obvious than we think according to Devendra:
‘A good mother should really set the scene in the garden and let the flowers grow. You are just tending to the garden and let the flowers do their thing. A good mother really creates an environment where that creature can naturally blossom – whatever their tendencies are. Good art should really make you feel like you belong in this world. If you don’t feel like you belong, then good art should be art that makes you feel like you aren’t alone, enough or belong. It’s a very inclusive thing. It’s a shame that the art world is not a very inclusive world. It really is about inclusivity.’
‘Art – at its best – should behave the same way a very, very good mother behaves. A very good mother is like being a teacher. And we have so many terrible teachers because they love children, but they don’t know how to teach. You really need to know how to teach.’
Knowing how to love is a completely different story, though, as the Texas born songwriter with Venezuelan roots tell us: ‘Love is this thing, you cover up because there is no learning it. It’s just an inherent part of humans. There are these inherent human things that we are born with, but society really makes us disregard or not pay too much attention to, but basic human things are really, I think, forgiveness, tolerance, self-discipline. This is some basic human right, how about that?’
The child within
Devendra Banhart, who has been exploring his artistic vision not only as a singer, performer and songwriter, but also as a poet and painter over the past fruitful years of his career, beams with an almost childlike infectious naivity and pureness when talking about his work and his urge to create. While many adults seem to lose exactly that sense while dealing with life, Devendra Banhart somehow managed to hold on to it just enough without losing sight of it completely.
It is not difficult to see why children would potentially sense that in his character and get along with him well and the other way around. Hesitation? Only a little. Not having any children of his own, he rates his connection with kids:
‘Initially, it’s a little like, this is a child and I don’t know how to be around a kid. But then, it’s an individual. Just like any other individual being. Over time, you can warm up to each other. I’m the Godfather to one of my band member’s kids. We love each other so much so he really feels like a son. At first, it was a bit like who is this weirdo with a beard, always shy, but over time you get to know each other.’
‘As with anything in life, you get to know each other slowly. I think I have the same feeling with old people. I’m on the scale of withdrawing from the world and I’m more on the solitude scale so for me it’s more of a challenge to be around people.’
While becoming a parent is often a sensitive topic, especially one with a certain amount of pressure involved from society as well as family and friends, Devendra Banhart openly shares his views on becoming a father with us:
‘It’s ok if I don’t have any kids, but I will regret one thing about not having kids which is it will make my job so much easier. As difficult as it is to be a parent, as much responsibility you have, kids are walking poetry machines. I would write down what they are saying all the time.’
Seeing the amount of joy suddenly enlightening his face is a priceless moment that noticeably continues to affect his voice when Devendra speaks warmly about the immediate effects children naturally have on people’s lives:
‘I’ve seen that with my friends, in one sense they are taking on this more of an adult responsibility and role and they are in charge, but also it’s seeing the world through new eyes. They have learnt how to see the world through their kids’ eyes which is a very new magical world. It’s a beautiful balance between being more adult and more childlike which is really what I think what getting older is all about. Can you be more conscious and even more in touch with the child within you?’
The most important thing in my life
Being reminded of his role as an adult himself, Devendra Banhart pauses for a moment saying: ‘How many times did you count your breath today? I’m saying it because I’m the worst. Right now, I’m remembering so I’m doing it now’, gently turning our conversation towards what he calls the ‘most important thing in my life’’ which is meditation.
Having practiced meditation for a while, Devendra Banhart’s answer may surprise – choosing meditation over music – by making this statement, but at the same time it feels like an essential piece of the bigger puzzle of why Banhart has been able to follow his individual artistic path so truthfully over the course of his career. Finding some kind of peace and freedom while listening to his inner voice. Not being defined by common rules and breaking down artistic barriers whenever possible which makes his latest work Ma seem almost effortless. Knowing your place, not because someone has told you where to stand, but because you have chosen to exist and express yourself right in this environment.
Most of all, Devendra Banhart feels like the act of meditation holds a great potential for change for everyone practicing it:
‘Essentially, we are meditating to combat our constant what’s next or what happened. Constantly wondering what’s the next thing. What did I just do? What just happened? What did I just do? We are constantly jumping ahead or going back. We meditate to be in the only place that is real which is the feel where all these things happen. What is going to happen really relies on what is happening now and what has happened is really what has created the state that we are in. Tremendous potential there for actually changing things, too.’
‘If you asked me what is the most important thing in my life, I would 1 million per cent say it’s meditation.’
Although seeking comfort in meditation today, things weren’t exactly easy for Devendra at first:
‘When I was younger, I could not spend a moment without listening to music which is cool in one sense because I was so obsessed with music, but also I was not able to be still. I couldn’t handle silence. I had a really uncomfortable time inside my body, really uncomfortable time in my skin wanting to get out of this piece of clay and couldn’t stand silence. The first time I tried to meditate and was asked to sit in silence for five minutes, it was like you had asked me to meditate for five thousand years. It was just torture.’
‘Meditation is like music. There is not just one band. There are many different types. In the beginning it was like being in this ring with my mind which is this wild thing.’
Wild? Perhaps. But also full of possibilities and, eventually, freedom: ‘Meditation is totally something what gives you what you give it. It is fully something you invest in. If you are disciplined, you will find freedom. Freedom in discipline. Isn’t that fucking paradoxical? But in that discipline of really sticking to your practice, it slowly, slowly starts opening up an expansive place. Getting out of your body and the wild chaos in your mind starts to calm down. Or you can observe from a distance. It is really one of those things you invest your time into and you will get something back.’
A new dimension
Towards the end of our conversation, the soft-spoken singer-songwriter reflects on the relationship with his mother that, recently, has reached a new dimension in his opinion:
‘Our relationship is wonderful. Easily the best relationship I have ever had with her. In a weird way, with all this darkness that is happening around the world with all this incredibly right-wing, completely aggressive and typically very masculine, ego-ridden men that are put in these positions of power, you are also getting a backlash – you are politicizing everyone. That is a very positive backlash of getting these incredibly angry, homophobic and racist world leaders.
Everyone is getting politicized because we are in such a critical place where it is so dangerous. It is so obvious that the system isn’t working if these kinds of people are put in power. I have seen that happen with my mom. Suddenly, she is this political person and it is amazing, but unfortunately, her country Venezuela is literally near an apocalypse that is to happen. But it has brought us so much closer. The conversation is not just between a son and mother, but it is really a conversation we are having as Venezuelans. That is a new dimension to our relationship.’
‘I love my mum and we get along. Unfortunately the world is on fire.’
Devendra Banhart’s relationship with his mother is so good, his new album Ma had a different working title to begin with as he reveals:
‘Originally, I was going to call the record Maria. My mother’s name. But then, even though that is one of those common names in the western hemisphere, it is not as inclusive as it could have been so I changed it to Ma. Obviously, it goes from a specific name to something more broad. Either that is more expansive or inclusive, but it was originally named after her.’
With the theme of motherhood running through his new album Ma, Devendra shares a spiritual, yet very pratical advice with us appealing to our levels of compassion when he says:
‘In Buddhism there is something like mother recognition. Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, you can still utilize this, which is to consider that everyone at one point has been your mother and you have been everyone’s mother at one point. It is just something to keep in mind next time someone is rude to you. The compassion that can be born just from having that attitude. It is almost like a trick. It is not a religious trip. It is just something you can utilize in a very practical, utilitarian way. It is something to diffuse that kind of judgement and it can create a little bit of compassion.’
Concluding our conversation, we wonder which character traits Devendra Banhart shares with his mother when two particular things come to his mind:
‘I made a pin that I sell on my website: It says ‘I’m turning into my mum and that’s ok.’ You know, it’s shocking, but it’s also ok. It’s how it is sometimes. I have many, many characteristics from my mom. She is such a vast influence that I couldn’t even think of one thing…other than, we both have a penchant for Prada. We both meditate and we both have a penchant for Prada.’
Ma is out now via Warner Music.