Devendra Banhart—Mother, Do You Think They’ll Like This Song?

On the loose in Manhattan for one week in early September, one can imagine Devendra Banhart walking down Canal Street, trying to write a lyric about a root canal, instead—and wondering if it would sound better in another language. 

Maybe Spanish. Maybe Portuguese. Who knows? 

Only Banhart—whose music has evolved from that of an indie folk strummer to a complete writer and arranger—can tell. It’s a testament to his extensive body of work; songs that all stem from the seemingly constant musings that go on inside the singer-songwriter’s head and imagination. 

His latest album is Ma, a collection of contemplative songs that serve as a dedication to motherhood. Approaching the album from both an autobiographical perspective as well as a sense of global concern, Ma may just be Banhart’s most personal and reflective work to date.

The roots of Ma lay in a temple in Kyoto, Japan. Banhart was completing a tour of Asia with frequent collaborator and producer Noah Georgeson, when the pair were invited to record at an esteemed structure located in the heart of what is considered Japan’s cultural capital. For Banhart, being so far away from home—and ensconced in such spiritual surroundings—really set the tone for the songs that would ultimately shape Ma’s context.

“That entire tour, and then recording in Kyoto,” he says, “really helped solidify the main themes of the record…. [It also provided] a clear sense of where we wanted to record and what the environment needed to be. It was very obvious, for example, that we needed to have sonic access to the ocean, because if the theme is motherhood, then I needed to include the most primordial symbol of that. So, it was a lot easier to decide how we wanted to record this album from a vast distance.”

Distance, as it were, became something beyond the nonmaterial for Devendra Banhart, as volatility in his motherland of Venezuela weighed heavy on his heart and soul. Drawing comparisons to the situation in Tibet, Banhart says, “In Venezuela, thousands and thousands of people are trying to flee—to Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, anywhere—and not everybody can. Imagine having to just grab everything you can carry, and that’s it… you never see your house again, never see 99 percent of your belongings again. So that’s people’s reality right now. It’s all happening as we speak, and I just feel like we tend to forget sometimes if it’s not in the headlines.”

Banhart’s Venezuelan heritage comes from his mother, which makes the line between the maternal celebration of Ma and the realities of the situation in that country much more succinct and clearly visible. It’s an interesting twist for an artist who so often is associated with an otherworldly stride within his music. 

“That theme of motherhood had so much to do with the situation in Venezuela, and so much to do with the fear that was attached to that helplessness,” he says. “Meaning, I’m afraid for the entire country, afraid for my family, and it’s also that I feel very helpless that I can’t really make a substantial contribution to the lessoning of the suffering of the entire nation.” 

All anxieties aside, Banhart is doing what he can to help make a difference in Venezuela. This fall, he’ll be touring in support of Ma, and he’s partnering with PLUS1 to ensure that one dollar from every ticket sold in the U.S. will go to World Central Kitchen, the organization founded by Nobel Peace Prize–nominated chef José Andrés to fight hunger around the world. WCK is currently on the ground at the Colombia-Venezuelan border and has served more than 350,000 meals, as of this publication. 

The complexities of the world abroad may have created an urgent awakening in Devendra Banhart, but it has done nothing to edge out his sense of humor—an element of his personality that often doesn’t get picked up when profiled in the media. He’s sweet and funny, and if you talk with him long enough, his aura becomes irresistibly endearing. In conversation, he’s a little bit like what the layman probably imagines Syd Barrett was like, though with far, far more charm. In fact, call it his own unique bravura. But if these qualities are truly lost on those who look to scrutinize Banhart, the last person who cares is Banhart himself.

“The thing is, you really can’t be hurt by something that you don’t have, so it’s not a big issue,” he says, playfully articulating a crucial tenet that is symbiotic with Banhart’s art and reveals a sacred truth. Indeed, it’s hard to get caught in the rain when you’re living high above the clouds. 

For the unindoctrinated, this is Devendra Banhart—the silly and the serious, the sound and the surreal, in all of its offbeat beauty.