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Devendra Banhart's Exuberant New Songs

A scant five months after the release of Rejoicing in the Hands, "new folk" artist Devendra Banhart is back with Nino Rojo, an album recorded in the same marathon session in rural Georgia last year. These 16 tracks are not outtakes from the first album, however, but rather a musically and conceptually distinct collection of songs.

"The idea is that Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Empress is written from the point of view of the sun as an old woman; the golden empress is the sun," said Banhart, speaking from London in a recent telephone interview. "She's been around for a long time and she's already experienced a certain amount of living and is just sitting back in a rocking chair telling a story... commenting on things in a gentle and tired, lethargic sort of language."

Nino Rojo, he explained, was meant to be told from the perspective of her child. "The reason I titled it in Spanish was so that I wouldn't have to write "Red Son" using a 'u' or an 'o,'" he added. "I wanted it to be open to meaning both 'son' and 'sun.' It's a red sun, and it's her son, coming out to the world and experiencing the world for the first time. He's really excited and exuberant."

That exuberance is reflected in the music, in tunes like "At the Hop" and "Be Kind," which have a lighthearted, celebratory feel. "The new direction of the songs — without me trying to do it — has been songs like 'Be Kind,'" Banhart said. "They're really more about dancing, instead of sitting down to listen. So I've been writing songs that are almost like reggae, reggae-Motown-space songs really."

Banhart spoke from the UK, where he had been doing a few shows, but he has been living in the South of France for the last few months, in a tiny town called St. Marie de la Mer, where his girlfriend's mother has a home. "I didn't know this when I moved here, but the town is a Mecca for Gypsies, a holy Gypsy town," he said. "Gypsies from all over the world — Spain, France, Romania, India — all make their yearly pilgrimage to the Gypsy saint, the Black Madonna, there. And, there's just wild horses and bullfights every night, and flamenco music everywhere."

Banhart has been sitting in with some Gypsy guitarists, but don't look for flamenco on his next album. "That music is just so unbelievably sophisticated, I really can't play it. I'm years and years behind," he admitted.

Since recording Rejoicing… and Nino Rojo, Banhart has also put together Arthur magazine's Golden Apples of the Sun. Many reviewers feel that this compilation, including tracks from Joanna Newsom, Vetiver, Six Organs of Admittance, Espers and White Magic, has codified the emerging psyche-folk scene in the same way that No New York did for the no-wave movement of the late 1970s.

Banhart made an exceptional curator, because he is a passionate and omnivorous lover of music, but these same characteristics keep him from being fully satisfied with the results. "The thing is, there wasn't enough space," said Banhart, of an album Mojo named essential. "I submitted way too many songs, and I didn't know how to choose, so it was done randomly for me. But if I could do it again, or have a second volume, I would definitely have Animal Collective, the No-Neck Blues Band, Sunburned Hand of Man, and M. Ward on there for sure."

As always, Banhart had a long list of artists he was excited about — he is typically much more interested in promoting the bands he's discovered than in talking about himself. Banhart's favorites are always worth checking out — last time, he sounded an early warning on Joanna Newsom and Vetiver. This time, his picks include Josephine Foster, Bobby Charles, Chris Smither, Janet Hunter, the Secret Machines and the Icarus Line. In addition, he has recently rediscovered Lowell George (both through his solo material and Little Feat), Jorge Ben and early Milton Nascimento.

Soon, Banhart and his friend Andy Cabic from Vetiver may have another platform for telling the world about the music they love. Banhart says that indie distributor Revolver is talking about setting the two up with a label of their own. "It's going to take a little while, but I think we're going to do it. Because there's a lot of reissues, old African stuff and even some electronic stuff that he's way more into, and some reissues, and also some really new people like Janet Hunter and some other bands that we'd love to put out," Banhart said.

Banhart is preparing for a U.S. tour this fall with Six Organs of Admittance and Scout Niblett. He'll also perform two West Coast shows with Clive Palmer of the Incredible String Band. For a full list of dates and venues check the Young God Records site. — Jennifer Kelly [Thursday, October, 21, 2004]

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