Devendra Banhart's Minimalist Musings

“I don’t like long songs, poetry, or books,” says “freak folk” singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart. “My preference is to distill my ideas to their essence. I treat writing songs like going to the supermarket with one dollar in my pocket and trying to make a meal. It’s all about being thrifty.”

With 22 songs—many under three minutes—on his latest CD Cripple Crow [XL], the San Francisco-based musician puts his money where his mouth is. The album’s concise and contemplative approach is exemplified by the disc’s beautifully lilting opener “Now That I Know,” performed on his 1962 Gibson LG-3 steel-string guitar.

“It’s my favorite guitar because the neck is so small and the action is so low and divine,” says Banhart. “When I play it, I get an ‘I’m gonna walk outside and strut my stuff around town’ feeling. That’s why that song has a floating, repetitive gallop across it.”

Banhart’s sparse fingerpicking is steeped in simple, recurring motifs. The approach grew out of his unusual self-taught upbringing.

“My first guitar only had one string on it,” he says. “I played that one string over and over again for six months straight. I added a new string every month after that. It took me a whole year to play all six strings. So, I look at each string as if it represents a chord. Playing one real chord feels like I’m actually playing six. My goal as a guitarist today is to play what I call ‘circular guitar.’ The idea is that I play in circles but eventually try to take the melody somewhere. It can be frustrating because of how I learned to play.”

Cripple Crow was recorded at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY, where Bob Dylan and The Band recorded the legendary Basement Tapes. Banhart believes much of his album’s warmth stems from the studio’s history and charm.

“I wasn’t looking at equipment when I picked the studio,” says Banhart. “I wanted to work somewhere that had a lot of good energy stored in it. Bearsville’s beautiful old wood, its fantastic vibe, and the fact that one of my favorite songwriters, Bobby Charles, recorded there were the reasons I went with it.”

Recording at Bearsville was a far cry from the low-fi circumstances in which Banhart made his first album Oh Me Oh My... in 2002.

“I was traveling in France when I came up with a lot of those songs and one of the most important pieces of gear I had was my phone card,” says Banhart. “I’d call my brother Noah’s answering machine and say ‘Don’t erase this’ and then I’d sing the song into it. When I got back to the states, we put a mic to the answering machine speaker and those recordings formed the basis of the album. I still take that approach when I capture songwriting ideas, but I don’t release the recordings anymore.”

Banhart’s subsequent albums feature the sonic stamp of their recording environments. “After the answering- machine stage, I moved on to recording in bathrooms, bedrooms, and living rooms on basic 4-track recorders,” he says. “I would always leave the windows open, which meant chirping birds and car sounds would often end up on the recordings. They became an end-earing part of the overall soundscape. I admit I missed those ambient noises when working with the great mics and equipment they have at Bearsville. Now, the new background textures are the scratching of my calluses against the strings and the sounds I make breathing in and out, which are cool in their own way.”