Devendra Banhart’s 2021 release Refuge should come with a warning similar to the advice on some medication labels: May cause drowsiness; don’t operate heavy machinery while listening. The bearded singer-songwriter says there’s no greater compliment than hearing that the record put someone to sleep.
“If you fall asleep, we did our job,” Banhart says earnestly.
Refuge is unlike the bounty of multicultural, freak-folk singalongs on his previous 10 LPs. Banhart has swapped out the childlike whimsy and trademark coloring-outside-the-lines for a taut, utilitarian and deliberate approach—more Sleepytime chamomile tea with a Brian Eno angel on the shoulder than ayahuasca-fused, Donovan-soaked parades down Rio de Janeiro streets.
The pandemic informed the collection of new age/ambient instrumentals. Banhart says he and longtime collaborator/producer/multi-instrumentalist Noah Georgeson were inspired to “create a very nostalgic and sentimental and familial space.” Refuge is the result.
“Noah and I came from families of devoted spiritual practitioners with very strong contemplative practices,” Banhart says. “There’s a musical side to that that we were turned on to as kids. It meant a lot of Indian music and ambient and new age—the music of our childhood and the music that we turned to, particularly during the pandemic, to create somewhat of a calming feeling. We’ve all been dealing with so much anxiety, so falling asleep is the highest compliment you can give us. Music that you hear and you can immediately forget; what a huge compliment.”
Like Eno’s Music for Airports series, self-described compositions aimed to induce calm and intentionally written to be “as ignorable as it is interesting,” Refuge fits into the same new age subgenre: environmental ambient music. Like Music for Airports, which made its way into New York’s LaGuardia and other airports throughout the ’80s, Refuge was installed at Getty Center’s Central Garden in Los Angeles. The record—streamed through a custom sound system placed throughout circular pathways—looped continuously for a weekend last August. Museum guests were encouraged to “relax on the lawns with a picnic, grab a bench or wander among the blooming garden beds as the sonic vibrations clear the air for a new era.”
Though the journey has been arduous, Banhart has come to terms with arriving in a “new era”; he accepts that the world will never be the same.
“There’s tremendous mourning in that,” he says. “There’s also something very inspiring and beautiful about that.”
Throughout Banhart’s 20-year career, he always seems to manage to find a muse, even if it exists somewhere inside himself. As a result, he’s been one of the more consistently prolific freak folksters out there: He’s already using his newfound outlook on the world as the leaping-off point for another record that he’s co-producing with Welsh talent Cate Le Bon.
Banhart’s creative pulse extends beyond music. He always has something colorful baking in his back pocket, whether it’s a “small book of poems” or fine art. Last February, his first solo art exhibition, “The Grief I Have Caused You,” debuted at L.A.’s Nicodim Gallery.
The collection of non-linear paintings and drawings combine suffering and humor, like a sad clown who tickles your heart. Many of the surreal works feature floating body parts, playfully planted with quick brushstrokes, sometimes using as much blank canvas as filled space—you have to squint a bit to make out what you’re looking at; there are lots of penises.
“Those dicks all over the place—I get that it’s funny and juvenile, but I’m trying to balance the scales a little bit,” Banhart says. “If you go to any museum on this planet, 80% [of the art] features naked women. There are some dicks, but it’s crazy how misogyny is right there in our faces in these amazing spaces commemorating the highest achievements of humankind. So, I thought, ‘Let’s have some more penises in there.’”
Banhart approaches his fine art with a philosophy closely related to the inspiration behind Refuge.
“When I first started making art, it was all about being me as much as possible,” he explains. “Over time, I’ve realized that it’s really about being less and less me or my ambitions. I tried to get out of the way to create something honest—something that isn’t about me and something that resonates. But it’s also a paradox: being there and not being there at the same time, and not taking myself so seriously.”
Banhart seamlessly navigates back to music. He and his band have only performed one show, just a few weeks ago, since the pandemic, so he’s chomping at the bit to get out there and play live shows. As far as Banhart is concerned, his upcoming jaunt, which consists of a mere four shows, including stops in Big Sur, Sonoma, Grass Valley and Santa Cruz’s Rio Theatre, might as well be an international stadium tour.
“It feels like the biggest tour we’ve ever done because we’re so excited to play,” Banhart says. “I’ve had this core band for a long time, and we all love each other, and we all communicate really well on stage—I’m not sure if what we communicate is any good, but we’ve worked on our ability to communicate [on stage]. We’ve been doing it so long that [the music] is very fluid.”
During the extended, Covid-induced hiatus, Banhart and his bandmates—Jeremy Harris (synth), Nicole Lawrence (guitar, pedal steel), Greg Rogove (drums)—realized that they had missed connecting with audiences and experiencing the different ways songs unravel live.
“I’m looking forward to these four shows in a way that I have never looked forward to any show,” Banhart says. “It doesn’t hurt that [the shows] are in some of our favorite places. I know it sounds naïve, but hopefully, from here, there’s only going forward, trying to create a better world.”
Big Live Week
Also this week at the Rio is the Chicago-based duo Whitney, formed by Smith Westerns’ guitarist Max Kakacek and Unknown Mortal Orchestra drummer Julien Ehrlich. Since 2014, the pair has delivered frank folk-rock focused on the human experience—falling in love, falling out of love, depression. Whitney’s 2020 album Candid, an impressive all-covers record, takes on the work of everyone from widely unknown singer-songwriter Blaze Foley to ’90s R&B trio SWV.
Genre-bending singer-songwriter Cass McCombs and his band close the week with a show at Moe’s. McCombs’ powerful post-punk gem “Sleeping Volcanoes,” off his 2019 Tip of the Sphere, is a composite of expert phrasing, subtle effects and quiet existentialism.
“[‘Sleeping Volcanoes’ is about] people passing each other on the sidewalk, unaware of the emotional volatility they are brushing past, like a sleeping volcano that could erupt at any moment,” McCombs says.
We can all relate.
Whitney with Renée Reed plays Tuesday, Oct. 12, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 8pm; $28. Devendra Banhart with Cate Le Bon plays Thursday, Oct. 14, at the Rio. 8pm; $35-$40. Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test (taken within 72 hours) required. riotheatre.com. Cass McCombs Band with Farmer Dave and The Wizards of the West plays Friday, Oct. 15, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. 9pm; $25-$28. Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test (taken within 48 hours) required. folkyeah.com.