In the recent book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner sought to debunk the myth that children with "African-American" names like Lakeeshah would have a harder time getting jobs than children with "white" names like Jane. They found that a person's name was not, in fact, their destiny, and that many outside factors contributed to a successful career.
While Levitt and Dubner may be right on many counts, it still seems that certain names do tip the hand of fate. For example: If you let an Indian mystic name your child Devendra Banhart, there is pretty much no chance he will grow up to become a claims adjustor. It's more likely he'll grow up to become a musician and painter who is kind enough to make tea for journalists who barge into his studio on Saturday afternoons.
Banhart's Williamsburg, Brooklyn space is spare-not due to an aesthetic, but because most of his worldly belongings are in storage awaiting a move to Topanga Canyon, where he hopes to finally put down roots after a life on the road. When asked how many places he has hung his hat in the last few years, Banhart stares into space and appears to be counting.
"Twenty... maybe," he finally says, sounding slightly unsure. "I've lived on the road for most of the last three years. I was recording at a house in Woodstock, N.Y., for a few months, but I've mostly been a nomad."
Banhart's nomadic tendencies were formed at a young age. After spending his early childhood in Texas, he moved to Venezuela to live with his mother's family.
"I wrote my first song at my grandma's house when I was a kid," he tells me. "There is a subculture in the Venezuelan middle class where plastic surgeons come to people's houses and make the pets look more like their owners. A doctor came to my grandmother's house and made her three dogs look like her. I wrote a song about it and called it "We're All Going to Die.' I think I was about 11. My parents were a little worried."
His family eventually moved from Venezuela to California, and Banhart attended art school in San Francisco at 18. It was a disillusioning experience-the school focused on developing marketable skills rather than creative ones. So Banhart dropped out, but he continued to use the facilities and eventually started working on the songs that would become his debut album, Oh Me Oh My. "My friend gave me a four-track and told me he would let me use it on the condition that I gave him whatever I had recorded," he says.
He wound up making copies of the recordings and then played a show in Los Angeles that was attended by the wife of Michael Gira, best known as a main member of art-rock band The Swans. After hearing a copy of the tape, Gira wrote Banhart a 12-page letter and signed him to his Young God record label.
Banhart packed up his life in San Francisco and hit the road for the next three years, pausing only to record Rejoicing in the Hands and his new newest record, Cripple Crow. As his reputation started to build, he began to doubt himself.
"I wrote a letter to Vashti Bunyan, whose music I loved, and sent her a record, asking her if I was any good or just setting myself up to be humiliated. She wrote back and told me to play live, and since her opinion mattered more than anyone else's, I did just that."
When asked about his own music, or at least how he defines it, Banhart eschews the label "freak folk."
"No one I know uses that term. I don't feel at all connected to it. I prefer the term "new new-age music.' If I could, I'd have my records right next to the soothing whale sounds discs. New age music gets a bad rap, but I want to reclaim it."
With all due respect to Banhart's desires, his music probably won't be sitting beside Enya anytime soon. Cripple Crow is an extraordinarily lovely folk record, with a gentle spirit that recalls a more psychedelic Joni Mitchell.
"I make political statements on the record, but I make them as vague as possible to keep them relevant," he confesses. "I got most of the protest stuff from reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, not from watching the news." Elsewhere, the album recalls the sense of wonderment and confusion that comes with youth, especially on the track "Now That I Know," where he sings about dressing up in his mother's clothes and shutting out the world.
Banhart certainly isn't sitting around and dressing up these days. In addition to making music and touring, he continues to paint, is working on several books and has recently started his own record label.
He's living up to his name.
Devendra Banhart plays at the Belly Up Tavern on April 27. Doors open at 8 p.m. $16-$18. 858-481-8140. He also plays at Coachella on April 29.