Devendra Banhart was at his wood-finished, art-filled home in Los Angeles when he got a worrisome WhatsApp message from his brother in Venezuela. The Texas-born singer-songwriter grew up in the country, which is currently in a socioeconomic power struggle leaving many without their basic needs — and the crisis hit home for him. “Sorry, you don’t get to hear from me for a week,” the text read. “I know there’s not going to be electricity.”
Banhart felt helpless. “I’m in Echo Park reading that,” he tells TIDAL, comparing the ritzy L.A. neighborhood to his volatile home country. “The heartbreak of thinking of him there, that means no hot water; I don’t know how [he’s] going to eat. That’s the big subject of my life.”
On his new album, Ma, due Friday (September 13), Banhart channels that uncertainty into a soothing collection of songs sung in Portuguese, Spanish and English.
Ma has the potential to draw listeners into a lesser-known crisis, but Banhart doesn’t believe that music can help Venezuela on any level. “It’s beyond complicated,” he says. “But if I look at it from a human perspective, it could not be simpler. Human beings are dying. End of story.”
This MO goes for songs like “Memorial,” “Love Song” and “Will I See You Tonight?” in which he probes topics of grief, motherhood and family on a dreamy, subconscious level. “There are many, many ways of being political in art,” he says. “You don’t have to shove something down someone’s throat.”
To that end, Ma shows that art can be made well despite helpless feelings — and even while knowing it may not have tangible, real-world benefit.
Read on for a conversation with Banhart about a lesser-known humanitarian crisis, the emotional aspects of language and how art can shape world events — or not.
Ma seems to be about the people, places and things that nurture or mother us. Did you feel nurtured and supported as a child?
I felt like I had enough space to do my own thing. I wouldn’t necessarily say there was someone putting a paintbrush or a guitar in my hand, but there wasn’t somebody saying, ‘You’d better never pick up a paintbrush or guitar.’
At the same time, I’ll never forget singing my first song to a couple of people in my family and them saying, ‘Please never do that again.’ Very politely, very sweetly. ‘Please don’t do that to our ears ever again.’
I found it very encouraging. Part of me said, ‘Oh, I kind of got results. This is great. I’m going to get into this thing.’ So, inadvertently, I felt supported by being told to never sing.
What do you get emotionally out of singing in three languages — Portuguese, Spanish and English?
I still don’t know why some songs are in Spanish. Portuguese, I know why. That song [‘Carolina’] is a song written for a song. I don’t know anyone named Carolina. But I know the song by Chico Buarque that everyone else has covered. That song is in Portuguese because it’s about a Brazilian song.
But I don’t know why I think in English or Spanish, in terms of how I choose that. I think in both of those languages. I think the most obvious answer has to do with the subject. On this record, the subject is Venezuela. For the last couple of years, the subject that’s most on my mind has been the situation [there] and watching from a distance.
How does the horrible situation there make you feel?
Like anybody, we all want to help, but we can’t. It’s a tremendously helpless feeling to not be able to make any significant contributions to the lessening of the tremendous suffering that’s occurring there.
Even if I were to give a bazillion dollars to someone there in the country, it wouldn’t be accepted. They’re not even accepting aid of any kind. Now, there’s this whole community of Venezuelans that I now have [access] to thanks to social media. They all feel that same helplessness and that same desperation, and it’s happening as we speak right now.
I can’t tell you how [it feels] to get a WhatsApp message from my brother saying, ‘Sorry, you don’t get to hear from me for a week, I know there’s not going to be electricity.’ And I’m in Echo Park reading that. The heartbreak of thinking of him there; that means no hot water, I don’t know how [he’s] going to eat. That’s the big subject of my life.
We all want to help during cataclysmic events, but we get stuck on which charity is best to donate to or which political candidate should be supported over the other. It seems like your true contribution can be music.
Oh, no. Not at all. I don’t think my contribution is music. I don’t think there’s any responsibility to lessen suffering whatsoever as an artist. I think as a human being, that’s where the responsibility lies.
That distinction is important to make, because once upon a time, it was the responsibility of the artist because the artist had the voice. They could really get it out there and talk about certain things that need to be talked about.
Now, everyone has a voice. Everyone can constantly be fighting for the underdog. Everyone can constantly remind everyone of the bubble they live in [regarding] equality between sexes and races.
What I’m really saying is that I have the opportunity, regardless of being an artist or not, to contribute in a way that is ultimately significant. In the barest minimum way, I can donate a dollar to one charity I care about.
There’s no shortage of suffering and, I suppose, places to contribute to. Maybe it’s against animal cruelty. Maybe it’s immigration. Maybe it’s against anti-LGBTQIA organizations.
There’s this endless supply of suffering, and you can contribute in the most basic way, which is donating one dollar. When I say the artist doesn’t have responsibility, they don’t. The human being has responsibility.
If I look at the problem in Venezuela from a geopolitical perspective, it’s beyond complicated. China’s involved, Russia and Cuba are involved. But if I look at it from a human perspective, it could not be simpler. Human beings are dying. End of story.
Is art disconnected from that struggle?
Absolutely. Obviously, I’m being a little bit cheeky when I say the artist doesn’t have responsibility. There are many, many ways of being political in art. You don’t have to shove something down someone’s throat. It can be subtle in some ways, or you can get things across in a more playful way.
There’s a reason why some of us prefer to get our news from comedians. It’s the sweetest pill. The most compassionate way of getting horrible news is with a good joke. It doesn’t mean that somebody right now isn’t composing some unbelievable political anthem that’s going to unify everybody. I hope that’s happening. But at the moment, there are other avenues to raise awareness.
Your music is introspective, not grandstanding. Give me a line in Ma that is tied to an intimate experience.
I’ve never been asked that question before. The first thing that comes to mind is the first line in the song ‘Memorial.’ I was actually playing a memorial for a friend, Asa Ferry, who died of an overdose. He was my age and a musician. Five or six bands were playing songs for him at the Echo.
Right before we went onstage, somebody said, ‘Hey, can I propose to my partner after you sing your song?’ I said, ‘This is a funeral. It’s probably not the right place.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but I really wanted to do that.’ I was in this weird shock and I walked up to my friend’s widow and [told her about it]. She said, ‘Asa would have loved that.’
So, I barely get through the song. I’m crying during the song. And then I sort of stumble offstage and then this person gets onstage and proposes to their partner. It was a literal thing. And that’s in the first line of the song.
‘When Will I See You Tonight?’ is a duet with Vashti Bunyan. What does she bring to your music?
One of the themes of the record is an expression of gratitude to the motherly qualities of music. Music that has been there for you and that you turn to under all circumstances.
Vashti’s Just Another Diamond Day really changed my life. It was my solace. It’s a nurturing album. It’s a record that I turn to when I’m lonely and heartbroken. She’s one of the most delicate, vulnerable people I’ve ever met and has strength in that delicacy. Almost a celestial maternal archetype.
Gnarly emotions, both political and personal, are in right now. But Ma comes across as comforting and sweet, which is a little out of fashion in 2019.
I don’t want to be self-righteous. It’s funny, I’m leaving for Nepal tomorrow to be in a movie. I’m playing this super piece of shit who screams at homeless people and tells them to get the fuck away from him. It’s really daunting.
My whole job is to be like, ‘I’m telling the truth! I’m honest!’ Suddenly, I’m pretending to be another person, and it’s really hard to change. But the way that you build a bridge is by having a conversation or being open to their perspective. No bridge is built with adding flame to the fire, saying, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’ It requires you to question your own beliefs as well.
Art aside, can we do anything tangible to help out in Venezuela?
They’re being held hostage by their government. It’s not even working well. This military regime is not even working well. It’s not a well-oiled dictatorship. It’s ground down to a halt. I don’t know. I’m not going to pretend like I do. I have my opinion, and that opinion is that people can look at it from a human perspective and not a geopolitical perspective.
I don’t know, man. Fuck. What do you think?
What do I think?
I agree with you that it’s far more complicated than the average person can understand, and that there’s no easy answer.
I guess what’s really important is that people don’t forget. It’s going to require global cooperation and both of us can agree that sadly seems impossible.
But I do know that the situation is completely at a standstill. Everybody is holding their breaths. The great hope is that things change. How it will change remains to be seen.
(Photo Credit: Lauren Dukoff)