With a wild beard and oddball songs that display a fascination with everything from nature to the human body, Devendra Banhart emerged as one of the central figures in the "freak folk" movement of the 2000s — a loosely connected group of singer-songwriters who paired acoustic songs with vivid, surrealistic lyrics and idiosyncratic arrangements. Banhart's albums are often charmingly childlike, filled with pianos, cellos, and handclaps, plus big doses of neo-hippie whimsy. But when he wants to, the Cali-based singer can also be a serious craftsman, and as the 2000s wore on he deployed his gorgeous vibrato and melodic skills with more and more focus.
Banhart was born in Texas, but he moved shortly thereafter with his mother to her home country of Venezuela. According to a 2006 interview, he wrote one of his first songs during this time period, "We're All Going to Die," as a response to the curious underground Venezuelan practice of having plastic surgery performed on pets. The family moved to California, upon the marriage of Banhart's mother and stepfather, where Banhart quickly immersed himself in skate culture and developed a fondness for hip-hop.
Banhart enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute in 1998, but became quickly jaded by the experience. It was while living in San Francisco, however, that Banhart's career as a songwriter began in earnest. Initially enlisted to play for friends at their wedding, Banhart began writing his own fanciful songs, and soon began playing them at local bars and open mic nights. It was during this time that he met Andy Cabic of the band Vetiver, with whom he would form a longstanding musical bond. After a brief stint in Paris from 2000 until 2002, Banhart returned to the States, where he was discovered by Siobahn Duffy, wife of Swans frontman Michael Gira, at a gig in LA. Impressed with Banhart's singular sound and wild demeanor, Duffy brought a copy of his demo, The Charles C. Leary, to her husband, who immediately signed Banhart to his label Young God.
In 2002, Banhart released his first album for Young God. Titled Oh Me, Oh My, which combined songs from Leary with newer material. Rejoicing in the Hands, Banhart's next full-length, was released in 2004, and mainly continued the strange sonics of Oh Me, Oh My. Banhart's sound at this time was singular and curious: odd curlicues of guitar topped with his wavering, haunted voice — ghostlike, mysterious and unsettling.
Banhart followed Rejoicing with another record for Young God called Nino Rojo. In an interview at the time of its release, Banhart contrasted it with its predecessor by saying, "Nino Rojo is the first-born, just-born child. He is celebrating his existence. Rejoicing is the mother." The tone of the album is, by Banhart's own description, "exuberant."
I t was shortly after the release of Rojo that Banhart left Young God for the XL label. In 2005 he released Cripple Crow, a record that saw Banhart moving away from the rudimentary arrangements of his Young God albums and employing a greater array of instrumentation. Banhart recorded 35 songs for the record and pared back to 22 — which he later admitted was perhaps "too much."
Banhart moved to a lair in Topanga Canyon, California the following year, where he recorded 2007's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. The album again found Banhart moving beyond his early milieu, experimenting with different arrangements and musical genres (and partnerships — the album features appearances by both the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson and the Strokes' Nick Valensi).
In 2009, Banhart jumped labels once again — this time to the Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise, for What Will Be, an album that found Banhart again exploring a range of styles — among them simmering Tropicalia and even mild disco.