For Devendra Banhart, the recording process is an ever-evolving one, he tells Rolling Stone. While laying down his earliest albums, like 2002's primitive-sounding Oh Me Oh My and 2005's communally-aided Cripple Crow, the outré singer-songwriter had – literally – an open-door policy: "Keep the windows open, keep the doors open, anybody's invited," he recalls of his then-motto. But he changed things up on 2009's more-polished What Will We Be: Banhart rented a house in Northern California and was joined by producer Paul Butler (the Bees, Michael Kiwanuka) and a proper band – a new scenario he says put both men "out of their element."
After a three-year break to focus on his visual art, when the singer-songwriter began writing his forthcoming album, Mala (due March 19th on Nonesuch Records), he yearned to return to more familiar confines. To that end, last May he holed up in his tiny Los Angeles home at the time, accompanied only by longtime guitarist-collaborator Noah Georgeson. The two gathered an assortment of borrowed equipment (including a pawnshop Tascam recorder, the kind used to record some of the earliest hip-hop), self-soundproofed his home-studio ("We didn't do a very good job"), and, over a few weeks, cut his seventh studio album – a typically diverse 14-track collection the singer characterizes as "an intimate affair."
"It's kind of the after-party to a party where no one was invited," he offers, then lets out a chuckle, equal parts childlike and mad professor. Prior to laying down a single note on Mala, Banhart and Georgeson established a "pre-production philosophy – we wanted to give ourselves as little options as possible and force ourselves to be creative, force ourselves to solve these problems," he explains. This often involved finding new ways to create unnatural sounds. On one track, Banhart recalls, he and Georgeson sampled a birdcall and dropped it down 12 octaves until it resembled something like a synth pad. Or, "I would hit my guitar strings as fast as I could in front of the mike" to create something that "sounded like a drone," he adds. On the album-closing, violence-baiting chant-song "Taurobolium" ("I can't keep myself from evil," he repeats), Banhart utilized a switchblade, knife, bells, whips, and glass to mimic a finger-snapping rhythm. He giggles. "It's all about how you utilize the studio dimensions."
The songs that comprise Mala retain the seductive, warm glaze and psychedelic undertones of Banhart's previous albums. But unlike What Will We Be, which often swung and sashayed with its whimsical guitar work, there's a heaviness that hangs over much of the songwriter's latest album. On the album opener "Golden Girls" the songwriter is a young man alone on a dance floor, as bass pummels him from beneath. On "A Gain," ominous strings swell as Banhart, born in Texas and at times homeless in Paris and New York City, withers in a mother's overbearing shadow ("Mama's gonna tell me I ain't high-class/ Love is gonna be a long-lost biological father"). Banhart says he drew inspiration for "A Gain" from his childhood infatuation with the Delta blues.
"When I was a young gal, I was religiously obsessed with [Southern blues legends] Son House, Charley Patton, Big Joe Williams, Bo Carter," he says. "Those were my guys."
The singer, who tends to let his thoughts roll up on each other ("Please cut me off," he insists more than once), is adamant that any darkness in his music be offset by humor. "There must be humor," he says. "But rarely is [mine] funny. I've always said, 'Leave the politics to the comedians, and the comedy to the musicians.'"
Nowhere is Banhart's unique sense of humor more apparent than on "My Petting Duck," a Fifties doo-wop duet with his Serbian fiancée, Ana Kraš, that, at its end, shifts into a German house-music track. Here, Kraš pleads for reconciliation, but Banhart reminds her how awful of a partner he was. "It's so not autobiographical," Banhart, who has dated Natalie Portman, insists. "No girl has ever said 'I'll take you back.'"
Banhart recently relocated to New York. "It feels like I'm moving back home," he says. "I lived here 10 years ago. My first label was here. The beginning of my career was here. But I'll probably move back to California any day now."
Though he has been associated as a figurehead in the "freak folk" scene (Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective), in 2010 he told Rolling Stone he doesn't want to be known as "that guy." But the singer now says it's of little consequence how listeners classify his music. "Call it whatever you want," he says. How would he label his music? "Unpopular pop," he says, then sighs. "It's a shame. But I'll raise my glass and say 'Up your ass and out your nose. First your money, then your clothes.'"