Resound Presents: Devendra Banhart in Austin, TX at Mohawk on March 18, 2024.
“This dewdrop world - Is a dewdrop world, And yet, and yet...”- Kobayashi Issa
Devendra Banhart’s Flying Wig, is a landscape of recurrent dualities; a can of paradoxes, a box ofworms. What goes up, must come down, eventually. Battle-scarred by life and loss, Banhart foundhimself despondent, folded inwards; finding it difficult to speak, let alone sing.
“It’s about transmuting despair into gratitude, wounds into forgiveness, grief into praise”ruminates Banhart on his eleventh studio album. Gliding through the air, the whisper of twobuoyant words symbolically and at times, literally appear — “and yet...” (inspired by ‘A World ofDew’ by 19th century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa) — coloring in the melancholic outlines andreplacing them with a bonded optimism. “The ‘and yet, and yet,’” Banhart explains, “is our abilityto face despair with hope, to keep on failing and loving. My whole life has been filled withsadness. Everything I do in life is to help cope with that sadness.”
Turning his back on Los Angeles’ wailing sirens, he packed the bones that would become FlyingWig’s songs into a bag and took to the secluded woodland of a Topanga canyon. The album isthe actualisation of a precious friendship with the acclaimed solo artist, multi-instrumentalist,Mexican Summer stablemate and producer of Flying Wig, Cate Le Bon. The pair’s comingtogether is one prophesied by the mirror-image titles of their early solo albums (Banhart’s 2002Oh Me Oh My to Le Bon’s 2009 Me Oh My) and a tenderness built on crude haircuts (“we finallymet, soon after she was cutting my hair with a fork and that was that”) and home-made tattoos —but never previously translated into the recording studio. “She’s the only person I wanted tomake this record with,” Banhart admits. “We set out to make a record sonically unlike anything Ihave made before – with a new creative partner at the helm. We definitely wanted a new sound,electronic yet organic and warm...we wanted to draw out and emphasize the emotional aspect ofa synthesizer.”
The redwood and pine-surrounded cabin studio (once owned by Neil Young) where Banhart was“constantly listening to the Grateful Dead” somehow birthed something slick, city pop-adjacentand Eno-esque. The product of a ritualistic creative practice that melts down and re-casts as itmulls, the stuff of sadness beautified as it changes shape — culminating in a record that “soundslike getting a very melancholic massage, or weeping, but in a really nice outfit...if I’m going to cry”,Banhart mentions, “I want to do it in my best dress.”
Wearing, for much of the writing and recording, an Issey Miyake dress the color of the spring sky— a gift from Le Bon’s own wardrobe — and his grandmother’s pearls, Banhart found himselfemboldened, protected; an experience “like returning to from where I started to sing when I wasa kid” (as recently emulated onstage at an emotional homecoming gig in Caracas — Banhart’sfirst ever Venezuelan show). He elaborates: “I first started singing in my mother’s dresses when I was nine years old. It wasn’t about sexuality, just connecting with my feminine side and feelingthat I had permission... It felt like a power. And that’s a very safe and comfortable place for me. Ithink a lot of the record is that – searching for hope, searching for a safe feeling.”
Nowhere more than in the album’s title is this sense of joyful abandon most strongly distilled. Thereal wig that inspired it was, explains Banhart, a birthday present from the artist IsabelleAlbuquerque. “I placed it on a mic stand and it just hovered there for months in the middle of myliving room. Over time, it began to take on a playfully eerie presence and I started to imagine thatwhile I was asleep the Wig would fly off into the night and hang out with all the other wigs andtoupees that were flying around... It seemed like a lovely and haunting image, a symbol forfreedom.” Combined with Banhart’s wry and jubilant list of other inspirations for the record — “theballroom scene of the mid 80s, glamor, whales, the lonely employee at a dead-end corporate gig,the bloodshot eyes of the divorcee, the night nurse, the rebellious nun” — there is, after all, muchup to be found with the down.
“I’m looking for a feeling Hard to explain,” he echoes on Flying Wig’s opening track ‘Feeling,’sibilant waves on sand, reverb pedals, elemental drones and mantric tones carrying aconfessional intimacy to the fore as dusk falls. The album’s ten songs unfurl languorously into theembrace of the night: becoming trails of light on the mournful ‘Fireflies’, bathing in the glow of thenew-risen moon on ‘Sight Seer’, and bearing witness to the strangeness of metropolitan solitudeon ‘Sirens’ — the sound of panic the only company in a place filled with people.
Ever an intuitive producer, Le Bon reflects Banhart’s craft back on itself; arrangements of off-beat percussion, cascading piano and subtly wonky sax the looking-glass double of the softly-spoken dismemberment that suspends “blood outside the vein” on ‘Sight Seer’; conjures “an eye withouta head” on the title track, and on ‘Nun’, finds Banhart “running running running runningrunning out of legs.” The album’s contributing circle was kept small and familiar; its personnel drawn from both artists’ tried, tested and trusted list of collaborators (Nicole Lawrence on pedal steel and guitar, Todd Dahlhoff on bass, Greg Rogove on drums, Euan Hinshelwood on saxophone), with Le Bon playing a panoply of additional parts (synths, guitar, percussion, bass, piano) herself. The record’s finishing touches also came courtesy of Le Bon stalwarts, with mixing and engineering by Samur Khouja — “He and Cate have such a dynamic at this point,” notes Banhart, “that non-verbal communication, that psychic exchange that comes from proximity and time and trust” — and mastering by Heba Kadry.
Through it all, Issa’s spirit of the upside — that glimmering “and yet...” in an otherwise dark and fleeting world — pervades. The tough riff of ‘Twin’ serves as the iron bars that entrap its writer in the “Same desolate space Same no way out Same infinite doubt”, and yet...at its core, there is something cherished: “this precious thing At the heart of everything you’ve wanted.
Stepping outside of himself to examine the unspeakable, Devendra Banhart is suddenly freer than a bird. He is as free as a wig that transcends the body, transcends the head, and makes for the clouds.