If it’s been a rough couple of years for Devendra Banhart, you’d never know it by listening to his music. On Mala, his eighth studio album released in March on Nonesuch Records, the singer sounds more relaxed, focused, and confident than ever. The songs are still signature Banhart — a highly curated hodgepodge of sleepy acoustic folk tunes and tropicália-imbued pop, delivered in a mix of English and his native Portuguese tongue. There’s a beautiful instrumental ode to the late skateboarder Keenan Milton (“The Ballad of Keenan Milton”), as well as a synthy call-and-response number that features Banhart’s fiancée, visual artist Ana Kraš, longing for an unsavory mate. In conversation, he refers to the track as his attempt at “amateurish German techno.”
Most importantly, though, Mala elevates Banhart from shaggy-haired poster boy to what many of us have known him to be all along: versatile, funny, and unnervingly effortless. But according to Banhart, effort is at the forefront of Mala’s backstory. Following the critical flop of 2009’s What Will We Be, the singer recalls being in a terrible place. “I was up my ass — so far up my ass that it looked like my face was coming out of my mouth,” he deadpans. “We all have egoism, we’re all irresponsible, we’re all unconscious to some degree, but when that is so out of proportion that it really affects your life and your art, you’re in a dangerous place. I think that’s where I was while I was making that last record.”
On the phone from his new home, New York City, Banhart recalls a lengthy period of “reduction” that eventually led him back to songwriting. “I took a long time of just trying to work on visual art and trying to make some sort of peace with myself,” he explains. “I was trying to get to a much quieter place. I don’t think [Mala] is a culmination or even the product of having reached that place, but it is maybe the transition between those two states of being.”
Musically speaking, it’s this transition that Banhart credits for much of Mala’s lyrical approach. “I wanted to move away from using metaphors and symbols and start simply pointing out what the thing is,” he says. As such, the album is filled with anecdotal tales and quirky characters. “Daniel” finds Banhart quietly reminiscing about a love that got away with lines about “waiting in line to see Suede play.” Later, the hazy lo-fi of “Hatchet Wound” is undercut with Banhart warbling lines about being the “bottle-fed baby” to her “top-of-the-shelf lady.”
Mala also finds Banhart reteaming with longtime collaborator and producer Noah Georgeson, who helped develop much of the record’s sound. “I come from a visual perspective, and he’s coming from a real musician’s perspective,” says Banhart. “The guy graduated from Mills College, and he grew up next to Terry Riley’s son. He was teaching flamenco guitar as a teenager, so he approaches it with that education, and I think that makes for an interesting little combination.”
On the personal side of things, the last two years have brought their fair share of big life changes for Banhart. Following the recording sessions for Mala, the singer abandoned his digs in Los Angeles and returned to the East Coast. When asked where he places Mala geographically, Banahart asserts that the record doesn’t feel like any one place to him but that he considers it contemporary. “Half of it was recorded on the newest version of Pro Tools, and the other half was recorded on a tape machine from the late ’80s,” he explains. “We utilized a variety of equipment from different points in history, not just the newest thing and not just some fetishized, nostalgic, vintage-trip, old thing, and I think that may be the ticket.”
Even more significant, though, was Banhart’s recent engagement to Kraš. “It’s been almost a year. We’re already tearing each other’s hair out,” he laughs, then sobers. “She’s a keeper. She’s a really wonderful artist, and I think it’s important to be able to respect each other’s work. It’s kind of like loving your mom for the person she is, not just because she’s your mom.”
This Saturday, May 11, Banhart returns to the West Coast for a show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, where he’ll play with bandmate and opening act Rodrigo Amarante. It’s a tour stop that he’s especially excited about, though not necessarily for the change in climate.
“I don’t really miss the weather at all,” he says. “It’s this false sense of catharsis and transition that’s triggered by seasons that I really enjoy. I may have done no spiritual work, no spiritual metamorphosis may have occurred, but as the spring approaches, I feel like I am transformed. It’s the false sort of evolution that living around seasons can bring.”
Devendra Banhart plays SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Saturday, May 11, at 8 p.m. with opening act Rodrigo Amarante. Call (805) 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets and info.