Each day, before entering the recording studio to track his eleventh studio record, Flying Wig, Devendra Banhart went through a ceremony. He would put on a deep blue Issey Miyake gown given to him by Cate Le Bon (who co-produced the record), and then his grandmother’s pearls and earrings. “I had to do these explicit rituals to feel a little bit more tethered and connected to myself, and therefore take more responsibility,” he tells us.
Inside the studio – a canyon cabin formerly owned by Neil Young in the mountains of Santa Monica – a wig given to Banhart by visual artist and friend Isabelle Albuquerque hung from the ceiling like a spirit or apparition. “I kept imagining that when I go to bed it flies off, and so do all the wigs, and even everyone’s hair in LA flies off and goes shopping, goes to a bar, goes to the spa, gets the nails done, they’re in traffic. They’re a [Hayao] Miyazaki film kind of thing.”
These symbols, rituals and iconography were essential to Banhart feeling anchored during the making of the album, connected – to his ancestors, to his feelings, to the divine feminine, to himself. Leaning into his melancholy and darkness, Flying Wig may have been crafted in this incredible, pastoral LA canyon, but Banhart used the setting as a portal into an opposite realm; a desolate world where he could embrace his darkness. Through this journey comes hope, comes optimism, comes an album that lifts you into an uneasy preternatural space. Disarming and disorientating in the best way possible, you emerge uplifted, affected. In Banhart’s own words, “If you’re going to be crying all day, you might as well do it in your best dress.”
Photography by Dana Trippe
Alex James Taylor: Hey, congratulations on your new record, it’s really incredible.
Devendra Banhart: Hello! Thank you very much.
AJT: I’m really intrigued with your relationship with Cate Le Bon and how that came about, she’s incredible. I wondered how you met and whether you got her on board with this record before it began?
DB: I agree with you, Cate is amazing. We’ve had a kind of karmic connection an artistic connection [for a long time]. We were the same age when both of our first records came out, and their titles are really quite similar (Banhart’s Oh Me Oh My, 2002, and Le Bon’s Me Oh My, 2009). I felt that connection from the beginning with her. Some years later, friends of friends introduced us and we immediately got along and felt like family, like twin shadows of each other, twin aspects of each other.
Then I went to visit her while she was recording with some friends and she offered to cut my hair, but we didn’t have any scissors so she used a knife and fork. I think that when you’ve been through the trauma of having somebody torture you like that, it created a really strong bond.
DB: And if I wasn’t friends with Cate, I would just be seething in envy all the time. There’s this person who is a better songwriter, better musician, better lyricist, better everything, certainly a better furniture maker, better producer. But I’ll say this, I’m a better hair cutter and I give better tattoos, those are the two things maybe she’s not so good at. But other than that, if you’re going to make a record with someone, make it with someone who’s better than you at everything, it really helps.
I really can’t underestimate the value of working with someone that you want to impress. It’s definitely going to call you out when it’s not a strong enough chorus, or a strong enough bridge, or a strong enough lyric. Because I’m really just trying to get away with it all the time. It’s not that the older I get the lazier I’ve become, I have been lazy and trying to get away with it my whole life. Can I just do the least amount of work possible? Even though I really just work.
I tried to go on vacation once and it lasted two days. But as much as I work, I’m still trying to get away with the least amount of work possible, and Cate doesn’t let me get away with it.
AJT: We spoke to her about her album, Pompeii, and she was telling us how she made it during lockdown and literally locked herself in a room to create it. I appreciate how she always challenges herself and puts herself in uncomfortable situations.
DB: I’ve been co-producing with my brother Noah for over twenty years. Then over the pandemic we made an ambient record, and it was half his songs, half mine, so our relationship kind of shifted into this more collaborative thing.
So I wanted to work with someone new, but it was clearly going to be co-production for me, because I’m used to that. I asked Cate and she said yes and I couldn’t believe it. Cate of course isn’t just a producer, she’s also got her own records, and she is high in demand. She just produced Wilco’s record. I trust her so much. I saw how disciplined she was and how clear, and how she was owning… actually I could say orchestrating the room, conducting the room, there’s a lot of that that needs to occur when you’re the producer.
And she was doing it so well, I was like, “Oh my God, what a relief. I can just work on lyrics, and how I’m singing these songs, that’s all I need to work on now because I trust that Cate has got the reins.” So I agree with you. You didn’t ask me a question; I’m just saying I agree with you.
“…she offered to cut my hair, but we didn’t have any scissors so she used a knife and fork.”
AJT: So you had Cate in mind prior to writing the record?
DB: Yes, I did, because I wanted to make a Grateful Dead record. I wanted to make a super… especially after being in lockdown and knowing that even if I know I’m going to avoid saying things like ‘virus’ and ‘pandemic’ and ‘lockdown’ because that’ll probably date the record too strongly – this is my thinking. But most of all, there’s no way of really avoiding it. Like, for the next ten years, people are still going to be making records about the pandemic, even if they don’t want to, it’s going to seep into it, it’s just going to be there. Subconsciously or consciously, no matter what, it’s just going to be part of the gig now, that’s what I think. Wow, I mean, come on, it has to be. This totally global shared collective trauma, of course it’s going to be a part of art for a long time. So there’s no need for me to be that explicit about it, I just know it’s going to be part of the territory.
When I started considering the record and what the record is going to be about, what are the narratives that are going to anchor it, and how am I going to tie it together – what’s it going to look like? What’s it going to sound like? Everything was leaning towards something so pastoral and celebratory, sun-dappled and good vibes, and it’s the kind of music that’s encapsulated by Grateful Dead. I’ve listened to a lot of Grateful Dead. But the thing about the Dead is that there’s always an undertone of darkness. They aren’t just a happy-go-lucky hippie band, there’s something always very, there’s a shadow that always is lurking if you really look. That’s what gives this music so much depth. I want to make a Grateful Dead record but I know that Cate’s interpretation of a Grateful Dead record would be so interesting, and she’s going to be such a wonderful counterbalance.
“I’m still trying to get away with the least amount of work possible, and Cate doesn’t let me get away with it.”
She just can’t help it, she’s such an artist. She’s an angular avant-garde, just a super artist who is not at all coming from a Grateful Dead kind of place, but at the same time, she is that in a way, more than you realise. It’s like actually she’s a lot more Grateful than you realise, and I’m a lot less Grateful than I realised. We ended up making a record that was as dark as we could make it, with that thread of hope.
It’s almost like the mirror image of what I was envisioning in context to planning to make a Grateful Dead record. I knew that having Cate onboard would completely expose the other side of that, the mirror side, the shadow side, the twilight side, which is way more interesting. So we still made it in this beautiful, natural, Californian environment. Birds everywhere, beautiful eucalyptus trees swing, and the wind, it’s just totally ideal California hippie vibes. Making this music that is the complete shadow side of that, it actually made it much clearer in terms of what direction to take sonically every day when we look out the window and see the most beautiful view. It made it very clear what the opposite of that would look like, which is a desolate lonely landscape in some post-apocalyptic world, and we’re just ghosts, disembodied things that float around. That’s what we wanted it to feel like.
AJT: This was in Topanga Canyon?
DB: It wasn’t exactly Topanga; it was one of those California Canyons. It was such a good communal vibe, just me, Cate and Samur [Khouja, engineer]. When we weren’t tracking, we were just joking around, fucking around making tea or trying to or cooking something and just having fun with each other, because we’re really good friends. Then when it’s time to record, it becomes very disciplined and serious. But the environment was so hopeful, and so joyous, it really doesn’t sound like the record. I wanted the record to be as depressing as it could be, as long as there was an anchor of hope.
AJT: Did you ever find it going too far?
DB: Not at all, not even close. To me, it’s still very optimistic and very sweet. It’s nowhere near as dark as I would like it to go, or as dark as my mind goes day-to-day. You know, if I make a record that’s just fun, let’s have fun, fun, fun – that’s dark. That would be the darkest day. I think my friends should be worried about me then. When it’s a record that’s let’s just have fun, party time – well, it doesn’t get darker than that. Like there’s a band called Coil who write some pretty dark music, but to me, it’s the most joyful, hopeful and sensitive music imaginable. So this thing ‘dark’, it’s pretty subjective. I think dark is when you’re not being vulnerable or sensitive or true to the reality of darkness.
AJT: Do you find that you’ve always been able to tap into that and harness it? Or as you’ve got older, do you find it easier or more accessible?
DB: I guess the answer is I don’t know. All of it is a pain in the ass. There’s certainly more darkness now than ever. Actually, that’s not true, I feel like it’s always been like that. I think “Oh, it used to be…” No, it never used to be, it’s always been that way, it’s the nature of the world. And I don’t mean it in a nihilistic way, I mean it in a very realistic way. That’s why the whole record is really… I was anchored by a poem by Kobayashi Issa: This dewdrop world, is a dewdrop world, and yet. It’s saying that it’s always been the dark ages. I mean, from a Vedantic meaning, this is the Kali Yuga, this is pretty dark. But saying that it’s always in the dark ages is very similar to saying this dewdrop world. A dewdrop is the most impermanent, ethereal, right about to dissolve object. It’s gone in a flash. And then the end, ‘yet’, and yet is the hope. It’s not necessarily a depressing thing to admit that it’s the dark ages. It’s not about the problems of the world either.
I mean, I’m a naive idealist, really. I think that because we ruined the planet, we can also fix it. I think that people fundamentally are good, and when they act horribly it’s only because they’ve been hurt and don’t know how to process that trauma and grief. People would say it’s very naive, but that’s really how I am. That’s increased in my old granny age.
AJT: I wouldn’t say it’s naive, I’d say it’s more optimistic.
DB: Thank you, that’s very kind.
“It’s nowhere near as dark as I would like it to go, or as dark as my mind goes day-to-day.”
Photography by Dana Trippe
AJT: In terms of the symbolism within the album, there’s the Issey Miyake dress you wore while recording and the wig you were given by your friend, Isabel Albuquerque. You placed these symbols around you – have you always done that with previous albums?
DB: Absolutely. I think each album has its own set of symbols and those manifest as the cover art, they manifest as the, let’s say general theme of an album, and they manifest with what I’m wearing when I do press for the record. They manifest in the general design, even down to the font that we use in the sleeve. It’s such an opportunity to apply all the different disciplines when you a record, it isn’t just, “Here’s the song.” And I certainly have never written singles, so I’m really trying to make an album that has an identity of its own – it’s this house that sits on its own. The Miyake dress was a gift from Cate. At the time, I felt so depressed and maybe more pessimistic, and maybe more, I don’t know what, some kind of what’s the point of feeling? I felt this more than ever in a way, and I really needed support. When I was nine, I started singing in a dress, my mother’s dress. I put it on and I started singing – it was like this magic moment that opened up a door. It’s almost when I feel really lonely and really lost, and really needing to feel either powerful or beautiful, or to even connect with my own femininity and therefore connect with my maternal side, that’s when I really want to wear a dress. It’s like a therapeutic medicinal thing. I wear it to be in my power, I feel beautiful, I feel strong, and I needed that for this record – big time. And so Cate gave me this Miyake dress because she knows I wear dresses when I’m really down and I need to be uplifted, or when it’s a birthday or something, I’ll go out to dinner with my dress because I feel glamorous.
It was us three hanging out – me, Cate and Samur, we’d be like, let’s go to the beach, but we’re not swimming in the ocean, we’re just staring at the sea, no one’s saying anything. We’re a bit like that. So generally, there was this feeling of well, if you’re going to do that, if you’re going to be crying all day, you might as well do it in your best dress. As a general kind of feeling throughout the record, and before we’re tracking, I put on that dress, my grandmother’s pearls, her earrings. This was also a way of connecting with my own ancestors. I felt pretty fucking untethered, disconnected, so my way of trying to reconnect was wearing heirlooms. Like I said, my grandmother’s ring, earrings, pearls, and wearing a dress, which is connecting with my mother’s side, with my own beauty, my own power, my feminine side, which is to me the more powerful side. I needed to connect with that. So I had to do these explicit rituals to feel a little bit more tethered and connected to myself, and therefore take more responsibility, because like I said, I’m trying to get away with it. I love Issey Miyake people – Issey Miyake people, please reply to us!
AJT: We can hook you up.
DB: Yes, I’ll pay you! Don’t tease me, don’t do that. [both laugh]
“When I was nine, I started singing in a dress, my mother’s dress. I put it on and I started singing – it was like this magic moment that opened up a door.”
Photography by Matthew Brookes
AJT: And by wearing those items did you find you could separate yourself from the process easier when you weren’t in the studio, like you’re stepping into it and out of the mindset?
DB: Yes, absolutely. Before you play a show, before you perform, you do certain things to get you in that zone, to get you in that place. To prepare you to cross a type of threshold, or to enter, it’s a bit of a portal, that moment when you’re backstage before you get on stage, or that moment when you’re just looking at the lyrics. There’s a transitional liminal space, and I think in order to best serve or best perform or best communicate those words, you do whatever you can do to basically get out of the way and get out of your head and try to be as direct as you can. For me, fashion is so important because it’s basically… it’s like what architecture is. Architecture is fashion on a larger scale. The building that we’re in, the room that we’re in affects the way we think. And so obviously, the clothes we wear are going to affect the way we think and feel. It really does affect me. If I’m wearing something I don’t feel comfortable in, fuck, no, it’s not going to work.
Now, when I say I feel comfortable in, I don’t physically mean like oh, this is a soft material, I have to feel… I beat myself up enough and I criticise myself enough and I’m cruel to myself enough. I need clothing that is going to tell me that I’m beautiful, because my mind doesn’t.
AJT: Do you tend to have a kinship towards Japanese designers and their way of designing?
DB: I don’t want to be such a snob about it, because even though yes, the answer is of course… I find that all the designers I like typically have some Japanese influence. I love classic houses, I mean, of course, I love Prada, but I would say Prada definitely has a Japanese influence. I love Universal works, Jill Sander. Typically it’s brands that are doing something that’s really indigenous and honouring their roots, but always a little Japanese touch, those are the ones that I end up really liking. I’m pretty much a label whore for Japanese brands.
“I need clothing that is going to tell me that I’m beautiful, because my mind doesn’t.”
AJT: Lastly, I wanted to ask about the wig given to you by Isabelle Albuquerque. Again, it adds to the symbolism and iconography around the record.
DB: The wig was not like the poem, the Kobayashi Issa poem was the narrative anchor for the whole record. So every song needed to have something that referenced that poem. Then visually, the wig was such a perfect symbol for me trying to honour, connect, listen to and speak to my ancestors and family on one level, and on another level, it just seemed like a good metaphor for getting high. Like I was so high I was flying wig, so high my hair was flying off my head, however you want to get high.
But the story of it is that during the pandemic, my sister Isabel Albuquerque gave me this wig. I look awful in wigs; I cannot pull them off. If I could look good in a wig, the record would not be called flying wig, because I’d just have been wearing a fun wig. I can’t work it at all. And so I just put it on a mic stand in the middle living room, and there it sat. And then a couple days later, I tied it to the ceiling, and so it’s just floating in the middle of the room. Then throughout the lockdown, it just was living with me as my roommate. I kept imagining that when I go to bed it flies off, and so do all the wigs, and even everyone’s hair in LA flies off and goes shopping, goes to a bar, goes to the spa, gets the nails done, they’re in traffic. They’re a [Hayao] Miyazaki film kind of thing. Then in the morning, I would catch myself going, “So how was last night?” [The wig] became a symbol of freedom and it seemed like a good theme for this whole record. Freedom and hope, I mean the wig gave me hope, helped me through a tough time let me tell you – wig therapy.
Devendra Banhart Flying Wig is out now via Mexican Summer.