Devendra Banhart first struck us with his 2016 song, Theme Song For a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green. His sound and writing evokes a kind of romanticism. His songs often speak of longing, yet speaking to the musician we saw someone who's highly aware of the circumstances he finds himself in.
We caught up with Devendra Banhart after his soundcheck for his Singapore show (accompanied by Noah Georgeson). The location was a classic cinema revival set alongside a comfortable lounge and bar area which has been seeing more independently-led music shows these nights.
The conversation quickly took on a life of its own minutes into the meeting, and we find ourselves being led into the visual artist side of Devendra — where he mused about enigmatic Hong Kong, what runs through his mind when the world gets too loud, and the connections observed in the people who pass him by. It seemed apt, in that moment, that we were mostly chatting about films while sitting in an almost empty theatre.
It was said that iconic portrayals of Hong Kong such as Bruce Lee and Chungking Express lured you to Hong Kong for your first show there earlier in June. Is this true?
Well, no. I was asked what I knew about the city and I said, very little. I only knew what we see in the West and what I’ve read from certain films.
These things didn’t draw me there. Instead, what caught me was how mysterious Hong Kong seemed and how little I knew about the place.
Seeing anywhere through a film can be very specific and most likely an inaccurate depiction of the place – especially if it’s a fictional film. Of course, watching Bruce Lee films as a kid I felt they were cool and great, but they didn’t really draw me towards anything. Even something like a Wong Kar Wai film, which is so stylised and romantic that when you’re in Hong Kong you just assume you’re going to be living in one of them. In my opinion, it does feel a little bit like that. Real life can be kind of close but the true reality? One can never tell until you visit the place.
There seems to be a connectedness between the artistry in films and your music videos. Is there any personal attachment to films that somehow directs your creative work?
Absolutely, that’s why it’s nice to be playing here at The Projector. Films are a great form of art. It’s an incredible way of telling a story. I personally like to tell very short stories so I can never imagine having the ambition… Actually, I don’t. I have no ambition to write or create a feature length film.
I like telling very short stories. You can tell from my favourite form of poetry, which is haiku. If I made a film, it’d be two and a half seconds long.
Maybe a ten seconds long film – but I want a big budget, you know? Thirty million dollars for a ten second film.
What was the last film that really intrigued you?
Very good question. Let me just think for a second. It was most likely a documentary… I’m trying to get the image up in my head but it’s not appearing in this exact moment. You really threw me off with an interesting question, and I want to really think about it instead of just saying something for the sake of it.
Okay, let’s put it this way – what kind of films or documentaries do you usually watch?
I watch as much as I can. There’s no one genre that I especially enjoy. Every genre, I find, has incredible films. It’s the same with music – there are incredible songs in every single categories. The last time I physically went to the movie theatre was in LA, where I saw ‘A Quiet Place’ – a film that was described as horror, yet it really wasn’t at all. I thought it was the most beautiful love story about a father and how much he loves his family and how he sacrificed for them.
What I like mostly enjoy watching are ethnographic documentaries about tribal life and rituals in places such as Papua New Guinea and Sub-Saharan Africa. Knowing that it’s a great way to gauge the absurdity of my stress levels because I get really freaked out and overwhelmed with daily activities like e-mails, economic issues, what I consider to be world issues.
I mean, Trump and Kim Jong-un were here in Singapore yesterday. It’s a big deal, it really is, and it can overwhelm me until I remember that there are people who live a very different existence on the same planet.
These documentaries remind me that these people live lives that are in complete harmony with nature. Their home is the jungle, and they have been living a certain way for much longer than we’ve been living our way. That makes the concept of world very subjective. It’s helpful because while I’m here getting wrapped up, I find myself remembering, ‘someone is living a very, very different life, and this world we see is not the world to them.’
Does this form of perceiving happen when you’re playing in different places, and meeting various people as well?
Photo: Warner Music Singapore
Being in so many places means I’m constantly surrounded by people. It’s very easy, I think, to think of you and your friends as the center of the world, and everything else as ‘the others’ – those other people. It’s important to leave your block and try to not stay too local. This is a generalisation, of course – many people today are interconnected and well travelled at the same time.
But generally, if you don’t branch outside of your comfort zone, you can harbour relatively antagonistic attitudes towards people who’re even just slightly different than you are.
Can you imagine, with no prior knowledge or context, how you’d feel if people were eating totally different food, speaking different languages and look different? You start to really think that those things matter. But if you’re fortunate, and have travelled, and we certainly have — you see how little those things matter.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about reincarnation and the similarities of people. That means everyone has been your mother, and you’ve been everyone’s mother. I see millions of people I’ll never see again at so many airports, hotels, and so many busy streets. I see all these people who have been my children, and whom I’ve been children of. It’s a really incredible thing – you feel more and more interconnected with the entire system of humanity.
I'm constantly reminded that this chunk of earth we’re in right now, where we’re sitting, is totally connected to one's concept of ‘home’. I’m kind of just home everywhere I am.
Spending the last 16 years in many ‘homes’ as a musician, what have you found to be the most true?
That’s a good question. It’s a serious question. I don’t have an immediate answer other than the feeling that art is not a competition. Art is just… It is a tremendous ocean that everyone can contribute to. That’s it.
Listen to Devendra Banhart here