BlackBook Interview: Devendra Banhart on Motherhood, Mobile Phones and Walking in L.A.
Image by Lauren Dukoff
If tender, thoughtful intention were the measure of a man’s potential as a parent, Devendra Banhart will one day make a fantastic father. Packaged in a gentle, groovy, acoustic web of emotional intimacy, the myriad facets of parenthood are both explicitly and abstractly explored in his new album, Ma. But to a man such as Banhart, it is a predictably unusual creative concept. It’s expansive, if not vast.
“That’s actually one of the most attractive things about Buddhism to me,” he reveals. “There is a concept called Mother Recognition. You don’t have to be religious or spiritual whatsoever to understand the idea. It’s just the idea of saying that everyone has been my mother at some point. A stranger, the moon. They are mother. It just makes it so much easier to get through the day as an applicable, utilitarian concept.”
While Banhart speaks in terms of pragmatism, the subject matter is one of humanity’s deepest mysteries. We have no real answer to what love and mother are, exactly; to be a mother is in its simplest terms is to be a creator. It is to be the protector, the nourisher, an expression of unconditional love. Ma manages to philosophically and literally explore the extent of its seemingly simple title – a job that is virtually impossible. And yet it does it by being an incredibly beautiful, nourishing and inviting listen.
Sung in four languages, including his mother’s tongue, Spanish, the album is as beautifully dense and rich as it is groovy and sweet. Ma philosophically tackles our deepest impulses and wounds, yet it is also a collection of fabulous cocktail party jams. Written at times in homage to Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono and still others in duet with Banhart’s muse and mentor Vashti Bunyan, he says that Ma includes everything that he would want to tell his child, should he ever have one. He himself lost his biological father right as his last album, 2016’s Ape in Pink Marble, was being finished. So Ma is in many ways about his father, who he had just begun to know better, too.
The album transparently, yet tenderly, tackles political agendas by just existing across cultural barriers the way it does. Banhart, who spent his early childhood in his mother’s home country Venezuela, also dresses up in its flag in the video for “Kantori Ongaku,” and asks for support for the Venezuelan people in it. The video for “Abre Las Manos” is a montage of Venezuelan imagery.
“This time more than ever, I feel the need to connect with other Venezuelans,” he explains, in reflection of the socio-political strife that has ravaged the South American country for the last several years.
We sat him down just as Ma was being released, and he was embarking on a 24-date North American tour, to talk about some of the elemental impulses behind the album – the names, the origins, the need to disconnect from society, passing wisdom down through generations and acknowledging the mother that lives in us all.
You sing in several different languages in your album. Language is a powerful tool, it’s a way to transcend barriers and understand other people outside of your language.
I wonder how effective is Duolingo. I feel like everyone I know has it, gets it and does three languages for three days. But maybe it’s because I’m lazy. There could be incredible success rates. If you think about it, we spend our lives inside of our phones. And it’s just you as your avatar speaking the language.
I suppose that’s true, but taking a language to the streets is the real test of how you can speak it. Of course, good luck to anyone trying to get out of their avatar in France!
The French will make it harder for you than anyone to learn their language. They’re the exception. Nobody will make it more difficult. I have said the words, and I know I’ve set it correctly. And they will pretend that they are not listening. And then they will finally respond and say, “Oh you mean…?”; and just respond back in their correct accent. It’s humiliating. Speaking in France is almost as humiliating as walking in Los Angeles.
L.A. is a weirdly walkable city, but it’s like nobody actually knows that. I always walk in L.A..
I walk in L.A. too! That’s why I know how humiliating it is. It’s so resistant to the walker, that you’re braving the resistance. I love it. I actually do not own a car and I live in L.A.. Up there is trying to speak French in France, but nothing is worse than walking in L.A..
We weirdly have rhyming names.
We really do. That doesn’t happen often. My name was given to me by my parents’ guru. You told me your name means snow-covered mountain and that your father’s people come from Zoroastrian lineages. I would like to talk more about Zoroastrianism. I think it’s so interesting, and it’s one of the world’s oldest religions and it’s vast. The name itself is so mystical and beguiling. It sounds like some sort of wizard floating in the stars.
Nature is so vast and bewildering. When you are in spaces that are remote and where nature is your reckoning, you could only have a beguiling name. And a beguiling method of practicing your faith.
That’s why so many of these ancient religions are so elemental and about worshipping wind, water and fire. It’s not so accessible to us anymore. We take so much of it for granted today, but think of the magic of it back in the day. Just the pure magic of finding a well, a stream, where the water is pouring from the heavens. We would climb a mountain and get to its height, and there find this nectar flowing from it. It makes so much sense that we would be in awe of these primordial elements. Being in Nepal, I really experienced that. We were pretty remote, in a very small village. The electricity would go out every 15 minutes. It really helped me appreciate electricity. Or how much I may take for granted my life in the city…plumbing. The village was still being developed, so I witnessed the effort that goes into creating a septic system. I came back to my life here, and I just felt so fortunate that everything was taken care of. In one sense, we are so fortunate because it’s so comfortable. But on the other hand, people don’t appreciate it as much.
It’s important to understand those basic needs and luxuries. You somehow understand yourself better.
In an environment like that, you’re just forced to face yourself. The distractions aren’t there. I was in a remote village and stayed at a monastery at one point too. Monastic life is, well…you’ve got a bed, you’ve got a bedroom, you’ve got an altar table and a window, and that is it. I was given instructions that said: the person next to you is in a three-year retreat. Don’t open the door there, that goes into the balcony. And definitely be quiet. That person hasn’t seen another human being in three years and you certainly are not the first one that they want to experience.
I remember going on tour way back when, I didn’t have a phone on tour. That’s how old I am. We had the types of phones where you would have to type one key several times to get different letters, it was like a flip phone. I barely used it, and I definitely didn’t have a laptop with me. And I’ve never played my guitar better and I’ve never written more. I’ve never been more productive on a tour. It does require an effort, to think about the line. It’s so nebulous at this point. But you have to think to yourself – is this something that I really need to do, or is this a distraction?
And then it gets to the point of deep irony, and it’s a necessary irony. You’ve got apps now that are telling you to unplug, and I love that. I don’t know if there’s an app that you can time where every hour it just shuts off your phone for ten minutes. I’m sure there must be! Actually, maybe not. People need that app, but they probably wouldn’t get it!
I lived in Montana for a few years, and I miss that about my life there terribly – the lack of reception. It was eventually a convenience when the people in my life came to expect that I was always without service.
I just want my friends and my family members to know that I love them. But I really don’t want to hang out with them. And that’s it, but okay, leave me alone. That’s why I want to have a kid. It’s a reason to get out things, really.
But you’d be connected to the kid all the time?
Yeah, but when they’re little they’re just like little poetry machines. You can just ask them anything, and then write down their answers. What’s that object you see? What’s that in the sky? Okay, got it! And then it’s like, “Hey yeah I’d love to see you and go out…but sorry, I gotta stay home with the kid.”
But it’s interesting to me that a man at your age – we are both at that age where we have to reconcile our personal timelines with the concept of parenthood – went so far as to explore the potentials of fatherhood, or motherhood, through an album. It’s touching. Do you want to have a kid?
I mean, I don’t know. Maybe you should buy me a drink first? I’m kidding. But it’s weird. The age that we are at, you do start to think about it differently. Prior to this window, you’re not really faced with the idea that you may never have children. You kind of assume that you will…later. And then time goes by and you’re in the window where you may, or may not. And then you have to understand if you can accept it if you don’t. And can you be open to having them too? It feels like a strange decision. It feels like something that should happen organically if the garden is fertile. The best thing I ever heard about parenting was that if you tend to the garden, the flower will grow. That garden is, of course, a relationship. So it’s not so much do I want to have a kid or not, but the ability to create that garden.
The idea of “mother” is different to everyone. I like the idea of pushing it beyond the frame of one other mortal.
When we are born, we have this one person to call mom. It’s like, “that’s my mom.” That one person who is my mother. Human evolution may take you to expand that concept, once put on one being, to various beings and different objects. You can see mother in primordial objects. For instance, can you see the mother in the ocean? Can you see the mother in the stars? Which is what we were talking about earlier, which is in many ways the foundation for so many different pagan faiths. Can you see mother in other people? And in other elemental forces as well. And that could be a definition for what it means to evolve as a human being, I think.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this one line in the autobiography of Swami Vivekananda. He was the greatest disciple of Ramakrishna, who was this super duper Vedantic master. Towards the end of his life, someone asks him how he’s been. But all he wants to communicate is that all he sees is mother. I just kept thinking about that, how beautiful it must be to be able to see mother everywhere.
These people are set up in that they are spiritual superheroes, and it’s their karma and they’re born that way – but it’s applicable to all of us. It’s something you have to work at. It’s not something that just occurs. You have to practice it. But if you do, you can start to believe that mother is everywhere. You don’t have to be frightened by the things you don’t understand, they are mother. The world is not frightening, it’s mother. Imagine meeting a stranger, and immediately behind that thought, thinking, “You know what? That’s my mother. This was my mother at one time.”
I wonder if that application of mother is more my speed. It seems like all the loving, universal ideals of motherhood without all the etheric, negative attachments or the confusing line of where the boundaries of the mother’s life end and their child’s life begins.
There comes a point in our lives where we have to reckon with the idea if we like the people that our parents are. They are our first deities. But they are in fact human beings. And you have to asK, “Do I love you because you’re my parents? Or do I love you because of the human being you are?” This incredibly flawed human that you are? Probably at that point in your life where you ask yourself that question you’re just like, “Fuck you, Mom and Dad!,” no matter what. And maybe at that time you just love them in some fundamental way because they are your parents. Or, you can love them for who they are.
I think it’s kind of the same way with a parent. It’s like, “Oh, this human I made here is not this accessory. It’s not this piece of clay that I can mold into what I want. It’s actually not mine.” And you to have to try to let it go. It’s a moment in time where you are a parent without the ego attachment of [ownership]. And that’s a choice you can make – to embody and practice a type of parenthood that is purer. It may be less direct, but it’s more pure. But we are genetically programmed to make it nearly impossible.
I guess there is no real way to know until you are faced with it in your own life.
I wonder what that’s like as a parent though, when your kid asks you something you don’t know the answer to. It’s so built into us to know everything. Can you admit that you don’t know? And can you tell your kid that it’s okay not to know? The world is constantly telling us we should know everything. And a parent should definitely know.
We live such different lives than we did before. The concept of being tribal is really loaded today. But historically, in tribal societies, there was a lineage. Knowledge was just passed down through ancestors and you would just teach your child what you were taught. It still works that way, but the entire system and structure is so fractured today. It should be a source of compassion to remember that people who are horrible to their kids? Their parents were horrible to them. It’s a question of hoping to become the conscious birth that breaks that chain. It’s just so obvious – until you’re faced with it.
It’s so funny when we’re around our parents, how we revert to being little kids. How we change. So the question there is how can we spend time with our parents without reverting to this little, frightened creature? If you think about it we spend most of our lives physically or emotionally suffering. And that doesn’t go away, but our deal with it changes. And our ability to identify it emerges if we’re lucky. But I think it’s our parents who most associate with the time in our lives where we largely have not yet come to realize that we spend the majority of our existence in some sort of emotional and physical pain.
But what more important of a gift does a child bring you than the gift of being present?
I was thinking about this the other day, I got in a hot tub and I was like, “Wow. This is so nice.” And I was looking up at the stars, and it was like “Aaah, wow.” And then I thought to myself what have I been feeling all day leading up to this point that didn’t feel just like this? But if you can be conscious of that pain, you can identify it. You can ask yourself if you are consciously or unconsciously right now suffering. Either physically or emotionally, am I in pain?
But this brings us back to that lack of distraction. You, in Montana…it’s a blessing and a curse. You have this lack of reception, and that is annoying. But then it gives you a focus on yourself.
Well, what do most of those calls and texts really amount to, really?
Well if we figured that out, we’d be on it! But it’s kind of like…in hospice care. There really should be more documentaries about it. What do people say that they wished they had done more of in their life? There really should be more shows about the ends of people’s lives. I mean, I guess the reason why there aren’t more documentaries about hospice care is that people would start thinking to themselves that they should watch less TV! But they always say, I should have worked less. I should have had more fun. I should have gotten out of that painful relationship and divorced earlier. Which is hilarious. Which I love.
It’s that ability to tune back into that space that brings the daily joy that can punctuate the pain and suffering. But I think a source of that joy also comes from that identification you spoke of earlier. For instance, I am currently in St. Louis, which is four hours from my mother, as she is working through some health issues. It’s the perfect place.
Ah, that’s funny, actually. My mom recently called me and she was so happy! She said that she had written a poetic line for me. It goes: “I keep my loving mother at bay!” It was something she wanted to give me, but I think that it was also her way of understanding what I do with her. Close, but not too close. I wish your mother a thorough recovery.
N.B. Devendra Banhart’s Mother Venezuela is suffering through a longstanding socio-economic and political crisis that has left her people facing high disease, crime, starvation, inflation and mortality rates. For his current North American tour, he has partnered with PLUS1 so that $1 from every ticket sold in the U.S. (excluding Dana Point) will go to World Central Kitchen. WCK has responded to the crisis along the Colombia-Venezuelan border and has served more than 350,000 meals to date.