When beginning work on his newest album, Devendra Banhart wanted to write a few songs from an insect’s perspective. It wouldn’t have been completely out of character for the Venezuelan-American songwriter, who’s frequently been referred to as one of the leading figures in the “freak folk” movement of the 2000s, to explore how good it must feel to sit on a petal. He’s assumed an animal’s persona before—just listen to “Duck People Duck Man,” from his Megapuss side project from 2008.
“I’ll pay anything to Oculus Rift, to get a program where I could be a fly on a huge lily, this expansive petal,” Banhart tells Paste. “So I had this plan—‘yeah, I’ll write a song about that, imagining me from that perspective,’—but there was no real room or time for it because Venezuela is as much on my mind and the theme was so clear that it was going to be this celebration of maternity, it was going to be this record saying ‘thank you’ to music as a maternal presence in my life.”
His mind usually drifts towards the most surreal places one could imagine (he mentions writing from the perspective of “a socialite or an alligator with a protracted anus”). But after trips to Kyoto, Japan and Caracas, Venezuela—where he spent the formative years of his childhood and where his brother and many other family members still live—he knew this album would be different from the ones he’s written in the past. He had to be more concise than ever before, even if that unfortunately meant, “There just wasn’t room to write some silly song pretending I’m a flea that lives on head cheese under the Eiffel Tower.”
“The situation [in Venezuela] is so dire, so heavy, so apocalyptic that there wasn’t even room to almost make up a character or write a song from this particular perspective,” he explains, later adding, “The world is starting to pay attention to something that’s been a part of my life since I was born. The reason that it started to become part of the record so dramatically before it was an article in the New York Times and before the situation had been brought to the attention of the world is because before I started writing the record, I went to Caracas and I saw firsthand what it’s like to be in a dictatorship that’s not running well, that’s not functioning. Lines and lines of people waiting for hours and hours to go get a loaf of bread—they’re real. People not having to pay with money that’s counted, but weighed. The tension and the sense of repression and the sense of paranoia and the sense of your energy being sucked out of you—this void, black hole kind of feeling.”
Both his insider and outsider perspectives on the situation inform virtually every song on Ma, out on September 13. “I saw you gently weep and now I wanna be a lion / Curled up at your feet / Something to rely on,” he sings on “Ami.” But he can’t really help whatsoever—the Venezuelan government isn’t allowing aid to enter its borders. That’s not to say Banhart hasn’t tried, though. Since there aren’t any accessible charities on the ground, he recently played a show to raise money, which he passed to his aunt via a cousin to donate medicine to a children’s hospital. The police tried to confiscate it.
“They’re not evil, they’re thinking, ‘Maybe I could sell this and feed my family,’” he says.
That frame of mind explains why on “Kantori Ongaku,” he sings, “Well the older I get the less I fear anyone I see / And yet all the more I fear humanity.”
“Helplessness is a big thing on the record because I can’t do anything significant about the situation,” Banhart says, who is donating $1 of every ticket sold in the U.S. on his fall/winter tour to World Central Kitchen, an organization fighting hunger around the world that has donated 350,000 meals along the Colombian-Venezuelan border. “Since that visit, which happened about two years ago, that’s been on my mind, and the record, at least that theme and that aspect, started to take shape before even this possible change and this moment of the world paying attention came into play. Of course that’s going to be part of your work.”
Banhart is always soaking in new ideas from unexpected places. The album’s title, Ma, stems from the Buddhist practice called mother recognition—the belief that everyone at one point has been a mother—something he picked up on when he started the album sessions in one of the oldest zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto.
“It’s a very good way of avoiding a fight at the post office,” he says. “It’s a very good way of not being so negative when I ride the subway. Or not taking it so personally when someone cuts us off. Or not feeling so judged, or not judging so much.”
But that’s not all: In Japanese, “ma” means negative space, or in Banhart’s mind, “the silence between two notes,” an idea he played around with en route to making his most minimalist record to date.
Banhart also found inspiration in the ocean, what he calls the “elemental” and “primordial” mother. He recorded most of Ma in Big Sur in Northern California, and on the first night, he set up a mic and a computer and captured the sounds of the Pacific. He then layered them under every single track (and even listed the ocean as a songwriting credit on “October 12”). You can’t really hear the waves, but their presence is always there.
With so many different aspects of motherhood investigated throughout—his motherland in Venezuela, the mother-son relationship, maternity in nature—it makes sense that Banhart sees this album as a sort of document for his future child, whether he ends up having one or not.
“Everyone in this band has kids and I don’t,” he says. “And I may not have kids, so this record became everything I would want to say to my kids, and at the same time, everything I wish that hadn’t been said, that someone said to me as a kid.”
It’s a weighty record at points—“Memorial,” in particular, is a song about “the process of experiencing the death of these three very close people”—but it’s consistently beautiful throughout, a far cry from the sometimes bizarre songs from his early career. On album opener “Is This Nice?” Banhart sings, “It begins with a question,” and Ma asks a lot of questions, profound ones, at that, throughout its 13 songs. But it ends with his most gorgeous track to date, “Will I See You Tonight?,” a simplistic strings-backed duet with one of his idols, Vashti Bunyan. And that final question, “Will I see you tonight?,” hits the hardest: After experiencing the poverty and death in Venezuela firsthand, it’s the personal relationships, whether between a mother and a child, two friends or two lovers, that are ultimately the most important.