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Dylan in a Dress

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p on a Lower East Side stage, a fine-boned, bearded, dark-haired boy sits cross-legged, picking at an acoustic guitar and singing in a falsetto vibrato.The twenty-three-year-old is Devendra Banhart, star of New York City’s folk explosion. Soon, he leaves the stage, only to return after a long intermission to perform again, now at the helm of the cabaret act Abra. For this, he’s shaved, powdered, and rouged, and wearing a gauzy, off-white dress. Banhart was born in Texas, raised in Venezuela and Los Angeles, and educated at art school in San Francisco. His debut album Oh Me Oh My was released in late 2002 and he’s been opening lately for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Banhart’s new record, Rejoicing in the Hands, the first of two LPs to be released in 2004, is less lonesome than its predecessor. Also gone is the amateur tape hiss, which has been replaced by string arrangements and — appropriate given his impending return to nature — cicadas. — Steffie Nelson

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You’re moving to San Francisco. Why?
I think I’ll physically expire sooner if I spend more time here. I don’t wanna sound like a New Age hippie, but some sort of change has occurred in my relationship with nature. There’s an incredible energy here, but you don’t always want to be on speed at four in the morning.

How do you feel when you’re in drag? And how does your girlfriend feel about it?
Oh, it’s fantastic for both of us. For me it feels incredible. And it’s not that I tuck it in or anything, but I do get way more in touch with these kind of psychic or spiritual vaginas. And I can have many of them. I can have them on my chest, on my third eye…

In the first Abra song you did the other night, the lyrics consist exclusively of the word "yoga."
Yoga’s like a whole thing; it’s like a culture you can purchase. But the word yoga just means "union with god," which I thought was such a beautiful mantra. My mom actually teaches Bikram yoga in Caracas, but I don’t do it. I just sit.

When did you start singing?
The first time I performed was at a gay wedding.
Many of your songs share structural or lyrical qualities with lullabies.
My favorite people are Vashti Bunyan and Ella Jenkins, who actually won a Grammy for her children’s songs.

Is romantic love a subject you’re comfortable with?
Completely, except I haven’t even begun to croon my ass out. I wanna do a whole record of “I love you I love you I love you” – the only lyric, you know what I mean?
Kind of like your version of Marvin Gaye’s "Let’s Get It On?"
Yeah, but it would just sound like a retarded monkey compared to him. He’s amazing. He also has a divorce record!
I’ve noticed that a lot of your press seems to be kind of obsessed with the notion of dark and light, you know, ‘his songs sound light but they’re actually very, very dark.’ Do you identify more with either side?
[Whispering demonically] The darkness, child of the darkness, under the wings …[laughs] No, you know, both are very important, yin/yang, balance. But I think I write really different songs. Each song has its different polarity, so I wouldn’t say that, "I’m tortured, so I write these fucked-up sad songs."
You don’t seem tortured. In fact you even said something onstage the other night, like, ‘I’m so happy to be here!
Yeah, it’s the worst when people are bummed out onstage. I mean, my dad saw me playing a show when I was first playing, and I was just like really freaking out. There was a lot of screeching and wailing. And my dad just said, ‘I hope you’ll listen to this advice and just be confident and respectful to the audience.’ A lot of people don’t feel that way about playing, but I’m aware that there are people there. I go to a show and the last thing I wanna do is have someone give me their bum trip. It’s like, why am I paying to watch this person do this? They’re so lucky to be up there.
I know, it’s like the Cat Power phenomenon.
I’d rather listen to her records. But the thing is, she’s such an incredible songwriter and I admire her so much. I’ve always wanted to propose to her. I absolutely love her. She’s kind of the queen.
I would imagine you’d have a lot of sensitive college girls in love with you.
I get a lot of older men. Like consultants, lawyers … I get a lot of really straight-faced older men and women. I really wish it was what you just said, but I get a lot of the fifty-plus crowd. A lot of moms kind of throw their soiled skirts at me. But I mean, I dig it, are you kidding? You gotta be open.
 

 

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