The Us Weekly readers who know freak-folk musician Devendra Banhart as the hippie-haired beardo on the arm of Natalie Portman probably won't recognize him now. The Portman thing ended a while ago, for one. Plus he's wearing glasses these days, prescribed to him when he started getting headaches from poring over his miniscule drawings for a recent art exhibition, he explains in a call from his home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Also, he'll begin a tour next week to support his latest album, What Will We Be, with a scandalously short-cropped do. "It's like a lesbian librarian," he jokes.
Along with the new bookish look, he's coming out as an accomplished visual artist--his second career that technically came first. His first album The Charles C. Leary, came out in 2002; he's been quietly exhibiting paintings since 1998. He's designed the covers of all but one of his eight albums, too, but people still ask him who's the artist behind them. "I am very grateful that anyone other than my mom is taking an interest in what I do, but it's very funny that people don't even know," he says, joking that it must be because of his teensy signatures. "I do have very small handwriting."
Banhart runs in a circle full of friends he met in the late '90s San Francisco art scene--people such as Tauba Auerbach, Christopher Garrett, and Barry McGee or collaborators such as Adam Tullie, who runs the fashion line Cavern. Many, like him, are both underground or indie musicians and even lesser-known visual artists, such as Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, members of Gang Gang Dance, and Fabrizio Moretti, the Strokes' drummer. "His stuff is incredible," Banhart says. "He's like Chuck Close!"
The rock-star-slash-painter/illustrator/sculptor is all too common (everyone from Bob Dylan, Sir Paul McCartney, and David Bowie to Iggy Pop, Marilyn Manson, and David Byrne), but Banhart has the experience to back it up. He first attended the San Francisco Art Institute in 1998, where his work made its way into local group shows in places like the influential Luggage Store. As his music career blossomed, so did his art, with solo shows at Andrew Roth Gallery in New York and Galerie Mazzoli in Modena in 2006.
For his latest show, created during rare few weeks at home, Banhart made 25 new drawings for ARCOmadrid, Spain's contemporary art fair. The work features watercolor lines wandering throughout an array of creatures and characters, each rendered in earth-toned ink and floating on tiny paper canvasses. The aged sheets, he's ashamed to say, used to be the blank pages torn out of the front of old books. Now reformed, he still looks for vintage materials that come with a bit of history. "It never felt right on a white piece of paper," he says.
The other reason for the small format is, of course, Banhart's own peripatetic life--touring rarely affords a breezy, light-filled space fit for large canvases--but also his penchant for cozier quarters. "I've always lived in small places," he says, like a cabin in nearby Topanga Canyon that was his most recent residence.
As for inspirations, Banhart cites favorite artists that range from Cy Twombly to John Cage, but his actual heroes are more literary than visual. He's likely to get charged up by the words of Kurt Vonnegut and Neil Gaiman or short Japanese poetry. But that's because his visual art comes from the words of his own songs--his most recent drawings, for example, took shape in the early stages of his songwriting.
At first, when it was only Banhart and his guitar, he would work through the kinks in his songs by creating art on the reverse pages of his music notebooks. "I have a book where I'm revising lyrics and have sketches," he says. "When I'm done with everything then I use that as a reference point." Turning this visual art into album artwork becomes a secondary process of completing the album, something too personal to farm out to other artists, he says. For example, the cover art for What We Will Be (at top) began as two profiles that became two people looking at each other, and when the album was finished, they were united into a singular face.
He sees the imminent extinction of the CD, leaving only MP3s and vinyl, and he welcomes the revolution. Even his art catalogues have begun to take the form of hybrid box set: A limited-editon catalogue from a gallery show at Galerie Mazzoli in Modena comes with MP3s and a tiny zine.
Though he takes his album artwork very seriously, he has a fairly flip approach to the business of music. "With music there's so many limbs and facets," he says. "Video and touring and merchandise and all those little things require attention. They're artist things but I tend to joke around too much with those things." For example? "My videos are shit and my t-shirts have the Chicago Bulls logo on it. But I think it's funny." It's not as if the music is his bread and butter. "I make very little money doing both things," he says of his songwriting and visual art, "but I make more money doing visual art."
When this latest tour wraps, Banhart plans to move back into artist mode, curating a show in New York, participating in some group shows, and participating in an upcoming exhibition at a gallery in Spain, which will feature his drawings alongside the photography of musician Beck Hansen (simply "Beck" to most).
But it's the next potential collaboration that might finally change the way people know him best. "I've been talking with Jeffrey Deitch about doing a show," he says of L.A.'s newest and most infamous museum director, who will close his gallery and move here in June. Banhart has long aspired to a big solo show with Deitch. "For three years I've been putting it off," he says. Suddenly, it seems the critically-acclaimed musician with almost a decade's worth of touring and recording is on the verge of a big break--in the art world.
Banhart photo by Lauren Dukoff