“So Righteous to Love”: Devendra Banhart, interviewed by Trinie Dalton (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)

So Righteous to Love
Devendra Banhart is here and he plays folk music. Trinie Dalton finds out where he’s coming from.
Photographs by Melanie Pullen.

A few months ago I hiked high on mushrooms in the Redwoods, and Devendra Banhart’s first album served as my bridge between fantasy and reality. His music isn’t about tripping out on drugs—I’m not belittling it that way—but its soothing quality makes one feel peaceful in any state of mind. As I interviewed him over the phone in late February about a myriad of topics, Devendra often returned to talking about folk music’s universality, about how one of its most noble purposes is to make listeners feel comfortable.

Hearing 23-year-old Devendra talk like this reminded me of how closely related late-1960s psychedelic rock bands were, in spirit and sense of idealism, to the folk singers Devendra loves so much from the same period: their considerations for listening to and hearing music were at the forefront of their playing. But Devendra’s tastes extend into the present, and there appears to be just as many neo-psychedelic musicians playing today as there are neo-folk rockers. Is it due to the current abominable political state? I don’t know. I didn’t care to discuss politics with Devendra because I was more fascinated by his reverence for nature—by his belief that music can bring one closer to not only self-understanding but also learning about one’s place in the environment, whether it be forested or urban.

Devendra’s new album Rejoicing in the Hands cultivates this respect for life under the auspices of yet another new hybrid-Banhart sound, this time combining old-time blues with the troubadour-ish balladry, psychedelic rock and acoustic guitar traditions of folk. The sound of this record is both familiar and absolutely unique, although Banhart’s singing does gets compared in the press to Marc Bolan’s and Billie Holiday’s to an unfortunate, almost annoying degree. Rejoicing in the Hands is perhaps his best work—it’s hard to say that, cuz they’re all so great—in that the guitar playing achieves more complexity, at times becoming as strong a force as the vocals. Not that his first two releases, 2002’s Oh Me Oh My album (Young God), and 2003’s The Black Babies EP (Young God), didn’t feature some fantastic guitar sounds, but until Rejoicing, I’d heard Devendra’s guitar as more a complement to his vocals than having its own individual drive.

I figured this increased guitar-playing skill must mean his shows are getting better and better, so I started our talk by asking him about performing live. His speaking voice became more melodic and animated when he talked of things he felt passionately about. When he began to talk about his favorite types of venues to play, things got interesting…

Arthur: You prefer to play galleries and churches…
Trinie Dalton: I try…I don’t entirely like playing rock clubs and bars because it doesn’t lend itself too well to the kind of music we’re playing. When I play a church, the acoustics are so wonderful. You have to play an environment that suits what you’re doing, and churches are built to have incredible acoustics. Some Aztec churches, the acoustics are built so wildly, they’re so psychedelically manipulative, that if you clap into a certain passageway, it responds like the sound of a sacred bird that the Aztecs worshipped. They really thought about it. It makes sense for people who play non-electric music, or quieter music to play in a place that augments that instead of in a place that drowns it completely out. Those people that are used to dealing with 8000 amps and four drum sets, the whole building [a rock club] is built to suck in the sound.

It gives your music a richer sound, or has a more spiritual atmosphere or something…or there’s more than just sound going on, with the other senses too.
There’s a vibe.

I think of your music as a mixture of folk and psychedelic. I read up on your big influences, but you didn’t mention psychedelic bands, more of the folky psychedelic rock, like Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention. Do you listen to that kind of music?
I really do. “Psychedelic,” to me, just means a sharp awareness of your surroundings, and a heightened aesthetic sense, and a sensitivity…it’s like this ultra-sensual state. Psychedelic words bring out that state in objects that might be considered mundane. Usually they’re in nature, because usually you’re not going to find psychedelic qualities in a stapler, you know? But a tree, you feel it. It’s like a magic spell, or alchemy, using certain words to bring out the psychedelic life and energy, the core, god’s vein, the blood of the gods.

Back to the music, I’m so easily influenced and affected by music. I love Incredible String Band. But I’m not as big a fan of them as I am Clive Palmer, the guy who started them. He played on the first record. The real song to me, on that one, is Clive’s song… “You know my ____ friends/ Singing baby…” [starts singing it] I like Robin Williamson’s solo records, they’re incredible, and I like Mike Heron’s solo records. It’s unbelievable to think that they’re both fucking Scientologists now. Some of these records are just getting re-released, so they won’t just be available on bootleg anymore. Like Clive’s Original Band, and Clive’s Famous Jug Band. As far as British psychedelic stuff, Fairport Convention has never been too psychedelic, they’re more like rock-folk. Then there’s Trader Horne…Currently, I’ve been getting into more current psychedelic stuff, via my friend, Steve Krakow, who goes by the name Plastic Crimewave. He has a magazine devoted to all things psychedelic, that he hand draws and hand writes, called Galactic Zoo Dossier. He also has a band called Plastic Crimewave…he’s a scholar of the psychedelic ways, he’s an incredible person. It’s a good road to go down. A band that I recently saw that was the awesomest epitome of bar psychedelia, is Comets on Fire, they get everybody grooving.

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Trinie Dalton on COCOROSIE (Arthur No. 10/May 2004)

This article was originally published, with photography by Melanie Pullen and page layout by W.T. Nelson, in Arthur No. 10/May 2004…

Glitter and Gleam
The two sisters who are CocoRosie have made an astonishing, haunting debut album. Trinie Dalton finds out how they did it.

CocoRosie’s debut La Maison de Mon Rêve capitalizes on its sexy feminine allure to seduce the listener into a dream state, one that’s half bliss, half nightmare. CocoRosie’s two singers and sole band members, Bianca and Sierra Casady, could be compared to sirens if their wailing was deeper instead of high-pitched and tweaky like Billie Holiday’s on 45rpm. Listening to La Maison gives you an opiated sense of well-being; here are two beautiful young ladies singing sweet harmonies together, their lyrics about Skittles and diamond rings and other things being disturbed by an undertow of discontent. CocoRosie songs put old folk tunes into new perspective; take the sardonic lyrics that critique Christianity in their cover of “Jesus Loves Me”: “Jesus loves me/but not my wife/not my nigger friends/or their nigger lives/but Jesus loves me/that’s for sure/‘cause the Bible tells me so.” The last song on the album, “Lyla,” is about a child prostitute sold into slavery who “ate McDonalds all day/ and never had a chance to play.” Toys, penny whistles, Casios, and thrift store drum machines keep the beats: they’re reminders of sinister deeds. The magic of childhood is built up then trashed like a sandcastle.

The acts of reminiscing, relishing and examining childhood were a natural place to start for two sisters who hadn’t seen each other in years. Bianca was living in the U.S. while Sierra studied music in Paris. Once Bianca decided to move to France, they found their interests finally overlapping, as Bianca had just begun to write songs…

Q: Sierra studied gospel and opera. Did you study music too?

A: Not at all. I didn’t even start singing really until over a year ago. I used to read poetry out a lot but there was something unsatisfying about it. Then I wrote a small series of songs that weren’t very typical, they didn’t have choruses or anything, and I did a show where I sang them a capella. I felt really good singing. That was right before I went to Paris. I had never sung in front of an audience.

Q:Was it scary when you first started performing?

A: Yes, it was. It was scary but it was a wonderful high simultaneously. I got sort of addicted to it. It was way more intense. I think that my writing is more accessible through music, or more enjoyable. Sierra has been singing most of her life. She always sang. In junior high she was in a choir, she got really into choral music, had a special teacher who encouraged her. Immediately her teachers saw that she had an operatic soprano voice and pushed her into that. She just went for it. So she spent the last five years in music school. She did really well, got many accolades, won awards…she was told that she should go for it. But it takes 100%. Not just of your time, but you can’t want anything else. It’s a thing that’s so hard to succeed in, that you can’t even lie to yourself, you have to want it all, and she didn’t. It was creatively stifling. They didn’t encourage her to compose, or try other types of music. It’s as if that’s your only job in life.

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“Forty-Six Strings and Some Truths”: Harp-playing folksinger JOANNA NEWSOM talks history, theory and inspiration with Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2004)

Forty-Six Strings and Some Truths
Harp-playing folksinger JOANNA NEWSOM talks history, theory and inspiration with Jay Babcock

Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004), with photography by Melanie Pullen.

Photo by Melanie Pullen.

The Lyon & Healy pedal harp is not a regular presence in rock clubs. It’s expensive, it’s big, it’s complicated. It has 46 strings, which cannot be re-tuned between songs during a performance. It’s difficult to master—basic competence requires years of training and practice. Outside of Bjork’s last album and recent tours, it’s an instrument almost without history in pop music.

So, when the 22-year-old Joanna Newsom appears onstage, alone, playing this exotic device, attention is inevitably paid, not just cuz you never see it done, but because, as Joanna says, the harp is usually associated by contemporary listeners with a single cheesy sound: the glissandi, a simple, artless running of the fingers across a broad span of strings, used as a decorative cue in sitcoms, films and commercials. Which means the simple act of witnessing a harp really being played—of runs of notes plucked with one hand while the other plays a fixed pattern—is gonna be novel. It’s as if your only experience of the electric guitar was the sound of a single power chord, and then suddenly you witnessed the playing of whole riffs, whole rhythms, whole melodic lines, whole songs…

Songs. It’s Joanna Newsom’s songs, it’s her lyrics, it’s her singular voice—accurately described by Currituck Co.’s Kevin Barker as “eight and eighty, dawn and dusk”—that makes the gawkers stick around, after the initial curiosity of seeing a harp played by a pixie from a California Gold Rush town wears off. Cuz what Joanna is doing is neither experimental, avant garde stuff, nor the pretentious bloat generally associated with the use of classical instruments on the rock stage. It’s instead firmly rooted in the folk tradition: verse-chorus songs with careful attention paid to lyrics and vocal performance. When Joanna sings “This is an old song, these are old blues/This is not my tune, but it’s mine to use,” she’s stating fact and ambition. She’s making a claim. It’s one that she’s earned the right to make.

With support and advocacy over the last couple of years from friends and admirers like Will Oldham, Devendra Banhart and Cat Power, she began to record her music and perform live. After making two home-recorded CD-R EPs, she released her full-length debut on Drag City this spring with the stunning The Milk-Eyed Mender, and will be touring with Banhart in the early summer.

Two weeks after seeing her wow drunk hipsters in a Seattle rock club, and after tagging along on the photo shoot for this piece, I interviewed Joanna for an hour by mobile phone. I was struck once again by her essential singularity—it extends even into her conversation, which is learned, humble, passionate and articulate. Here is some of what we talked about.

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On the Road With The Black Keys and Sleater-Kinney, by Peter Relic, with photos by Melanie Pullen (Arthur, 2003)

MAY THE ROAD RISE UP TO ROCK YOU
Peter Relic rolls out for a week on tour with The Black Keys & Sleater-Kinney

Originally published in Arthur No. 4 (May 2003), with original photography by Melanie Pullen shot at beautiful Amir’s Garden in Griffith Park (these photographs were later optioned to Fat Possum Records for promotional purposes)

“Rule Number One: Never make friends with a journalist.” I wagged my finger and slurped my coffee, assuring the two young men across from me I knew of what I spoke. “Rock hacks are fretful freeloaders out to steal your shine and misquote you every time.”

We were sitting at a back booth of Dodie’s, a greasy spoon on Market Street, Akron, Ohio. It was the final hayfeverish week of May, 2002. I had driven down from Cleveland to find out how the hell these fellas—Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, co-captains of the two-piece band The Black Keys—had created such a thrilling slab of raw-dog fatback juke joint blues as The Big Come Up, their brand new debut album. To hear the Keys tell it, simplicity was the key.

“We stopped talking about time signatures a long time ago,” Auerbach said.

“We’re de-evolving,” said Carney, a Duty Now For The Future glint in his eye.

“We’ve even removed the word ‘repertoire’ from our repertoire,” Auerbach added.

The following week The Cleveland Free Times ran my column about this band yet to play a gig outside Ohio who had made, quite simply, “one of the best American records you’ll hear this year.”

Pretty soon they did play outside Ohio. I tagged along to those Detroit and Chicago shows. By the end of ‘02, the good word about The Big Come Up had gotten around; Janet Weiss, drummer for Sleater-Kinney, testified in Rolling Stone that the stuff was up to snuff. 2003 was happily wrung in playing with Guided By Voices at a New Year’s Eve beer bash in Indianapolis. Then the call came: Would the band like to open up for Sleater-Kinney on tour? The Black Keys would fly with their equipment to Portland, Oregon, rent a van, and the West Coast leg would start there in Sleater-Kinney’s hometown. Perfect. Except that contract liability on the van stipulated that no one under 25 could drive the thing. But by then Rule Number One had been broken. And so 22-year old drummer/producer Patrick Carney and 23-year old singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach cannily roped in their over-30 Cleveland journo pal to act as de facto tour mensch. Best as I can remember, it went a little something like this…

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