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Devendra Banhart, Diving for Pearls : An in-depth conversation

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We met with Devendra Banhart while he was on tour in Singapore, just as his new album Ma launched on Nonesuch Records. His tenth album is a complicated and ambitious compilation of songs performed in four languages (English, Portugese, Japanese and Spanish) with diverse styles of instrumentation. The limited edition record, pressed in colored vinyl, comes with a signed print designed by Devendra himself (available at the Turntablelab). 

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It’s the Venezuelan-American singer-songwriter’s third visit to Singapore and he’s clearly comfortable here, exuding a boyish ease and curiosity. The late afternoon sunlight is streaming into the room as Devendra positions himself on the couch with his back against the window, his face cast in the shadow. 

After a day of interviews, Devendra seems a little reluctant to talk about himself. He has more questions than answers, about scuba diving in Southeast Asia(he’s keen to try), pearls, painting, and more. It strikes one as his natural way of being–in endless fascination of the world that surrounds him.

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Hi Devandra! Welcome to Singapore! 

Terima Kasih!

It’s your third time in Singapore. What special memories do you have here?

I get very nostalgic here because it reminds me of Venezuela, in terms of this lush jungle feeling… it makes me miss Venezuela.

The Projector is where we played last time. I feel that every city should have a place like that. It’s a very special place, a very important kind of cultural heart. I was sad that with all this money in this city, these art centers don’t seem to be getting the funding that I think they deserve and everyone gets poorer from it. There could be (given the amount of malls in this city) more funding and support for arts and culture centers. So if there are any investors out there, please invest in places like White Label Records and The Projector that share art and music with everyone.

There is such a thing as cultural impoverishment. You can have the nicest, shiniest, huge cars all over but if people don’t have access to amazing art—it’s cultural impoverishment. It’s got to be balanced, and you have an incredible opportunity to do that here.

You’ve worked on paintings, poetry, and lots of other creative disciplines. At the end of the day, how do you see yourself—as a musician, or a writer, or an artist?

I don’t know. I’m not really sure. Maybe more of an amateur… dentist. Or a… barista, to the stars. Or… an above-water pearl diver.

Swimming in the ocean of experience, looking for pearls to share with the rest of the world? That sounds like a good idea for a song.

Sure, do you want to write it together?

Many of your fans look up to you as a role model of a singer-songwriter-artist. What advice would you have for these aspiring creators?

I remember there was a band that I saw many years ago in San Francisco. It was the best show I’d ever seen. And it was their first show! I couldn’t believe it. It blew my mind. And then I found out that they had rehearsed every day for a year. They also broke up immediately after that. 

There are two kinds of approaches. One is you just start and do shows. Over time you figure it out and get better playing live. The other approach is waiting until you’re ready and rehearsing a lot before you play. 

There’s a third version which is very dangerous. It’s thinking that someday you’ll arrive somewhere with your art, like, ‘I’ve reached it, I’ve figured it out, I’ve got it.” This will keep you from ever sharing it, because that doesn’t really exist, there’s no real ‘OK, I have it now’ – it’s a practice, it’s a daily practice, an ongoing practice, it’s an ongoing thing, it has no kind of destination or mode where you go ‘OK, i’ve figured this thing out’ because it’s endless.

You could do this practice it for your entire life. That can keep you from sharing it if you think well I’m only going to do it when I think it’s totally ready – so you get it just enough that it’s got legs, it can wobble a bit, and then you share it, but make sure that you share it – so rehearse for a year, and then play it for a show, or just start off playing. 

You’ve come a long way on your music-making journey. With your latest album, what ideas were you hoping to express?

The title is ‘Ma’, so there’s a theme in the record. It’s not quite about gender-based maternity, it’s about the maternal instinct that all of us have experienced—the maternal quality of music and art itself, the maternal relationship one has with the country they grew up in, or even the primordial maternal elements around us, like the ocean. 

Like mother-of-pearl.

I think there’s a pearl dive in your future. Or we can start to insert that into a colloquialism like, “So long” – “May you soon be diving for pearls.”

Lastly, a big thank you to Devendra Banhart and our friends at Nonesuch Records and Warner Music Singapore for arranging the interview!