For Fragments du Monde Flottant (Fragments of the Floating World), Devendra Banhart offers a compilation of twelve unreleased demos by the likes of Arthur Russell, Nils Frahm, Rodrigo Amaranth and Vashti Bunyan. With the support of the Swiss label Bongo Joe (Altin Gün, Begayer, Hypercult … ), Devendra Banhart undertakes a playful curator's role for an anthology that is as elevated and intimate as his folk beginnings. From Los Angeles, he answers Qwest TV’s questions.
Which desire did the compilation spring from?
I love Bongo Joe. I’m a big fan of their releases and re-reissues. We have been friends for a long time and we always share our finds, exchange records, mixes, and I see them every time I’m touring Europe. So when a secret recording pops up on the web, on the B side of an obscure Japanese vinyl or when a friend of a friend knows someone who knows something … it works out well! Stumbling upon on a hitherto unseen demo is like finding the crown jewels: it’s a very precious object.
What moves you about demos?
A demo is the bare-bones, the most vulnerable version of a song and therefore of itself: a real gem of intimacy whose brilliance, ambiguity and nuance are often close to the transcendent. When you write a song and there is no one around, it’s in the first state of itself: the zero degrees of fear … that’s what I really feel. Then, the demo goes through so many shades and looks, it becomes a base on which we work. In actual fact, it’s the purest version of a song. What makes it so beautiful is that the artist is still working on it without necessarily knowing where it will take them. I like the virginity of the demos: an instrument, a voice. Sharing a demo takes a lot of courage.
How did you convince artists on Fragments du Monde Flottant to share this intimacy with the world?
It took me a long time because the artists were very protective of their demos. It’s like pulling teeth out (laughs)! I was able to convince them eventually because the majority of them are friends with whom I naturally share my demos when I prepare an album and vice versa. It’s very important to share current creations, to get feedback. I love seeing half-finished paintings, for example. But it’s something you can only do with close friends. So, I wrote them letters to explain the project, several letters even, and then … I got lucky!
“My way of spending time with my friends”
Is it like a community?
It’s more like a diaspora! Diana Denoir is in Urugay, Tim Presley in San Francisco … Let’s say this compilation is my way of spending time with my friends, a very personal version of a brunch (laughs)!
Have you considered releasing one of your demos?
Yes! But I can’t. And yet, I have more than a million. Maybe i’m just a f****** hypocrite (laughs)! I preferred to stay in the role of curator. It has been very fun, very interesting.
Fragments du Monde Flottant brings together several generations of artists, all very different in their way of expressing themselves: your producer Josiah Steinbrick; Nils Frahm and his free electro stylings; his majesty of garage King Tuff; Tim Presley, in a role far displaced here from his usual rock-psyche; Jana Hunter’s chiaroscuro; the velvet voice of Brazilian Rodrigo Amarante and the Uruguayan singer Diana Denoir, a rare songstress … What do you think links them?
Aside from the fact that these people are my friends? Arthur Russell maybe. I have never met him but he is a great inspiration to the majority of us, a major influence in fact, especially for artists of the new generation like Jana Hunter, for example. Having one of his demos on the compilation is a way to feel close to him. It’s a great honor.
Arthur Russell was a separate entity in the musical landscape of the 80s: singer and cellist, his compositions explore meditative, experimental, classical music, folk, pop and dance in a very free way … When he died in 1992, he left thousands of demos behind him including “Not Checking Up,” a marvelous backbone of this compilation from recording sessions of World of Echo, his famous record-testament. How did you manage to get hold of this unreleased demo?
I don’t think Arthur Russell made a distinction between his demos and his “finished” songs, which continued to evolve along with his explorations and his infinite creative ability. His songs were part of a flow, a very free gesture. I received “Not Checking Up” from Tom Lee, Arthur Russell’s last love, thanks to a friend who made the connection. Tom Lee was very open and super cool: he gave me this demo in a very beautiful fashion – tenderly, naturally, elegantly, simply and humbly.
“At her side, I just want my voice to bloom”
Earlier, you spoke of the courage of sharing a demo. In the notes on the compilation, one subtitle particularly stands out. About “If I Were,” Vashti Bunyan wrote: “It was my first attempt to write and record after a thirty-year break, recorded at home on my first computer … It’s still my favorite song.” This is a beautiful indicator of the courage and friendship involved …
Vashti is one of the reasons I make music, she saved my life. She matters so much to me. I have never met anyone like her, in terms of kindness, delicacy, elegance. It is almost mythological. At her side, I just want my voice to bloom.
Vashti Bunyan recorded Just Another Diamond Day, a record completely ignored when it was released, in 1970. She planted everything there and retired for thirty years. Yet, you sang “Rejoicing in the Hands” in duet with her in 2004 before convincing her to return to the studio … How did you meet the “the high priestess of the folk freak” – so-named for having influenced a whole generation of indie-folk artists?
I wrote to her label after the reissue of Just Another Diamond Day. I fell deeply in love with her music when I discovered it. I was in Paris, by the way. She came into my life at a time when I needed courage, real courage, in my life and in my music. And her music is the most courageous I’ve ever heard: there is not a single drop of fear in it. So inspiring! So I wrote to her label and they were kind enough to make the connection and I wrote her a letter to thank her. We exchanged a lot and asked her if I could send her demos. Of course, I never told her that if she didn’t like it, I’d stop music immediately (laughs)! That’s why it was so important to me that Vashti is part of this compilation. I sent her a very long letter!
“Demos are like small fragments of poetry”
Fragments du Monde Flottant is a nice title … Why did you choose this name for the compilation?
In reference to Japanese ukiyo-e. It was a movement and a genre of an artistic golden age – the Edo era, famous for its prints and other “floating world images.” The best known is Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa. I hope we don’t think it’s flying (laughs)! Simply, I find that these demos are like small fragments of poetry that float like that on the surface of the world. They are full of nuances, they are subjective, and we can see their dark side, too … they’re full of intrigue!
You are a musician but also a visual artist Devendra, you personally created the six different album sleeves for Fragments du Monde Flottant. Would you like to create a series in the style of ukiyo-e prints?
Yes! I’m already thinking about it. For the next one, I’d love a demo of Anohni and Laurie Anderson … Kate Bush too! Can you imagine? I have lots of ideas: Queen Latifah, Dr. Dre, Migos … Oh it’s gonna take time!
Look out for Devendra Banhart’s first poetry collection: Weeping Gang Bliss Void Yab-Yum, to be published by Featherproof Books on April 23, 2019.