When Devendra Banhart dials in from a Toronto hotel suite to see Welsh musician and producer Cate Le Bon appear on his laptop screen—beaming herself in from a small room from her home in Cardiff—he no longer wants to talk about Devendra Banhart. Yet, the precise reason we have gathered here virtually, for a strict one-hour window of valuable time—especially for these two mercurial artists, whose every waking day is devotionally aimed toward creating something, anything, to make more sense of their lives—is to celebrate the collaboration that brought Banhart’s eleventh record, Flying Wig, into being.
“I just want to talk about Cate’s new record. What’s it called? What’s it like? I know all the songs are about how amazing I am,” he says, grinning wildly. “But what’s the vibe? What kind of genre would you call it?”
“I’m just going to ignore you, Dev,” she says, with a palm to her forehead, gathering her thoughts, staying on task, admittedly having gone a bit “mad” earlier in the day from working on said new record—the one Banhart would rather hear about than spend time promoting his own.
It’s an endearing peek into the pair’s unique relationship. A view into how easily the Los Angeles-based musician relinquished more control than he is perhaps used to, while making a record with Le Bon as producer and co-writer. The resulting Flying Wig would be considered a departure to anyone who has wandered with Banhart these past two decades across a landscape alive with weedy wonders—from Rejoicing in the Hands (2004) and Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Mountain (2007) to Mala (2013) and Ape in Pink Marble (2016).
Here, we explore how Banhart and Le Bon, grasped hands (literally, or in our mind’s wishful eye) and sauntered through the front door of the same house in Laurel Canyon where Neil Young wrote After the Gold Rush. And how they emerged with Flying Wig, an entrancing synth-based undulating blue mood waxing and waning ashore, containing countless variations that emerge like veins in a clear stone. It demands close listening in a loud and impatient era. In other words, it’s a rebellion of restraint in a time of noise and attention-seeking.
What follows is some useful wisdom between two longtime friends. Lessons learned and thoughts on topics left to echo in that fabled Canyon to mingle with the rest of the ghosts and whisper to whomever dares next to grasp at its branches for a firm grip to lead them to wherever they wish to be, to make whatever they choose to make. A guide, maybe, from Devendra and Cate, on how to be, here and now, together, and what to make of this Flying Wig they’ve gifted to us and to the world.
Devendra Banhart: I try to stick to my own little world. I work alone and I write alone. So, bringing someone else in requires a lot of vulnerability and it requires faith. Until you start working together, you just have a hint, or a hunch, that you’re going to be able to trust them. I’ve been saying this about you a lot, Cate, and now I get to say it to your face, which is so weird. But as my friend, the most beautiful thing you can say to a friend, or a person that you know, is “I love you.” Then, as a producer it’s, “I trust you.” And I really do trust you. I made this record with Cate because the alternate version of my life, with Cate in it, is me sitting in a corner, seething with envy that there’s this person that sings and writes and does everything better than I could ever even imagine. I can’t imagine a world where I can’t say that Cate’s my friend.
Cate Le Bon: I remember Devendra asking me if I would produce his record. There’s always a moment when you have an idea when you want to work with someone—it’s a beautiful idea. I love Devendra so much. I love him as an artist and any excuse to spend more time with him is wonderful. Then, you connect with the idea that we’re friends and we hadn’t worked together before and how that switch can sometimes become a little abrasive, where all of a sudden your friend is telling you, “I think you can do better.” We were very aware of that. We played some shows so I could be around the band and eased into the shift of how communicating would change when I was the boss. We were conscious of that, which was really lovely. I was just thinking about this the other day, and I don’t think it was necessarily intentional, but we lived in the same house and in the morning, we’d check in as friends. We’d have a little routine, catch up and talk, go and see the ocean. Then, it was almost like a commute to work. We’d get back to the house and shift into our other roles. It was quite successful. We’re still friends. We still love each other.
DB: There are some friends that you love and don’t trust for even a second, you know? In a working context, trust is much more powerful as an expression of love. It means more as a collaborator to say, “I trust you” than “I love you.” It’s more valuable, is my point. I take things for granted. I also want to get away with as much as I can. So, sometimes I don’t want to write as well as I know I can, and Cate would make sure that I did. That’s the thing about trust. It doesn’t mean that she’s going to say, “Oh, I love all those lyrics” and, therefore, I trust Cate. No. It’s Cate saying, “I don’t like that goddamn lyric. And don’t use that word. You can write a better bridge. You can write a better chorus.” It hurts the ego, but that’s how real trust is built.
CLB: We were pretty close before, but we spent so much time together living in that house and really taking care of each other. Dev was really sweet. He took care of me as I was working for him. There were all these lovely moments that I cherish. Some during work when we’d maybe disagree on something and then find a way to come back around and see it both from the same place. That’s a really beautiful journey. Then, sometimes when you spend that much time working and living and cooking and sharing all these moments with someone, they’re either really going to irritate you and you’re going to leave. Or it becomes this lovely routine. In this lovely bubble, in a house in a mountain. It was pretty magical and nourishing.
DB: While we were making this record, Cate said the most poetic thing I’ve ever heard. I’d say to her, “Well? Where do we go from here?” And she said, “We just need to find the stone that sings amongst them all.” It’s such a perfect way of explaining something, of explaining what the next task is in the most poetic way, but it’s so utilitarian. It helped us to completely focus, to know exactly where to go. In this context, it means finding the words that feel just like the music, or vice versa.
CLB: Whenever I make records, whether they’re my own or with somebody else, I want to explore and be led by curiosity and not just be looking where I have already left myself a path to go and look. You want to be able to go off course, build things up, tear them back down. But there’s always going to be some things about the song, or the thing, the lyric that you’re trying to write—there’s always going to be something inexplicable, a light about it that you can’t remove from the landscape. That, to me, is the thing that will always tell you where to go, or where to pull back from. It’s a feeling, really. You can make a hell of a mess trying to make a song. Within that will be the little ember that is the real heart of what you’re getting at.You’ve got to tune in and listen out for it. That’s the stone that sings amongst whatever mess you’ve made. It’s OK to make a mess. It’s OK to get lost. But you still have to tune in to what’s special about this thing that you’re chasing.
CLB: I only ever work on things that really mean something to me. You want to give your whole self to it. I’ve got a bandwidth and I really only want to use it for things I cherish and for people that I love and things I really believe in. Making a record is immortality. What a beautiful thing to be able to spend your time doing. It’s remembering that and remembering that you really do have to tune into things emotionally and it’s easier when you are working with people you love and on things that you love. I’d never want to work on music and not feel like you can tune into the magic of this song and the magic of this lyric. It’s about agreeing to things that are meaningful and nourishing to me and keeping an eye out for that. And feeling like, “What a fucking amazing thing I get to do.”
ON MAKING THINGS
CLB: I think things should be very important to you and that’s why you do them, but I don’t think you should assume that they will be important to other people. You do things for how they make you feel. I never really look back on anything. I don’t think about records I’ve made in the past. It’s more about forward motion and to occupy my insane brain. I find that doing woodworking and pottery is really meditative. It’s just to stop myself from going absolutely batshit crazy. I love working with every single person, like Devendra.They make an imprint on you.You take something with you into the next session or conversations I have with other people. I can hear Devendra’s influence on me. It’s forward motion, but you’re taking a little bit of everything you’ve made with you, I suppose.
DB: I have been making stuff for some time. Over 20 years now. I’ll be very worried on the day that I look at an empty notebook, an instrument, a canvas—these are the main things I do. I’ll be very worried if I look at those things and go, “I totally get it. I got this.” That hasn’t really developed into some kind of skill. It’s really mysterious to me, still. So that helps. Mystery helps. And not needing, necessarily, to uncover what the mystery is. Just knowing that mystery is a huge part of it and you’re navigating through it. I’ve been feeling my way through art my whole life. I gave up trying to find the light switch. I’m just feeling my way through my life. It hasn’t given me a better understanding of how to write a song or how to make a painting or write a poem. But it has made it clear that from the day I was born, was longing to heal. I was longing for community. And I was longing for ritual. I know that. Those are the words to describe the kind of longing that I have. It’s for healing, it’s for community, and it’s for ritual. Art doesn’t satisfy that, but it’s how I build some bridge toward that journey. It’s how I move through that longing.