A hypothetical loomed over Devendra Banhart while he was writing Ma, one of those questions that changes your life no matter how you answer it. “I may not have a child,” he tells Apple Music, “and I thought, maybe I should make a record where I can put in everything I would want to say to them. And while doing that, you kind of realize, well, maybe it’s also everything I wish someone had said to me.” Building on 2013’s Mala and 2016’s Ape in Pink Marble, Ma finds Banhart continuing his evolution from freak-folk poster boy to one of the more subtle stylists in his field, touching on atmospheric bossa nova (“October 12”), string-saturated ballads (“Will I See You Tonight?”), and Velvet Underground-style folk-rock (“My Boyfriend’s in the Band”) in a way that feels playful but sophisticated, naive but self-possessed—the nature boy, housebroken but still alight with beautiful ideas. Amongst the songs are a handful of meditations on the plight of Venezuela, a country where Banhart spent most of his early years, and where much of his family still lives. “The whole record is a big, big expression of helplessness in regards to the situation there,” Banhart said—a feeling that at times he tries to temper (the joyful “Abre Los Manos”) and at others sounds mournful and adrift (“The Lost Coast”). Still, the overarching mood is one of appreciation, of finding bright corners in dark spaces, of shrugging it off without shutting down. Here, Banhart walks us through Ma, one track at a time.
“Is This Nice?” “It seemed nice to start the record off with a question. Even when it was being written, I had a sense that this was the first song on the record. It’s one of those songs that was being written as you’re singing it. But the main gist is, you know, to tell your children it’s okay not to know. Society beats us up for not knowing. It’s okay to admit that you don’t know. It’s okay to ask for advice. It’s okay to not even try to know everything. In fact, to identify the madness in that is healthy.”
“Kantori Ongaku” “It’s a reference to [Japanese musician and Yellow Magic Orchestra founder] Haruomi Hosono. And in that reference, I hope that it’s also an expression of gratitude to somebody whose music provides so much joy and comfort and wonder, and who is truly a hero of mine. It’s based on a Happy End [one of Hosono’s first bands] song. The whole song is in Japanese, but at one point in English he just says, ‘Country music.’ I thought it’d be funny to kind of reverse it. Like, have a song mostly in English where the chorus is ‘kantori ongaku,’ which means ‘country music’ in Japanese. But the real gist of that song is the following line, which is ‘shikata ga nai.’ It’s like saying ‘c’est la vie,’ or ‘it is what it is.’ You’re in traffic, you break your cup or whatever, you know? You get fired. ‘C’est la vie.’ ‘Shikata ga nai.’ Really, it’s about acceptance, because that’s kind of a superpower. ‘Shikata ga nai’—it’s a nice tool.”
“Ami” “There was a book that I read when I was nine about this kid who gets abducted by aliens. Actually, I never even read the book. I was just told that the person wrote it, and the kid’s saying, ‘I know no one’s going to ever believe me, but it’s really what happened.’ And the name of the alien kid is Ami. And I remember thinking, that's such a nice name. If I ever have a kid, I think I want to call my kid that. So here, I’m talking to this imaginary child, giving advice, so I wanted to name the song after this imaginary kid. I also always liked that it’s short for amiga, amigo. And for one of the primordial Buddhas, Amitabha.”
“Memorial” “It was a real memorial for a friend who was a wonderful, beloved musician. He had a band called Kind Hearts and Coronets, and he had so many friends that loved him and that were also musicians that we thought, ‘Let’s have this event where people play his songs, where his band plays.’ I have a song called ‘Middle Names’ that I wrote about him while he was alive and struggling. It was about imagining myself not as his widow, but as his estranged wife waiting for him to come home. About imagining being with someone who will go on these benders where he just disappears. And how much trust it would require, how much strength it would require. So I’m at this friend’s memorial, singing a song about being scared that he’s going to die, and it just hits me. I’m crying. It’s embarrassing. I barely finish the song and stumble off. And then someone gets onstage and goes like, ‘Oh, would you make me the happiest person in the world and marry me?’ So: Really, really surreal, really hilarious, and actually a very beautiful moment. But the song is about that.”
“Carolina” “The song is obviously a love letter to [Brazilian president Jair] Bolsonaro. Please know that I’m kidding. It’s a song for the song ‘Carolina’ by Chico Buarque. It’s a staple of Brazilian popular music at this point because so many people have covered it. So really, it’s a song I utilize to express gratitude to all Brazilian music, a song saying, ‘I want to listen to that song.’ It’s also a song that admits that I don’t really speak Portuguese. The last line is ‘I should learn Portuguese.’ Maybe someday.”
“Now All Gone” “This song makes me feel like I’m playing tennis with a piece of lead. But then suddenly when those cellos come in, they take me to this weird Game of Thrones-y place that I like, but is also is a little weird to me. Actually, forget everything I just said. I’m very grateful to have had Cate Le Bon sing on this record. This song also features the debut of a three-year-old child named Osian, who happens to be the child of Noah Georgeson, who produced this record. At the end of this song—that’s Osian on synthesizer.”
“Love Song” “It’s supposed to have that young love, sunshine feeling. It’s sad conceptually, because it’s based on imagining what it would be like to put my own child up for adoption because I just didn’t have the means to raise them and how painful it would be to have to do that. That I wasn’t there to actually have experienced life with them. So ‘Love Song’ is imagining that this child that you put up for adoption is falling in love. It’s a fantasy song. That’s why it has this AM Gold feel where everybody’s super happy. Like, ‘You and me, baby. That’s all we need.’”
“Abre Los Manos” “This is a song about Venezuela. It’s a song where I mispronounce two words in Spanish and I’m very embarrassed about that. It’s just going to forever be a source of embarrassment for me, because my cousin, when he heard it on the radio, texted me the two words that I mispronounced. Anyway. It’s about my experience physically in Venezuela only two years ago, where things were so bad and I didn't think they could get much worse, and they got a billion times worse. The only comparison I can make is to Tibet, where people were just completely eradicated. The entire culture was decimated. The government is doing a terrible job at being a dictatorship because it’s not fighting the rest of the world, it’s fighting its own people and everybody has to leave. And so there’s an incredible exodus of people trying to escape to Colombia and the rest of the world with whatever they can carry.”
“Taking a Page” “Here’s the song where I get to say something I never thought I would. It’s a song where I get to really let my ego soar to not just heaven but the heaven above heaven. It’s the song where I get to say, ‘Carole King heard it and didn't mind it.' That’s it. I’m just saying. I was over the fucking moon.”
“October 12” “We put a mic over a cliff in Northern California to capture the ocean. It’s on every track; this is the only track where it’s slightly audible. Anyway, [‘October 12’] is a friend’s experience of having lost a friend. They didn’t have a car, and their friend was dying of cancer. I lived next to them, so I would drive them to the hospital and then pick them up later, and they would tell me what it was like. And the person with cancer was very young, a 26-year-old man. A boy, really. And they died on that day.”
“My Boyfriend’s in the Band” “I think this song could be played in a late-’70s Saturday Night Live environment, which would make me very happy. This song is in English and this song is in Spanish. Little-known fact. I really am proud of it, and it’s an incredibly fun song to play live. We don’t have to get into the lyrics, but two clues are one—big surprise—a little about the situation in the apocalyptic country that is Venezuela at the moment. And reincarnation, too.”
“The Lost Coast” “It’s a song about feeling like you’ve found yourself in this strange liminal space between the end of the world and, I don’t know. Is it the beginning of another world? It’s unclear to me. It’s also about the helplessness of watching Venezuela suffer and not really being able to do anything substantial whatsoever. The whole world would like to help, but the government itself is not allowing that. People don’t have medicine. People don’t have food. People don’t have electricity. Specifically, it’s about seeing my brother, who’s there right now. I can’t get him food. I try. I send him some PowerBars and some books and some chocolate and some emergency packets, but it's a crapshoot if it'll actually get there. That’s 'The Lost Coast.' It’s an actual place in California, but it’s also this conceptual place.”
“Will I See You Tonight?” “Oh my god. All we have to say is that Vashti Bunyan is on that song. That’s a tremendous gift and an honor and a miracle. She’s someone who I love and a true friend of mine, but also whose music has been the most comforting and nurturing and loving expression of art that I’ve encountered. Someone whose music I still turn to and who, actually, I turn to as a person as well. I love Vashti. You should too.”
Is This Nice?
Now All Gone
Abre Las Manos
Taking a Page
My Boyfriend's in the Band
The Lost Coast
Will I See You Tonight?
13 SONGS, 46 MINUTES
SEPTEMBER 13, 2019
℗ 2019 NONESUCH RECORDS INC. FOR THE UNITED STATES AND WEA INTERNATIONAL INC. FOR THE WORLD OUTSIDE THE UNITED STATES