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Unwashed phenomenon

Devendra Banhart eschews the spotlight as he brings new meaning to New Age

By James Reed
Globe Staff / November 20, 2009

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Early on in the new film “The Family Jams,’’ the camera zooms in on Devendra Banhart’s face, a thick tangle of dark hair, darker eyes, and a beard straight out of the Book of Exodus. The interviewer wants to know what kind of music Banhart makes, trotting out the tired labels that Banhart and his kindred spirits would never use to describe their art.

Banhart bristles. He’s heard these tags before - freak folk, New Weird America - but he decides his music should be called New Age. Not in the Yanni sense, but rather some astral approximation of pastoral folk, psychedelic ’60s pop, a splash of old-school soul, and Latin American singers he idolized growing up in Venezuela.

That, in one long string of genres, is about as good a place as any to start with Banhart, who plays at Berklee Performance Center tonight with a full band he’s recently christened the Grogs. Banhart, 28, has been an elusive figure who has bewitched audiences and critics since he surfaced in 2002 as an unwashed phenomenon, to lift a line from Joan Baez. Scruffy and shamanistic, he looked as cosmic as his music sounded, singing in a tremulous voice you’d typically hear on scratchy vinyl.

“The Family Jams,’’ which is more of a video tour diary than a documentary, captured Banhart on the road with fellow freak-folk, er, New Age artists Joanna Newsom and Vetiver in 2004. It’s an endearing snapshot of a burgeoning movement that Banhart, reluctantly, came to embody as its central figure. He shrugs off the suggestion that he’s ever been in the spotlight, though.

“It’s about us; it’s not about me,’’ he says recently while running errands in Los Angeles, where he lives. “My band is made up of my favorite songwriters. I’d much rather listen to Little Joy or Joanna Newsom or Vetiver or Jana Hunter or the Espers or the Fleet Foxes - any of those people - than make my own music.’’

It’s tricky, this dichotomy between shunning the spotlight and landing squarely in it. He seems like a private figure in conversation, but he doesn’t appear that way in paparazzi shots of him with his onetime girlfriend, the actress Natalie Portman, who appeared in the video for his song “Carmencita.’’ And, of course, there were rumors of a brief relationship with Lindsay Lohan.

That’s scuttlebutt, and Banhart prefers to keep the focus on other facets of his magnetic personality, like the unsung artists he’s made a point of championing, including ’60s folkies Karen Dalton, Vashti Bunyan, and Linda Perhacs. (One of the sweetest moments in “The Family Jams’’ shows Banhart meeting Perhacs for the first time at one of his shows. He’s effusive in his praise of her music but then seems genuinely mortified to realize he’s not wearing a shirt.)

Witnessing the early adulation for Banhart in “The Family Jams’’ is a remarkable reminder of how quickly he ascended after Michael Gira signed him to his Young God Records and released Banhart’s debut, “Oh Me Oh My,’’ in 2002. Banhart switched to a larger label, XL Recordings, for 2005’s “Cripple Creek.’’

For all his indie cred, Banhart is touring behind “What Will We Be’’ on Warner Bros. Veering from fingerpicked folk to breezy bossa novas to dusky jazz, the album marks his debut for a major label, though he doesn’t seem to think there’s anything extra special about that. As always, he made a record that felt true to his vision at the time, regardless of who was going to distribute it or how much of a corporate machine would be behind it. If “What Will We Be’’ marks any noticeable change, it’s a focus that Banhart felt was missing on its predecessor, “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon.’’

“There is a difference with this one, and it’s called tuning my guitars, practicing, and warming up my voice,’’ he says. “One thing I’ve stayed committed to from the beginning is trying to be inclusive in everything we do, particularly making a record.’’

Given his refusal to fit neatly into categories, Banhart realizes it’s easy for him to elicit strong reactions - not to just his music but his personality.

“I’ve been beating myself up for a lot longer than other people started to,’’ Banhart says, laughing. “I used to read reviews of my records, but then I stopped when it started to become more about this presupposed caricature of who somebody thinks I might be. Of course, what can I say - ‘Please judge me, but give me the chance to be judged’? But that’s how I feel: Please judge me, but please give me the chance to be judged.’’

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

DEVENDRA BANHART

At Berklee Performance Center tonight at 7:30. Tickets are $25 at www.ticketmaster .com or 800-745-3000.

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