Devendra Banhart Finds Major-Label Freedom In 'What Will Be'

Lauren Dukoff
Devendra Banhart

"I can see my songs in a movie," Devendra Banhart says, "as long as it's a movie no one will watch." The singer/songwriter, who says his eclectic, world-influenced folk rock is usually considered more "exotic, esoteric or idiosyncratic" than commercially focused, will release his major-label debut, "What Will We Be," Oct. 27 on Warner Bros. Records.

After releasing five studio albums and several EPs on independent labels, Banhart says the transition to a major occurred for almost counterintuitive reasons. "They were the only ones who offered to let me do what I want," he says, adding that "What Will We Be" was nearly completed before it was shopped, and it was important to sign with a label that wouldn't make changes to the music. "You think an indie, yeah, they just let you do anything and you're in control, that's the heart of it, that's the point," says Banhart, who released previous albums on Young Gods and XL Recordings. "But I think with the birth of a new business model in the music industry, it's led the majors to actually be kind of humbled, so I was shocked they were treating me like the indies when I was meeting with them and the indies were talking to me like a major."

Warner Bros. executive VP of marketing Diarmuid Quinn says that signing Banhart was as much about "having him in the family because of his sensibilities" as the specific material he brought to the table. "There are some artists who are more commerce-driven than others, who have more mainstream success, and then there are some artists who are just brilliant who we need to have here to keep a certain artistic sentiment thriving, and Devendra fits that perfectly," Quinn says. "He's a true artist, his music is genius, his visual art is incredible."

Visuals were a key issue for Banhart in his deal with Warner. A visual artist as well as a musician, he designs all of his own album artwork and insisted on the right to approve all images associated with the release. "It's funny, because on the smaller labels, so much media would leak out that I had no control of and didn't approve," he says.

Banhart's manager Elliott Roberts was instrumental in the pairing, as he also manages Neil Young, a longtime Warner artist. "He's like an interpreter who speaks the label's language very well, and that's a helpful thing because it's a language I just don't understand," Banhart says.

While the marketing plan will focus on the album as a whole, the radio campaign will focus on the lead track, "Baby," a breezy love song that, according to Quinn, "everybody felt was a pretty accessible step for him, while maintaining what he does so well and his identity." The song will go to triple A, noncommercial and college radio stations Oct. 13; a video for it will follow the album release. Touring plans include major-market dates in November, as well as a European press tour in December, due to "fantastic international feedback to the music," Quinn says.

As for Banhart, it's clear that marketing isn't his primary concern. "Whether I'm on a major or an indie, I don't think this is important, but at the same time I do," he says. "I thought that the minute I was on a major's roster, I got a key to everyone's house and we all had dinner once a kind of wasn't so true and it was disappointing, but I still believe there's a connection to those people and you feel like a part of something."