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Devendra Banhart can remember the exact moment he decided to become a songwriter. He was around 9 years old, and he performed an original song for his whole family. The tune, he says, was called "We're All Gonna Die."
"Their reaction was, 'Never do that again,' " Banhart says. "They were horrified."
Banhart says he'd grown up feeling like an outsider in his family — which made his debut performance an oddly validating experience. "They kind of paid attention at that moment, and that felt good," he says. "After I sang them that song, I felt like, 'Okay, I want to really do this. I want to write songs.'"
Banhart's songwriting on his latest album, Ape in Pink Marble, creates characters with distinct personalities and motivations. The song "Fig in Leather" tells the story of an older person who tries to impress a younger love interest with obsolete technology. "Linda" profiles a withdrawn spinster. "Fancy Man" centers on a character who's incredibly privileged and self-involved. Banhart describes the album as "gentler" than his previous work, and he says it reflects a change in his attitude toward music.
"I'm not trying so hard to prove that I know about music and different genres,'" he says. "And I don't think it's because I've proved it, either. It's because I just have given up. I don't care about trying to show off, and I don't care about presuming that there's such a thing as knowing a lot about music. It's unbelievable how much more there is to explore and discover, and that's still very fun."
Ape in Pink Marble is out now. Hear more of Banhart's conversation with weekends on All Things Considered at the audio link.