Last spring, Devendra Banhart and Noah Georgeson started to make a record that was like nothing they had made before — an ambient album that would be both a haven from a suddenly terrified world and a heartfelt musical dialogue between two men who have been friends and collaborators for over two decades. Refuge is an album of profound meditative beauty which offers the listener a much-needed sense of peace and renewal. But while it was recorded in 2020 its roots go back much further — all the way to the start of their friendship and, beyond that, to the shared sounds and ethics of their childhoods.
“When the pandemic began, we realised we needed to make this record,” Devendra says. “But we’ve been talking about it for so long. It’s kind of been 20 years in the making.”
Devendra and Noah met on the night of Halloween, 1999. Noah lived on Castro Street, the epicentre of San Francisco’s Halloween celebrations, so their first encounter was in costume. “He was wearing a skirt and I was dressed as Bjorn Borg,” Noah remembers. “I wasn’t sure if this was Halloween or just him and it was the same for me. His first impression was that I was a French drug dealer.” Having established that he was not, in fact, a French drug dealer, they became fast friends. Noah, whose production and mixing credits include Joanna Newsom and the Strokes, came on board as co-producer of Devendra’s 2005 album Cripple Crow and they have been working together ever since.
Devendra grew up in Venezuela while Noah, six years older, is a native of Nevada City, California. But as they got to know each other, they realised that they had a similar history in the New Age subculture of the 1980s: a world of meditation, Eastern music, the Bhagavad Gita and The Whole Earth Catalog. Childhood memories were coloured by the aromas of health food stores and the sound of New Age labels like Windham Hill Records.
“We recognised that in each other,” Devendra says. “Our whole childhoods were spent in health food stores. I have visceral memories of a Windham Hill album playing, the old worn-in wood, the Birkenstocks — all the hippie accoutrements. We wanted to make an album that evoked that nostalgic feeling.”
Twenty years ago, though, this music was deeply unfashionable. “It wasn’t cool for a long time,” Noah says. “I went to grad school for music composition. Coming from an academically rigorous world, I rejected this kind of music because it’s simple, gestural music. It took me a while to come to a place where I was OK with that. It was not our intention to mimic these records but that New Age world is part of the musical foundation.” He also cites the influence of the maverick composers Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and Pauline Oliveros, whose practice of “Deep Listening” was very influential for this record. Oliveros has described “Deep Listening” as “an aesthetic based upon principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation,” and came up with the term after she recorded a piece in a cistern. Refuge’s track “In A Cistern” is a direct nod to this.
It was while making Devendra’s 2019 album Ma that the pair finally decided to make their ambient record. At one point there was a rather expensive plan to travel around capturing “natural sounds of the dying world,” but the global lockdown in March 2020 demanded a radical change of strategy. Even though they only live a short drive away from each other in Los Angeles, they were unable to meet, so Devendra and Noah had to record their tracks separately and weave them together remotely. “It feels like the most intimate thing we’ve done but it’s the first time we haven’t been in the same studio,” Devendra says. “This would be the only record we could possibly make like this.”
Despite complicating logistics, 2020 created an emotional craving for music with this contemplative, therapeutic quality. “It’s been such an uncertain, frightening time,” Devendra says. “I was turning more than ever to ambient music, particularly Harold Budd. I met Harold a few years ago and we got to play together. In many ways I made this to share with my favourite ambient composer but unfortunately he passed away from Covid last year. That was heartbreaking.”
“For us, it’s not specifically about the last year but it necessarily became about that in a way because of how we had to make it,” Noah says, “and it’s probably going to resonate that way.”
The two men approach a similar mood from very different compositional angles, ranging from weightless synth drones to luminous lattices of woodwind and strings. “Noah’s are more composed,” Devendra says. “Mine are a bit more ethereal. The ambient music I’m interested in is quite utilitarian. It’s kind of like incense: it heightens the mood and the environment. The interplay between my ethereal songs and his very definite, clearly constructed songs is complementary.”
As the tracks took shape, the duo asked musicians in their circle to record parts remotely: Mary Lattimore on harp, Nicole Lawrence on pedal steel, Tyler Cash on piano, Todd Dahlhoff on bass, Vetiver’s Jeremy Harris on synthesizer and additional production, and David Ralicke on brass and woodwind.
Devendra, who has been studying Vajrayana Buddhism for the last decade, also invited contributions from spiritual teachers. “I probably wouldn’t be able to navigate the world if it wasn’t for spiritual practice,” he says. “Buddhism is about cultivating compassion, for myself and for others.”
Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg (“she’s one of the people who introduced the word mindfulness to the west”) adds a little guided meditation to “Sky Burial”, Venezuelan guru Sri Mataji Shaktiananda appears on “A Cat”, and Devendra’s own Bhutanese teacher Neten Chokling Rinpoche recites a mantra at the end of “Asura Cave”, which features field recordings of Buddhist ceremonies Devendra gathered in Nepal. “’Asura Cave’ is supposed to feel like travelling from monastery to monastery,” Devendra says. “How do you create the feeling of travel when everyone’s stuck at home?”
There are stories tucked inside Noah’s tracks, too. The exquisite final track “Aran in Repose” is an ode to his wife Erin, while the minimalist opener “Book of Bringhi” was inspired by a surprising discovery in one of his parents’ spiritual books. “Bringhi is an insect that takes on the likeness of the insect that consumes it, which I thought was such a wild, beautiful, and interesting concept,” he explains.
Inspired by both memories of the past and the needs of the present, Refuge is an act of companionship and generosity which gives the listener room to breathe. “We’re hoping to create a sense of comfort and coming back to the moment,” Devendra says. “It’s really important to have a little bit of space between us and our anxieties and impulses. What you do with that space is up to you.”