The first words to pour from Devendra Banhart's mouth when asked about his return to music with eighth album Mala, after a four year hiatus is something of a surprise. "I could be in flip flops and a tank top and be warmed by your shirt - it's so comforting to look at," Banhart muses, sitting cross-legged in a quiet room at his label's London office. Devendra Banhart, it seems doesn't like to talk about Devendra Banhart. However, touch a chord with any one of his multitude of interests and his impassioned, dulcet tones imply he could speak, and convincingly so, forever.

Over the past decade, Banhart has been welcomed, celebrated and canonised in the American folk scene, though Mala would suggest that the artist has long since ditched the tired 'hippy' or 'freak folk' labels he is notoriously defined by. Recorded on a series of vintage hip-hop equipment, the record is expertly punctuated with 80s synths, tongue in cheek alliterations typified in the track 'Your Petting Duck' and the soft flutters of flamenco guitar. Lyrics are deft with bathos set to a poetic rhythm and metre. Mala is a brief encounter of fleeting sounds, suggesting just enough atmosphere so that the mind can fill in the rest. Much like his approach to visual art, Mala proves to be a quiet celebration of Banhart's ability to distill ideas, creating a minimal yet triumphant sound.

The 405 caught up with the charming polymath to discuss the New York contemporary art scene, the transcendental awakenings to be found in the music of Arthur Russell, with the subversive San Francisco drag culture thrown in to the mix.

Your visual art and music live parallel and, to me, one doesn't seem to take precedent over the other. Do you see yourself as a musician, first and foremost?

I've had an art career as long as I've had a music one. As a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, we were these young kids in a scene made of world-renowned artists like Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, Jo Jackson and Christopher Garrett. When I have an art show, people will come up to me to ask if I make music. And when I play a show I have people ask me if I still do art. I've been lucky that I have a parallel career where I get to be in worlds that are very important to me. I don't consider myself to be a musician who makes art or a visual artist who makes music.

Did moving to New York enhance or change the way you approach your work in any way?

Well I've never had a drawing studio. All my work has been small for that reason. But finally, I have a studio. A space dedicated to just drawing. It's also a product of ageing and changing. My work, musically is really my writing. For me the words are the most important thing. For a long time it was all about what the thing looked like. Now with the poetry I like and what I'm interested in, writing is not about what it looks like but what it is. I want to simply point out what it is. It's the same thing with my art: I used to like to draw what cannot be seen but now I like to create what is there.

You seem to have applied that method to the production of Mala. It is a stripped back sound and a distillation of ideas. Was that a comfortable experience for you – to create something minimal and quiet, even?

Oh no, it's never comfortable. Fun and comfort elude me. I'm unhappy enough to want to continue. I'm unsatisfied and disappointed enough to want to continue.

Is that what sustains you - the fear of disappointment?

No, it's the carrot on the stick. I've got to keep that carrot dangling in front of me. The consistent missing the fucking mark. But that's not what sustains me; I really enjoy making music. I don't know if I enjoy the music I make but I really enjoy making it. I'd much rather listen to music than make music, but it's the same thing with art. It's important for me to go to a museum at least once a week and a gallery as often as possible. New York is amazing in the sense that you're not driving anywhere. Within the distance from my house to my studio there are 18 galleries, including the New Museum.

Can you talk me through what you see on your walk from your apartment to your studio.

My studio is in the Lower East Side and I live right by George Washington Square Park so in no time - POW, you're right there. That's what sustains me – to enjoy making things and enjoy what other people have made. Trying to make something I like will keep me doing this for the rest of my life because I fall so far from that mark.

Fab Moretti and Adam Green have been dedicating a lot of time to creating visual art. They are friends and all our studios are near one another.

Are you still collaborating with Greg Rogove in your side project, Megapuss?

Greg has been playing with Unknown Mortal Orchestra and they're doing really well so that takes time. He's also a composer and reading and writing music. Now and then we'll have these ideas and save them. The virtue of a side project is that there is no pressure.

Do you feel you often set out to create one type of record but end up with a very different product? Is there a part of you that encourages creative obstacles on purpose?

I'm writing these pop songs but my favourite music is nothing like that. My first record is just acoustic guitar recorded in a slow four track, yet I'm trying to make a Faust album. You see the inherent problems and frustrations that will arise from that? On this record I'm trying to make a Harold Budd album or Akira Kosemura. This is solo piano music. So there's frustration of guitars, synthesizers, lyrics, bass – all this shit when I just want to make a piano record. The frustration is so profound.

Why add all of that extra distraction instead of producing the album you really want?

Maybe I'm trying to never be satisfied, to reach that place.

I know you are a big Arthur Russell fan. How did his approach to music inspire you in your own work?

He is the best. I've never heard music that is so perfect. It's so timeless and well educated and sensitive. It's so clean. It is difficult to talk about your heroes. Another Thought - the album that Phillip Glass put out and World of Echo were the first things I heard and the records that changed my life. I thought "that's what Arthur Russell does" which is incredibly close-minded of me and I'm embarrassed to say that. It wasn't until years later and I heard the song 'Losing My Taste For The Nightlife', which deepened my love for him. And Tim Lawrence's book Hold Onto Your Dreams is a wonderful place to start and realise that so many roads lead to Arthur. He saw that disco and pop can be art. He booked Jonathan Richards and the Modern Lovers in the avant-garde music space, The Kitchen.

This is somebody who is forward thinking and revolutionary in thinking there is art to this. I think as we grow older the definition of the word punk expands, so too does the definition of art. Anyway, Arthur is someone who could identify art in things that other people didn't. His writing is perfect, his lyrics transcendental. His song 'Love Comes Back' is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. I heard someone describe it as very 'Jealous Guy' – an achingly beautiful ballad.

What other artists are you listening to at the moment?

Helado Negro – he's from Brooklyn and his new album is really special. I love Bat for Lashes' latest album. I've been listening to Harold Budd, Francis Bebey, The Growlers new album and Adam Green and Binky Shiparo's new album. Nils Framn also has an amazing album called Felt. Jeez – always listening to Antony (and the Johnsons) and Ryuichi Sakamoto. I played in Japan recently and these kids gave me a bunch of their demos and they are so good. One was in a band called Happy, another one called Flower and they are so fucking amazing. It's really cool stuff.

You have quite a good ear for electronic music. Would you like to work for The 405?

I would love to – when can I start?

Right after you tell me about your feelings on being championed as some kind of 'Folk Hero', though your sound and style seem to have evolved considerably. Do you get annoyed with that kind of genre labelling?

No, I don't feel like I've made a conscious decision to change something other than things change. I did have some kind of plan at 30 to look 30. My goal has always been to look like Samuel Beckett and it's difficult but I'm trying. My skin will still look good for a while. At 30 I was going to cut my hair but couldn't wait so I cut it at 28. The caricature of me, I absolutely helped in that being created because I really couldn't give a shit. I care about the music and the art I make. The character and what I wear I don't really care. That doesn't mean fashion doesn't matter to me. I have favourite designers.

You seem to like Margaret Howell judging from the outfit you're wearing today.

[Devendra jumps out of his seat] I do love her. These pants, they might be French – what does the label say?

Melinda Gloss.

Yes, I love Melinda Gloss. And Phillip Lim and Rodarte.

Whether the older Banhart persona was a caricature or not, it seemed like a fun time of experimentation and drag. Do you miss it?

I still think it's a lot of fun and I miss being in drag. It's a big part of me and my personality. I think I'm going to soon return to it and for me, what was interpreted as 'hippiness' I didn't feel I needed to argue about it. But my music isn't really folk music, I haven't played folk music for years. Any of the labels 'freak folk' or the 'hippy' thing – that isn't where this comes from. At eight years old I started singing. I tried on my mother's dress and that's how I could sing. I've been very comfortable in drag since that moment. Then when I am a teenager I hear The Cocquettes, the San Francisco group and most of them in drag doing these wild performances and that influenced me. I saw the documentary Paris is Burning – that influenced me. These are my people, that became my thing. It was a wild flamboyant drag thing that was very attractive to me – then, and to this day. I dress a little more reserved but I'm wearing a pink bandana now [fashioned as a scarf, knotted around his neck]. I've got a little bit of it still in me but I'm trying to act my age. I'm an old hag. It's hard to not have the word 'hippie' associated with you when you have long hair and an Eastern name you didn't choose.

Mala is out now on Nonesuch Records.