Hometown: San Francisco
For Fans of: Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Steve Winwood
“It’s very much about the characters,” reflects San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Bhi Bhiman. “It’s not about me being in love or falling out of love or getting broken up with necessarily. It’s about anybody—I’m trying to make my songs universal.”
That’s a strong claim, particularly for a songwriter with only one self-released album on his resume, but the songs on Bhiman’s latest full-length (simply titled, well, BHIMAN) are indeed universal in just about every way imaginable.
First, there’s the music: a spirited, multi-cultural stylistic stew blending soul, vintage country, West African folk and hippie-fied bluegrass. Though the songs bounce merrily from style to style and culture to culture—primary instruments are acoustic guitar, double-bass, and a cajon—a Peruvian, box-shaped percussion instrument—they do so organically—never in a self-conscious struggle to achieve “worldliness” or to create some kind of awkward cultural melting pot. Then there are lyrics: colorfully drawn narratives about optimistic train-bound hobos, blissfully ignorant rednecks, and jilted lovers—told with both sharp wit and heavy heart, realizing, “The reason why something is funny to people is because there’s some sort of tragedy behind it.” Then there’s Bhiman himself. Born to Sri Lankan immigrant parents, he eventually landed in St. Louis, where he immersed himself in a surprising culture—the ’90s grunge scene, developing his “heavy handed” guitar style through many years in various classic-rock-styled bands.
But in spite of his rich stylistic and cultural backgrounds, it’s interesting how little we can gather about Bhiman himself from his songs: None of those influences are at all present in his singing voice—an instrument so versatile, you never quite know what to expect as one song rolls into its neighbor. Critics, rightly, have no idea who to throw out as a comparison. Funnily enough, his most common reference point isn’t even a guy—it’s late jazz singer Nina Simone, who makes a certain degree of sense in light of Bhiman’s belty vibrato. On his emphatic lead single “Guttersnipe,” he sings with the husky power of Steve Winwood, laying down soulful runs thick as molasses over ringing acoustics and double-bass thump.
“I’m definitely trying to bring people in, not push them out,” Bhiman says, relaxing at his San Francisco home, taking care of some busywork in preparation of his new album, which is then less than a month from release. For a singer with such a sonically overwhelming tone, his speaking voice is shockingly shy, full of long pauses and soft inflections. He comes off as an everyday guy with everyday problems, so it’s almost strange to hear him talk about his “universal” songs, particularly the slow, sad-funny backwoods country tale “Kimchee Line.”
“Sometimes they have a global twist,” Bhiman reflects, “and that’s also part of trying to make it universal. ‘Kimchee Line’ is something where I’m taking a very specific story in North Korea, but I can also draw parallels to my parents’ homeland in Sri Lanka and various situations around the world where a family member is stuck on the wrong side of the fence and some of his other family is stuck on the other side of the fence.”
The track is a stand-out on BHIMAN, his first legitimately released album. The process all started in August of 2010, with Bhiman doing most of the major tracking in his bedroom, taking inspiration from Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, listening to the album over and over again and even placing his acoustic guitar in a similar tuning. Later, he voyaged to Maine’s Great North Sound Society studios (where The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter was recorded), working with producer Sam Kassirer. One track (the joyous, West African-influenced “Time Heals”) was recorded completely from the ground up, though many songs (including “Atlatl,” with its sugary harmonies and stinging lyrics) were left largely untouched from Bhiman’s initial demos.
The catchiest tracks here could potentially make a dent on national radio, but California audiences have been basking in the glow of Bhiman’s music since roughly 2004, when he officially decided to make a go of a solo career. He moved from St. Louis to San Francisco in 2000, quickly finding crucial experience playing electric guitar in a local band “that was kind of like Soundgarden.” But when it came to his own songs, Bhiman took his sweet time building confidence. “I feel like I’m just kind of an introvert. I’ve always played guitar in my room and always gotten joy from doing that. I’m pretty hard on myself and other musicians, as well, in terms of my judgment of them, and I didn’t feel like I was good enough, and maybe I was good enough, but I think it was good that I didn’t think I was good enough and that I had to work harder to reach an acceptable level to start getting out there in front of an audience. I feel sensitive to the audience, like a stand-up comedian. I know when I’m not doing well.”
When he did muster the confidence, he found that the San Francisco scene isn’t an easy one to crack: “I didn’t know what I was doing; I didn’t know how to break in. The only thing I knew about the music industry was the late ’60s, ’70s rock ’n’ roll movement and me playing coffee shops and one-off gigs here and there. And I didn’t really know how to broaden myself in a town like San Francisco. It seemingly has this reputation of fostering musicians, but [music promoter] Bill Graham has been dead for 20 years, and a lot stuff has changed. I think you can draw a straight line from his death and the state that San Francisco music is in right now. I go to New York, and there are a lot of club owners who are down with the musicians and willing to foster somebody’s career, give them a shot, an hour-long slot without being like, ‘How many heads can you draw? How much money am I going to make?’” But in spite of those adversities (and with the invaluable devotion of his manager, Katie Ross), Bhiman’s made it work: “Thankfully, I haven’t been doing badly for about five years now.”
Talk about an understatement—Bhiman’s been earning rave reviews from local publications for years, and with his album now freshly released, he’s finally earning the national recognition he deserves. If he’s ever been poised for a “break-out” moment, this would be it. And Bhiman knows it: “I feel like I’m poised to get the recognition at this point. I’m almost 30, 29 at this point—I’ve been doing it for a while. I started playing guitar when I was seven, started singing only like 10 years ago. Before that, and I’m still kind of a shy kind of guy. But I always felt like I had talent and drive to write music that would stick with people. I just want to write honest music that sticks with people longer than a year and not be a flavor of the month kind of thing. It was never really a planned thing. Before it was a career, I was just trying to make a good product that lasts.”