Strip away flashy production tricks and distracting stylistic flourishes and great music is a great melody and, if there are vocals, a distinct and powerful voice. You don't necessarily need cocksure rock and roll swagger to hit people right in their souls. And with a guitar, a pianist, and a dude rocking the cajon, Bhi Bhiman bowled us over with everything Americana folk-rock can be but with a perspective we rarely see in the genre.
The Missouri native stopped by our offices for a session recently, bringing three songs from his recently released album Rhythm and Reason and humorous yet poignant insight into his craft. For instance, did you know Death (personified...the guy with the scythe) is horribly misunderstood? He's just doing his job..."hauling in the bodies, harvesting the grief". But he needs a friend too. Everybody needs a friend. Bhi also talks about how larger social issues play into his music. "I want to write about a social issue sometimes...but I don't want to ram my idea down people's throats", Bhiman explains. "I try to entertain first and foremost. If they learn something, great. But really, it just has to be entertaining." It totally is. Give our newest session a spin and find out for yourself.
It is your time to go down, and I hope you have found all the things that you need. They call me death as in die Honey, that ain't no lie Got to harvest the grief. Just take my cold bony hand, and let's see where you land, but it's not up to me Lived a linear path, and you've avoided my wrath, but now it's time Let's go see I've widowed billions of grooms Some go from womb to the tomb I've got to harvest the grief. Have you sat down with your god, takin' a walk in the clouds, now that your interest has piqued? But I'm just an average guy, my sickle just scrapin' by A player tryin' to get paid Yeah, people hate on my style No judge, no jury, no trial I'm the Crimea main, yeah He's a nice guy. No. I don't know. He's has no soul, I'm sure. He's filled with maggots, skeletons. Well, "Death Song" takes place in the first person of the character of Death, the Grim Reaper and sort of a lighthearted spin on his life or whatever the hell you might call whatever he's doing. Not his life, I guess. That wouldn't make any sense. But it's about him doing his job which is to, you know, haul in the bodies and, you know, harvest the grief, as I said in the song. But it's about him being misunderstood and him just trying to befriend somebody, befriend one of the people that he's taking down. Well, how I craft my songs are intentional. I want to write about an issue, a social issue sometimes. Not all the time but sometimes I want a social issue to come out but I don't want to ram my idea down people's throats. That's like a huge turnoff for me. I just don't like that, so I try to write a story where it's a first person's story or about a character who's in a situation where their life is affected by a social issue or politics. But it's really about that character within the context. And I try to entertain first and foremost. And if they learn something, great. But really it just has to be entertaining. I'm not a professor or a lecturer. I'm a musician/entertainer. This is a song called "Moving to Brussels. " It's a lead song off of my record, "Rhythm and Reason," and it's a song about immigration to me. It's about packing up and leaving, leaving everything behind. But I wrote it sort of as a love breakup song with the double meaning of it being an immigrant story. So a song called "Moving to Brussels. " I'm movin' to Brussels I'm movin' to Spain I'm movin' to Harlem It's all the same 'cause, baby, I love you, and I can't explain And maybe you love me but, baby, all that's changed And I'm packin' up and movin' out The keys are on the table, I decided I'm movin' to Brussels I'm movin' to Spain I'm movin' to Harlem It's all the same 'cause, baby, I love you, and I can't explain And maybe you love me but, baby, all that's changed And I'm packin' up and movin' out The keys are on the table I'm packin' up and movin' out The keys are on the table, I decided I'm movin' to Brussels Set sailin' for Spain I'm headed for Harlem It's all the same Bee-lining to Bali High-tailin' to Rali Hop over to Holland Anywhere that I wanna Move over to Oakland My future's wide open. See sister in Sydney, and you ain't coming with me I'm movin' to Brussels Set sailin' for Spain. I'm headed for Harlem It's all the same And I'm packin' up and movin' out The keys are on the table, I decided Packin' up and movin' on I bought a one-way ticket, you're not invited I never had a home in this world Since you pulled the rug out, now I'm able I'm packin' up and movin' on The keys are on the table Yeah. The new record is called "Rhythm and Reason," and it's personal to me. It has a lot to do with immigration and xenophobia and, you know, cultures clashing, something I grew up with a little bit. Nothing crazy but in this country and in Europe right now, it's just the topic at the forefront of everybody's minds is immigration. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and my parents are Sri Lankan immigrants of Tamil ethnicity. And I grew up pretty standard American growing up, upbringing, you might say, but always had a balance of the American life and then my parents' South Asian sort of culture at home. But there's a lot of hatred, I would say. There's a lot of fear and hatred of people, and I wanted to address that in my album a little bit because I have a perspective that is somewhat unique, you might say. And the next song I played was "Closer to Thee," and that's a song I wrote for my wife. It's about being far away on the road and, you know, the ups and downs of being a musician and how the good things can bring you together but the bad things, the worst things can also bring you possibly tighter together. Every triumph, every heartbreak brings me closer to thee. Every misstep and every conquest brings me closer to thee When it seems the distance gets farther and farther, I don't know if it's something my poor heart can take anymore. All the crying and all the laughter brings me closer to thee Every triumph and tribulation brings me closer to thee When it seems we reach out farther and farther, I don't know if it's something my poor heart can take anymore When it seems the distance gets farther and farther, Well, tonight you are near to my soul And if I hold my breath until the end, it would bring me closer to thee Yes, the rain came and the thunder, and I wonder where I'd be All the crying and all the laughter brings me closer to thee Every singer in the choir brings me closer to thee
Bhi Bhiman is an American original, and yet he seems transported from an era when songs were more important than the pretty faces that delivered them. His rich, bellowing tenor can soothe or explode at a moment's notice. His lived-in, knowing delivery belies his years. His songwriting, too, is quick to captivate. Bhi's mix of humor and deep empathy puts him in the company of distinguished (and much older) lifelong songsmiths like John Prine, Nick Lowe and Randy Newman. And Bhiman's technical, emotive guitar playing rises to the challenge that his striking voice presents.
It's fitting, then, that there truly isas far as anyone can tellonly one Bhi Bhiman. His parents, emigrants from Sri Lanka, named the songwriter after Bhima, a central character in an ancient Indian text called The Mahabharata. But Bhiman's own American experience was markedly less exotic than his name would implyhe came of age in the '90s in St. Louis, reared on Soundgarden and Nirvana, and later relocated to the Bay Area, where he lives today. Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder may have first inspired him to write songs, but Bhiman's approachcomical, curious, whip-smartremains wholly unique. As a songwriter, Bhi consistently exceeds the expectations that should rightly rest on the shoulders of a well-adjusted twenty-something: He can inhabit any number of disparate characters and make them his own.
On his forthcoming disc, BHIMAN, he sings from the perspective of a North Korean prisoner ("Kimchee Line"); a happy-go-lucky redneck ("Ballerina"); a railroad-riding hobo ("Guttersnipe"); a jealous lover ("Eye on You") and a hopeful retiree ("Take What I'm Given), among other characters. The wide stylistic range Bhiman coverswithout losing the cohesiveness of his soundis just as impressive: "Guttersnipe" is a sprawling, nearly seven-minute epic folk testimonial with a deep empathy for the downtrodden; "Mexican Wine" is an instrumental that sounds like Simon & Garfunkel jamming in West Africa; "Crime of Passion" is buoyant murder balladas unlikely as that seems. Through every deviation of style, Bhiman's love of wordplay and that jaw-dropping voice carry the listener through to a new track and a compelling new story.
Of course, it helps Bhiman's fine songs to have expert help in crafting his sound. While some of the more minimal tracks on BHIMAN were recorded by the artist on his laptop, the bulk of the disc was tracked at John Vanderslice's famed Tiny Telephone studios by engineer Jay Pellicci and produced by Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim), who also contributes instrumentation the album. Together, they have created a deep, layered record that is urgent enough to grab listeners at first listen and deep enough to keep them coming back to hear the subtle, soulful shifts in both instrumentation and that powerful human voice. BHIMAN is Bhi's first truly great album, but one gets the impression that he'll be singing his stories for a very long time to come.