Chances are you’ve never heard this unique name before. Bhi Bhiman’s parents, emigrants from Sri Lanka, named the songwriter after Bhima, a central character in the ancient text, the Mahabharata.
Bhiman was born and raised in the U.S., but his voice, lyrics, and guitar playing belie many unique influences.
He was initially inspired by the likes of Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder to write songs, but Bhiman’s lyrics are his own mixture of humour and intellect, and have a depth to them that you wouldn’t expect of a twenty-something year old. He manages to bring to life people, places, and experiences that we may never know otherwise.
Check out our interview with this up and coming artist.
Bhi Bhiman: I was born and raised in St. Louis, MO but my parents are from Jaffna in North Ceylon. There is a small Sri Lankan Tamil community in St. Louis, but I didn’t really grow up within it. I had sort of a brown Norman Rockwell existence growing up in suburban St. Louis. There was lots of running around in creeks and forests and playing baseball.
TC: How did you start pursuing music?
BB: I first got interested in the guitar that my brother had when I was about seven. I remember being obsessed with Michael Jackson and Chuck Berry. I grew up playing very competitive baseball in St. Louis, and in the 8th grade I suffered a bad injury that kept me from playing for about a year. During that time I played a lot of guitar in my room and started to get pretty good. I didn’t really start singing until I was in college – which is also when I started writing songs.
TC: How did you break into the music industry?
BB: It takes a lot of work. Not only is there the musical aspect, but also the business side, which is just as important. I have an amazing manager who has had my back from day one, and has really kept my spirits up in my pursuit of “making it” in the music business. One thing I’ve learned is that you can be the most brilliant musician in the world, but if you don’t have anyone working the business side of things, its almost impossible to escape obscurity.
TC: How would you describe your music?
BB: I think my music has a few different elements. Folk, Soul, and Rock & Roll. I am influenced in different ways as a guitarist, singer and songwriter. For example, as a guitarist I love AC/DC, as a singer Frank Sinatra, and as a songwriter Smokey Robinson. I’m influenced by older American music of all kinds.
TC: To what extent, if at all, has your Tamil background inspired your music?
BB: In terms of style I definitely think I’m influenced by western music. A lot of that is folk music – songs about struggle. In terms of lyrical content, I feel my music is very strongly influenced by my background. I grew up with a more global understanding of the world than most in the U.S., and I think that comes through in my songs. My perspective is generally from the viewpoint of a marginalized individual or an underdog in an unforgiving world. But there is great strength and pride and purpose in my characters, which is strongly influenced by my Tamil parents and family.
TC: Were there any obstacles or challenges you had to overcome to enter the music industry? How did you overcome them?
BB: In some ways being different is a great thing but it’s definitely harder to get people to listen to you at first. My name is difficult to pronounce when read on paper, and people sometimes think that my name is a stage name, but it’s actually my legal given name. And South Asians are not typically found playing American music, so I’ve tried to counter that by forcing people to take notice of my music rather than judging by my appearance.
TC: What do you hope to achieve through your music?
BB: I want to create music that people enjoy and that I enjoy making. I like my songs to have some social meaning but the hook and feel are more important. I understand that some people in the West may think I need to be the social voice of an entire subcontinent, but I am happy to be simply known as a great artist.
TC: Who would you consider the most interesting person you’ve met or worked with?
BB:I’ve gotten to play with some really great artists. Charlie Hunter is one of the baddest guitarists on earth, and having the chance to play and tour with him was amazing. On a different level, when I was a kid I got the chance to meet Coretta Scott King. That definitely left a big impression on me even to this day.
TC: What advice would you offer to someone pursuing a career in the music industry, given how challenging it is?
BB: Only pursue it if you REALLY love it, or you think it’s the only thing you’re meant to do (or if you have a death wish). It is very difficult at times but having good people around you for support makes a huge difference.
TC: What can we look forward to from you in 2012?
BB: I have a new record coming out on January 24th, it’s called BHIMAN. It’s my first “real” record you could say. I recorded most of it in San Francisco at Tiny Telephone – a really great analog studio owned by another singer/songwriter, John Vanderslice. I finished the album in Maine at a 200 year-old farmhouse that’s been converted into a studio called the Great North Sound Society.
TC: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
TC: A favourite quote:
BB: “Well, Columbus wasn’t looking for America, my man, but that turned out to be pretty okay for everyone.” – Homer Simpson
TC: What artist from the past would you collaborate with, if you could?
BB: George Harrison
TC: If you hadn’t become a musician, what do you think you would be doing?
BB:Harvesting sea salt.
TC: In one word, finish this sentence: To me, Tamil culture is…..?
—Nive Thambithurai, Editor (Entertainment, Spotlight)