It’s hard to describe the music of singer-songwriter Bhi Bhiman, but a few words come to mind – soaring, haunting, folksy and clever. Others have described him as “a feast” and as “first-rate, folk-based and undeniably unique.” This is because his music, like Bhiman himself, defies labels and breaks down preconceptions of what we consider “all-American music.”
His second album, Bhiman, has been earning some choice reviews since its 2012 release, and now he’s gearing up for a dream gig – special guest of Chris Cornell on his upcoming acoustic tour. International Examiner (IE) recently had the opportunity to discuss with Bhiman some of the biggest influences on his life and music, from Sri Lanka to St. Louis to Seattle’s Soundgarden.
IE: You’ve said that Soundgarden had a huge influence on you. What does it mean to be touring with Chris Cornell?
It’s amazing. It’s definitely one of the highlights of my career. I can’t say that it’s a dream come true because I never even dreamt it was a possibility. Recently, I did a TV show in England called “Later … with Jools Holland” on the BBC. Soundgarden was on, too, and I had a fleeting moment with Chris Cornell. I got to say, “Hey, you were a big influence on me. My formative years were spent playing Soundgarden music. If not for that, I would’ve given up playing.”
IE: How did growing up in St. Louis influence your style and sensibilities?
There was a lot of classic rock on the radio – Chuck Berry’s from St. Louis and he’s always been an idol of mine. I was isolated in St. Louis, though, which was a few years behind the west coast culture-wise. Some of the stuff happening out here didn’t make it there till years later. That’s probably less true today, thanks to the Internet. But I pride myself in having a Midwestern sensibility.
In terms of my personality, I was influenced by the fact that I was one of the only South Asian kids. It’s like how on “The Mindy Project,” Mindy talks about growing up wanting to have white skin and light hair. If she could blend in and not be different, it would make everything easier. That’s how it felt growing up. Now I don’t feel that way at all, and where I grew up has exploded in terms of diversity, but that influences my lyrics.
IE: The media primarily identify you as a Sri Lankan-American artist. Does that label bother you?
That’s not my favorite thing, but I get it. It kind of comes with the territory. My only problem is that people sometimes think I was actually born in Sri Lanka. It’s double-edged, I guess. On the one hand, any press is good press. But I also think curiosity is tied to paranoia. When people look at me and see me seeing what I’m singing, it still seems strange to them.
Being branded that way does bring interest towards me that others don’t get, though, so hopefully in the end it’ll be a benefit. Ultimately, it’s not that big a deal. But it would be great if they could just call me an American songwriter.
IE: You’ve been compared to some notable American songwriters, including Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. What are your thoughts on that?
I’m pretty modest, but I’ll take those comparisons any day. Woody Guthrie is a big influence, actually. But most of my lyrical influences are comedians like Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. They have a good sense of timing, and they fit my personality well, more so than Bob Dylan. I like to think I’m funnier than Dylan, although he’s very beautiful and poetic. I actually wanted to be a comedian when I grew up.
IE: What would the 7-year-old version of yourself think about your career?
I started playing the guitar at 7. At first, I took a couple lessons but didn’t really get into it. But then I saw the Chuck Berry-style guitar in “Back to the Future” and heard the guitars in Michael Jackson’s songs. It began a long, tedious journey to where I am now in terms of talent. I didn’t start singing till I was 18 or 19. I thought I was really bad, and I probably was at the time. Really, just sticking to it has been 90 percent of the journey.
So yeah, little Bhi would be blown away by my career. I was just thinking about what little Bhi, listening to Soundgarden and annoying the hell out of his parents, would think about me going out on tour with Chris Cornell. It’s unreal.
IE: I couldn’t resist asking you this: Are your parents supportive of your career?
You know, when I met Kim Thayil [the Indian-American guitar player] from Soundgarden, I asked him whether his parents were supportive of his career.
My parents paid for my guitar lessons and were supportive of music as something that rounded out my personality. It’s similar to parents signing their kids up for violin lessons.
You don’t actually want them to be violin players. You assume they’ll go on to become doctors or lawyers. Coming from Sri Lanka, my parents would ask me what happened to the other two points if I got a “98” on a test. My parents weren’t unsupportive, but they questioned me quite a bit — as they should have.
More recently, my parents have been pretty damn supportive. With the good press, it makes more sense to them. And it’s fair. If my kids want to be singer-songwriters, I’ll make them think long and hard about it, too. It’s not an easy path. But I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think I had a chance to be one of the best.
Bhi Bhiman kicks off his two-month tour with Chris Cornell on October 15th in San
Diego. They’ll be performing in Seattle on Sunday, October 20th at Benaroya Hall. For more information or to buy tickets, visit http://www.bhibhiman.com/tour/.