It might surprise anyone who's heard his booming tenor of a voice, but San Francisco singer-songwriter Bhi Bhiman didn't always want to be a musician. His first chosen profession? Comedian. Which goes some way toward explaining the sharp humor in his lyrics.
"I tried to do [comedy], but playing guitar on stage is a lot easier for me than having nothing up there," Bhi (pronounced "Bee") Bhiman tells us over coffee in SOMA's Brickhouse cafe. "People always notice my vocals first, but I think guitar might be my strength. It's something I could do in my sleep, so having that as the foundation and singing over it is a lot easier than comedy. I just knew I wanted to be funny in some way."
Despite the fact that there's a lot of serious social commentary on his latest album, Bhiman — stories from perspectives as diverse as a rail-riding hobo ("Guttersnipe"), a North Korean prisoner ("Kimchee Line"), and a cuckolded lover ("Crime of Passion") — Bhi's songs do indeed have a stream of sly and dry humor running through their lyrics. Sometimes, as on "Kimchee Line," it's all in the delivery. But the ode to white trash-dom "Ballerina" even goes so far as to parody Johnny Cash and June Carter's "Jackson," with the opening line: "We got married in a Wal-Mart/ Down by the Wrangler jeans."
Bhiman was released last month through Boocoo Records and includes a surprising and refreshing diversity of styles. The base is essentially folk — especially obvious on "Take What I'm Given" and the instrumental "Mexican Wine" — but country elements emerge on "Guttersnipe" and "Ballerina"; "Time Heals" has Caribbean undertones; and a soul vibe weaves throughout the entire record, thanks to Bhi's emotive delivery and powerful, deep voice.
It is an unusual mix for the Inner Sunset-based musician, but one that holds together seamlessly — probably thanks in part to Bhiman's worldly background. His parents are originally from Sri Lanka, and his mother has nine brothers and sisters who have spread out across the globe, offering Bhiman lots of opportunities to see the world from a young age.
"There's family all over," he explains, "Trinidad, Tobago, at one point Kenya, the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, Canada, America. We grew up in kind of a global household. I never really thought about it."
But the music Bhiman heard at home growing up was decidedly American. Raised on a diet of "talk radio and oldie stations," he had his first exposure to music from his father's love of Doris Day and Petula Clark, and slowly expanded to a passion for grunge once he reached his teens.
His experiments with music really commenced though, when Bhiman moved from his native St. Louis to Santa Cruz and started playing rhythm guitar for a rock 'n' roll band. "We'd play house parties and stuff like that," he laughs, flashing an infectious smile. "I wanted to be Malcolm Young from AC/DC, but then my friend encouraged me to sing for some reason."
Five years ago, Bhi took on a more focused singer-songwriter role and began to perform solo. Though, to hear him tell it, becoming the artist he is today was a bit of a happy accident. "I still don't totally know how I got to this sound, to be honest," he says. "I'm writing on kind of odd topics so sometimes it just feels like grabbing at things in the air."
And though Bhiman claims he doesn't know what he'd be doing today if he weren't making his music — "I'd be harvesting sea salt or something" — he is aware that his is an unusual career path for the son of traditional Sri Lankan parents. "My family is supportive — confused and worried, but supportive," he smiles. "[Music] is not a chosen South Asian profession. My mom is an E.R. pediatrician and all about education. Being a singer-songwriter doesn't really fall into that."
It could be argued, however, that Bhiman's music does provide a public service, speaking up for the forgotten corners of communities everywhere — the lower classes, the lost and the forgotten. His first-person tales are written about friends, acquaintances, and people he reads about in his daily newspaper. But they ultimately offer important social commentary, humanizing, as they do, characters most people would rather never speak to in their own lives — prisoners, killers, homeless travelers, and many more. And while he doesn't describe himself as a political person, Bhiman will admit that his music deals with the struggles of the real world.
"My lyrics are literally political, yes," he nods. "More than anything, I just talk about social things, as a storyteller. I'm pretty jaded on politics and I'm not one of those people that's just opposed to everything and jumping on causes, but I do like to talk about social issues.
"It's important to talk about that stuff," Bhiman concludes, now sounding serious. "And not enough people do."