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Photograph by Matthew Washburn
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We’re only six weeks into 2012, but already the new year has spawned a track that deserves to linger in the minds of folk-rock fans for a long time. It could land, perhaps, on various Top 10 lists come year’s end or, indeed, maybe even become a modern classic.
The song is “Guttersnipe” by San Francisco singer/songwriter Bhi Bhiman, who is a Kirkwood-born, Ballwin-reared son of Sri Lankan immigrants.
Built on a steady, loping rhythm, strummed acoustic guitar and a searching bass line, the song kicks into high gear as soon as Bhiman—he’s named for Bhima, a central character the Indian epic the Mahabharata—opens his mouth to sing. Critic Robert Christgau said on NPR that Bhiman’s soaring, blues-drenched vocal is that of “a more modest Nina Simone”—which is anything but modest praise.
The song’s details are grim. It’s about a “railroad urchin”—a hobo, essentially—riding the rails, stealing food to survive and “searching for peace of mind.” But there’s something in the relentless surge of the music and Bhiman’s wide-open vocal that lends the song a sense of wonder and wanderlust, and even hope. “I’m well on my way to feelin’ fine,” he sings, over chiming bells in the song’s chorus.
For “Guttersnipe,” “I had the lyrics for a long time, but was using different arrangements,” Bhiman says by phone from San Francisco. “I tried to record it several times, but was never quite satisfied with the music. But then I was listening to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ trying to get quote-unquote inspired. Something just clicked. I don’t know what happened. That’s usually a good thing, when you get what you need, but don’t know how. If you think too hard, you’re not open to various ideas.
“The lyrics are…I don’t know. I must have been watching a Ken Burns movie or something about the Depression. It seems right out of that. It’s definitely about the Depression era…hobos riding on trains. It just kind of evolved from there.”
The video adds another layer of meaning. It’s set along the Great Indian Railway and not in the Southwest U.S., where Bhiman originally envisioned the song. But as he was trying to fashion a do-it-yourself video, he ran across footage shot in India by travel blogger Nomadic Samuel and asked to use it. “He was very excited and cooperative and allowed me to use his footage,” Bhiman says. “It worked out really well.”
“You could put a lot of different kinds of videos to that song and make it work. But I wanted a little bit extra something to it. I was looking at this footage and I was like, the colors are really great, and it’s telling its own story.”
Growing up in West County, Bhiman had ambitions of becoming a musician, but didn’t necessarily see himself making the grade. “I never thought I could put out a record myself,” he says. I always felt like I was playing a game of catch-up in terms of being a musician. I felt like the people on the radio, they’re on there for a reason.”
Bhiman bided his time listening to classic rock, ‘50s and ‘60s pop, R&B, etc—he singles out oldies station KLOU as his favorite from that era—and practicing his guitar.
“I was definitely a shy kid,” he says. “Most of the stuff I did was in the privacy of my own room. Just trying to learn ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC, or something like that. And nobody discouraged me. If anything, my parents were very supportive. But they were also scratching their heads. They come from a culture where…if you’ve ever noticed, you tend to see a lot of South Asian doctors and lawyers and professionals like that. Being a musician or a singer/songwriter…it’s not on the Top 10 of South Asian parents’ wish list of what they want their kids to do.”
Bhiman attended John Burroughs School before lighting out for the Bay Area in 2000. “San Jose, California, was my dad’s first stop in the U.S. in 1969, and then two years later for my mom,” Bhiman says. “So we have tons of family friends out here.” Mostly, though, “It was the idea of just moving west.”
Bhiman took a day job while working on his music in his spare time. When he met his manager, Katie Ross, the pair put their heads together and decided how they would take things to the next level. That resulted in a 2007 album, The Cookbook, which Bhiman is proud of, but sees mostly as a learning experience.
“The songs are very strong, but it was a little bit of a learning curve in terms of production,” he says. “It was a little bit all over the place. I had too much instrumentation—too many drums and horns on a couple of songs. I should have done what I did for the current record, which was take a step back and try to simplify as much as I could. But I had a thousand thoughts in my head at the time and I was a few years younger, a few years less wise.”
“Bhiman,” he says, “is a very stripped-down album.”
In addition to “Guttersnipe,” the new album contains such gems as the kinetic “Time Heals,” which has a terrific video, too—a stop motion extravaganza concocted by Sam Kassirer (who produced the album) and Liam Hurley—and others, including “Crime of Passion” and “Ballerina,” which reflect Bhiman’s wry sense of humor.
“Some songs are just nonsense—just me having a good time,” he says.
In “Cookbook,” Bhiman shows off his socially conscious side, writing a first-person tale of a jailed financier who cleaned out his clients’ pensions but is something less than contrite. Even in a song so biting and topical, Bhiman can’t resist a little humor, quoting Goodfellas and rhyming “making a killing” with “ask [convicted Enron chief] Jeffrey Skilling.”
“There’s something in taking on the role of a bad guy and bringing people into what they’re seeing,” Bhiman says. “‘Cookbook,’ there’s a bit of a wink going on there. You don’t like that guy, but you’re also sitting down and listening to his story. I try to play with perspective a little bit on some of my songs.”
Bhiman may have moved from St. Louis to San Francisco, but he says he returns frequently, and will be playing his first gig at a “legit venue,” at the Old Rock House on March 21. (He’s opening for Rosie Thomas.) But one thing his living in the Bay Area can’t change is his intense devotion to the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I like to tell people out here, or wherever I go, that baseball in St. Louis is every bit as important as football is in Texas or hockey is in Canada.”
He’s distressed by Albert Pujols’ recent defection to the Angels, but says “I feel pretty good about our team right now.”
Bhiman went so far once as to write “Prince Albert,” a song about Pujols, based on a hot-jazz novelty song, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.” “I wanted to emulate that, but now that Pujols is gone, it doesn’t make any sense anymore,” he laments.
Still, Bhiman says at some point he wants to write a song about the entire team. “The trick is, naming names of players in a song…it only lasts until they get traded. I gotta keep it timeless, make it so I don’t have to do an edit. I’m gonna have to think about it.”