Bhi Bhiman doesn’t shy away from difficult topics in his music. And with his new album, he’s putting a twist on a familiar medium to encourage the discussions his subject matter deserves.
The singer-songwriter chose to release his latest body of work, Peace of Mind, not as a traditional album, but through a podcast of the same name on the Critical Frequency podcasting network. He’ll present the music through the nine episodes that dissect his musical choices while also walking through the album’s inspirations with a commendable roster of guests. Snippets and stems of the song will filter through conversations with author Dave Eggers; Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s voting project; commentator, author and producer Reza Aslan; and others as they unpack the political, cultural and sociological themes that shape Bhiman’s work.
The music itself is “Pink Floyd meets Curtis Mayfield” as Bhiman describes it, a heady breed of protest psych-rock that follows the DIY spirit of Tame Impala and the War on Drugs. “They’re a huge influence, not only in their music, but how they create and how they do it by themselves, and it’s largely how I did this album,” he explains.
Below, Bhiman tells Billboard about the inspirations for the project, how it’s changed his listening habits and what other musicians can learn from his experiment. New episodes of Peace of Mind hit every Friday on SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts and other streaming platforms.
I love that you’re doing something new with an album format while tapping into a whole new potential for podcasts. Where did you get the initial idea to do this?
The initial idea came from my wife [Katie Ross], who’s also my manager. She’s a huge podcast fan and actually involved in the podcast business already with a lot of true crime podcasts. I was a slower adopter. She believed in the idea before I believed in the idea. I didn’t have the full vision of it. The album was done a year ago. I wrote the album before; it’s not like I made the podcast and am writing songs just to fit the thing. I wrote the songs first and foremost, and they all had to do with a political theme. It’s something I’ve always written about. I’ve always had politics or social commentary in my music. This is super natural to me and right in my wheelhouse. Each song has these different themes — immigration, voter suppression, Russia, etc. Because of the popularity and the strength of political podcasts and society and culture podcasts, it kind of fits in there somewhere. It’s fun to experiment. It’s fun to see where it’s going.
What’s freeing about using a podcast as a vehicle for your music that you wouldn’t get if you were to just release the songs yourself in a more traditional way?
Part of it was out of not ever having been really approached seriously by a label. I’ve done some pretty big things: I’ve played Carnegie Hall, been on Jools Holland on the BBC, toured with Chris Cornell and done lots of different things. I haven’t been approached seriously by a record label. If I didn’t think I was any good I would’ve given up a long time ago, but I think I have something to offer, a perspective to offer in the same way Hasan Minhaj has a perspective to offer in comedy, or David Chang — he’s a chef and he’s as American as apple pie. You come to learn how American they are because they’ve explained it to you. That’s been super appealing to me: When I’ve felt misunderstood, I’ve gotten lots of looks and stuff like that, but there’s something where I’m not passing an American authenticity test sometimes in people’s eyes.
This was a way for me to be like, “I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, my name is Bhi Bhiman, this is how you say it” — that was super appealing, right there, to me — and I could do what I want because the podcast landscape is the wild west right now. It’s brand new. It’s super exciting. It’s addictive. It’s a way to explain myself very clearly and let people know who I am without assuming I’m coming from maybe an angry place, let’s say. I’ve been editing these episodes, and there’s definitely a feel to them: the music is coming in, the stems are serving as sound design and musical beds for the interviews. There’s an honesty where I’m trying to find something and show people something in the way Anthony Bourdain kind of did — totally different medium, but I’m coming from the same place. But I’m looking at America, specifically.
Why do you think that is, that people are gravitating toward podcasts in this moment — and why they’d be open to discovering new music this way?
The draw to podcasts for me, at least, is that in this screen-addiction world, we’re just looking at our phones and we’re kind of incapacitated: You’re holding it in your left or right hand, and what else are you doing? Having a podcast on and having your hands and eyes free, there’s some zen-like thing that happens when people listen to podcasts sometimes. It calms people down sometimes, too. You can do other things. You can use your hands! You can not look at your phone. It’s this weird dream state where you have headphones in and you’re just walking around listening to stuff. It’s very cool. That’s my theory… This barrage of news, you can’t stop when Trump does something. You’re at the mercy of whatever it is, so you have a lot of control over podcasts. Whether you have control in your life or not, you control your podcasts like a god. You can take a little bit of control back of your life, I think.
How did this approach — releasing these songs in a podcast format — change the way you consume, write or listen to music?
The podcast has been owning my life recently, so I haven’t been writing a lot of music, but it’s changed the way I hear things. There’s a meaningfulness: You know people will come away with something here, because some of these interviews are very moving. By end of the series, the album is released — all nine episodes — [and] it’ll be a pretty far-ranging thing. We’ll talk about all of these different problems going on in America. The podcast opportunity was a very good one. It made me listen a lot more intently.
Did any of these conversations leave an imprint on the songs for you?
It sounds like I know exactly what I’m talking about when I’m writing these songs — and I know quite a lot! — but with each of these interviews, I learn so much. I was the dumbest person in the room every single time. I’m talking to people like Dale Ho, the ACLU Voter Rights Project senior member, he’s fighting for these gerrymandering and voter suppression cases in the highest levels of courts — and I’m just sitting back and listening and realizing [that] this has certainly expanded my world to a great extent. These were hour-and-a-half conversations with people I don’t get to have necessarily in my every day. I learned a ton.
The possibilities with where we can go with this medium are exciting. Is that something you’ve considered when you were finishing up the first few episodes of this project?
Yeah. I hope it opens people’s eyes to the amount of power you can have. A lot of musicians are probably frustrated and feel like they’re not getting a shot, not getting heard the way they want to get heard. Like I said, you can kind of take control of the narrative.