Growing up with bombs exploding outside your front door can profoundly affect an artist’s creative output. For New York songwriter Raman Kia (aka Buddahead), who spent the first nine years of his life in war torn Iran, acts of violence and terror were so regular that they became as much a part of life as taking the subway to work is for New Yorkers.
“I’ve seen the well as dry as it can possibly be. When I was six years old, some revolutionary guards burst into our apartment and started firing their machine guns at a building across the street from me. And I remember seeing someone shot then as I was hiding under my bed. I’ve seen tortures and seen hangings in the middle of a square. I’ve seen it all.”
A battered piano in the corner was one of the few luxuries young Raman had while living in Iran. Between raids and bombings, he’d plink away at the keys. When he was eight, he made rough cassette recordings of his primitive songs and gave them to his family members as gifts. That same year, his dad had an opportunity for Raman to escape the violence and bloodshed, so he sent him to England to live with his estranged mother.
“As a farewell gift, he gave me my first Walkman and four albums: The Beatles Love Songs, Cat Stevens Tea For The Tilerman , Bread – The Sound Of and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water” he recalls. “They were albums that he had really liked, and they became the pillars of music for me. Pop music was banned at the school I later went to.”
The school he was enrolled in was a Roman Catholic military boarding academy, where he was forced to join the choir as a disciplinary measure. It was the best possible punishment. Singing brought him solace from feeling like an outcast.
“My housemaster was very much against me,” Raman recalls. “He was very open in his dislike for me. What could I do? I just had to live with it.”
Raman’s early exposure to hardship colored his world and rubbed off in his passionate, powerful music. The beautifully vulnerable songs on Buddahead’s debut album Crossing the Invisible Line (Sanctuary Records) are awash with energy, emotion and struggle. Whether singing about the damage of substance abuse in the sweeping, string-saturated first single “When I Fall,” a desperate search for fulfillment in the pained jangly on “Holding me Back,” or the end of a relationship in the simple, delicate “Turn Away,” Raman’s confessional honesty unravels like personal journal entries. Having surfaced from a world of confusion, he has no problem articulating his sentiments in a voice that’s warm, intimate, even reassuring.
“The music I write is all about the emotions I have felt through this journey that began when I was just a child,” says Raman, who is now in his late twenties. “I want to address things like pride, fear, anger, hurt – the whole emotional spectrum. And when the music’s over, I want people to have something to hold onto.”
When he wrote “When I Fall” about a decadent experience in Amsterdam, and distributed the track over the Internet. The response was encouraging, and led to a publishing development deal in England. “That opened my mind up to the possibility that I can actually write a whole album instead of just making songs,” he says. “So I decided to put everything I had been feeling into one body of work.”
During one of Raman’s first trips to New York City, he was introduced to singer-songwriter Leona Naess. Upon arriving at her apartment, Leona took one look at Raman and said “Come on in Buddahead.” For the rest of the evening, Raman’s friends joked with him about the name bestowed by her on him. But when it came time for Raman to name his band, it was the one name that kept coming back to him.
Considering how natural and effortless his songs sound, it’s surprising that the creation of Crossing The Invisible Line was no mere labor of love. It was a frustrating battle, and a reminder that pain can sometimes strangle even the most pleasurable experiences. While recording Crossing The Invisible Line, Buddahead also spent 18 months on the road playing 20 shows a month to audiences largely unfamiliar with his music. “Every step along the way, it seemed like all the odds were against me,” he says. “The whole thing was an enormous struggle.” Finally, a chance encounter with John Popper (Blues Traveler) at last year’s Bonnaroo Festival where both were playing, led to the collaborative recording of the last song to be recorded for the album, “Invisible.”
“I felt like I was constantly trying to cross an invisible barrier,” he says of the album’s title. “And all these forces were trying to push me not to cross it. The writing was extremely hard because I was striving to take a step in the same direction as some of the greatest songwriters of our time. I’m not saying I’m there, but this is the direction I want to go on. So I put myself in very tough competition and I became very critical of myself. I questioned myself over everything.”
Sometimes, such intense self-criticism can be crippling. But for Buddahead, it was an effective means of quality control. Crossing the Invisible Line is reminiscent of many of Raman’s influences yet Raman and his bandmates deliver each shimmering track with flair and fervor. Whether caressing the listener with “Strong” or relaying a tale of woe on “Take it All Away,” Raman stands as one of the most sincere and revealing young artists today.
“If I had lived in the late ’50s, I would probably want to be one of the writers in the Brill building,” Raman says. “The most important thing to me is writing. I’m not at all bothered about being a star. I just want to write great songs.”