By Lauren Bennett
Nima Samimi, also known by his stage name Muhammad Seven, took only three guitar lessons as a young child. The rest is history, and music has become an increasingly important facet of his life.
“As a young child, music was a well that I drew inspiration from,” Samimi said. “It was a haven I retreated to for comfort and security and it was a source of perspective on the world, and that just grew as I grew.” Though neither his father, an immigrant from Iran, nor his mother, a South Shore native, are musicians, Samimi got his inspiration from folk revival, early 70s, and hip hop music and poured his heart into singing and songwriting.
The Dorchester resident and Arnold Arboretum employee, along with a group of friends, released their first studio album on March 12. Titled Muhammad Seven & The Spring, the album follows Samimi’s first album, which was recorded entirely on an iPhone.
Following the unexpected success of the first album, which landed him interviews on Iranian radio and PRI’s The World, Samimi entered what he calls an “unprecedented period of songwriting.” This is when he felt like he began to write songs “of much better quality and caught lightning in a bottle.”
Samimi began playing local shows “that I assumed I would have to grovel for,” he said, but “the shows came to me.” It was after that when he decided that he really wanted to put a band together. He enlisted the talent of his close friend from Jamaica Plain, Pat Mussari, for the bass guitar, as well as Kelly-Jo Reed (also known as “Nacho Cheese”) for vocal harmonies. Lester Fleming produced the album, and former Berklee College of Music student Clark Goodpaster has taken over for drums for live performances.
The album didn’t happen overnight, however. After gathering songs that he was especially proud of (he is the sole writer of 100 percent of the songs on the album), Samimi “decided I was ready to take a big change and crowdfund enough money to make a serious studio recording,” he said. For the iPhone album, Samimi worked alone, writing, performing, and producing, but this time, he decided he needed to bring in other artists “to do the things I was bad at.”
So in addition to Mussari and Reed, Samimi enlisted a host of studio artists for things like banjo, violin, and lap steel guitar. “There’s a real possibility that I would swing and miss,” Samimi said, “that I wouldn’t be able to come up with the money, or come up with it and be disappointed with the album. But in the end, out efforts paid off and in the end I’m thrilled with the way it came out.”
Samimi said he feels that this album covers “a broad swath” of his abilities as a singer/songwriter and the abilities of the band, which he believes helps different people connect with different songs in a way that many albums cannot. He said he thinks that while a lot of albums have “certain hits,” this album is one that has songs that different people will resonate with.
“All the songs come from a deeply personal place,” Samimi said. “What I’ve given you is the world according to Muhammad Seven. Listening to the record, you’re looking at the world through the prism of my eyes and nestled in there are my thoughts on politics and people but also my actual experiences of life and relationships; activism.” A lot of the messages of the songs come from in his Iranian roots mixed with influences of different styles of music.
He said that some people like a rock edge, while some are more attracted to the “songwriterly” songs that tell the story of a family in exile. “For others, it’s the slightly more pop sound that draws unusually from the zeitgeist of American music,” Samimi said.
He also said that he’s enjoyed hearing from Iranians who tell him that they’ve never heard their story represented in American music, and he is “equally pleased” to hear from non-Iranians about how they can relate to the themes of love, loss, struggle, redemption, and resistance.
Samimi said that every song has a different starting point, whether it be a lyric, a feeling, or a piece of melody or rhythm. He describes the song “Sour Cherries” as a “lamentful ballad” that has a somber tone throughout, and “Welcome Every Breath” is about the recurring daily pain that Samimi deals with due to his GI illness. “I wrote the song in 20 minutes exactly as it is,” he said. “As it became music I couldn’t help but think of my experience of grappling with chronic pain. At the end of the day coming to terms with the power that is there which is something that you do have.”
He said that not all the songs are about him literally, but they are all songs that make him feel something. “Gambler’s Crutch” is a song about a man who is an addict and a degenerate gambler, Samimi said, which is not the true story of his life but it still evokes personal feelings. “There are truths throughout the song that are about me on a deeper spiritual or metaphorical level that I tried to access through the character study of the song,” he said.
He said his current favorite song on the album is “Gone So Long.” He said that though it is not lyrically his favorite song, “I really like the way it works as a rocking popular ballad.” He said crowds have been going “nuts” for it in recent live shows.
“Manifesto,” he said, is the song that gets the biggest response from the live crowd. “It’s sort of an immigrant’s anthem for the Trump era,” he said. “People are hungry for a perspective in these times to stand up for what’s right.” He said that crowds go silent “with rapt attention,” and then break out into wild applause at the end of the song. “Maybe I should invite people to cry or scream after the song,” he half-joked.
Though the album has proven to be a success, Samimi was not able to crowdfund all of the money it took to create and went into debt. The release process is a lot of work, he said, and the album took about a year and a half to complete, but he does not regret his decisions. He said he is also grateful for the support of his wife, Amanda Graff, who is a religious educator and an acrobat. “It really helps to be married to another artist,” Samimi said. “It’s a huge challenge as a small independent artist to get all of the work done to have success as a band.”
Samimi is also the father of a young boy, and he said that being a parent has taught him to be “viciously efficient,” which helps with the album process.
As for Samimi’s biggest challenge with the album? He said it’s the same as his biggest challenge as an artist—“not letting the inner critic get the best of me.” He said that in an 18 month process of recording, mixing, and mastering, “there are endless opportunities to doubt yourself and to look at yourself with mean eyes and it could ruin everything at any time,” he said. “It’s an act of great personal discipline not to let it.
Samimi calls himself a “custodian of the outdoors,” and his job for the past twelve years at the Arnold Arboretum has been to clean up trash and graffiti, and perform small repairs. He is also the ship steward of the union he is a part of. “I love it,” he said.
But when he’s not out beautifying the Arboretum, he’s rehearsing for the next big thing. “I’m excited about making music videos for many of these songs, and for gigging extensively in the next years.”
And he’s already looking towards the next album—“I have enough material for three new albums but probably won’t use any of that on the next album,” he said.
But for right now, “I’m really looking forward to my band cutting our teeth on the stage real regularly,” Samimi said, “getting sharper and tighter and putting together an act that knocks people’s socks off.”