Muhammad Seven is a 41-year-old Americana musician based out of Codman Square. On the heels of his release of a self-titled debut with his band, collectively Muhammad Seven and the Spring, we met at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain where he’s a gardener to discuss his working-class roots, faith, and creative endeavors.
What’s your job here?
I’m the garbage man and outdoor custodian of the Arboretum. My title is gardener but I don’t do any actual gardening. … I’m also the shop steward, so I’m the leader of the union. … My background is in people’s movements and labor studies. … I really enjoy the work I do with my union.
The album is about working-class immigrants. Where did that concept come from?
I am a working-class immigrant. And my songwriting draws heavily from my personal experiences. … I tend towards narrative songwriting, songs that are also stories. And the stories I want to tell are usually the ones that you hear about less commonly.
Did you always feel like an outsider? Did that make you want to be a musician?
My mother is a white American … and my father is an Iranian immigrant. And it was very clear from my earliest days that people saw me as different.
I found a great love for music at a very young age. And I think the way music can articulate things that you feel, but you yourself don’t quite know how to say, made me want to be a musician. I’m a massive music nerd because I have often gone to music for information, for comfort, for inspiration … I was really 14 when I got my first guitar, started writing songs. The act of creation and participating in those things appeal to me.
What was the first song that you wrote that you were like, “Oh, this is kind of good”?
I had a series of those moments where until I was 30 or so, I was writing songs that often had promise, but I didn’t fully believe in. … I went on a tour at age 30. Thirty shows for three months with Chris Sand. I came out of that with better songs than I’d ever written, and those songs make up my first album I made on my cell phone. … After the nice reception of that very small album … somehow it was enough encouragement that my songwriting leveled up substantially to the point where I am now, where I’m actually very, very proud of this batch of songs.
Has religion had any impact on your music or you at all?
Huge impact. I am a mixed heritage Jew and Muslim and Catholic. It’s complicated because in spite of anti-Semitic rhetoric you might have heard from some Iranian leaders, Iranian Jews have been very at home in Iran for decades, probably centuries. And political tensions clearly have divided all of us everywhere, and that’s not different from Iran.
Do you practice any religion?
I practice pieces of all of them. My wife is a mixed heritage Jew also, so since being Jewish is what we have in common, that is the main religious feature of our household. So, Shabbat and the high holidays, those are things that we do. To a lesser extent, we also observe some Christian holidays, she has Christian heritage. And I’m an Iranian Muslim. Most of the Iranian things that we observe in the house are Iranian cultural things and not actually Islamic holidays.
Are there cultural similarities that connect every Iranian person?
Culturally, for Iranians, there is a clear tradition of justice and liberation. A commitment to generosity plays a major role. And a love of the arts. I was named after the father of modern Iranian poetry, and poetry plays a very different role in Iran than certainly in the United States and probably in other parts of the world.
You recorded a whole album on your iPhone. What was that like?
I didn’t particularly want to make an album on my iPhone, but at that point I had gotten married and had a child, and the time I had to do it was in stolen moments of my day. I realized there was software where you could program a sophisticated folk song entirely on the phone, so I did it.
Do you think it is hard to be a working-class musician?
It’s brutally hard. I also finished a master’s degree this year [in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard], which took 10 years. Most of the songs on the album came to me while I was working. So a lot of it is multitasking. I’ll write down a kernel when it comes to me and try to flush it out later. And then as an older working person there is just much less time for everything.
Let’s talk about the album. How did it start?
After having made an album on my cell phone where I produced the entire thing, sang all the parts, made the album art, did the mixing and mastering myself, and after writing, for the first time in my life, [had] a large collection of songs that I felt really excited about and that other people were having a strong reaction to, I decided there was not going to be any better time to make a serious album.
Are there any songs on the album that you want to unpack and talk about?
My favorites change from week to week. These days I’ve really been enjoying the very first track, “Wood Stove Whine,” which is a lot about the man I once was. And that might be why I enjoy it, because the story of a desperate person so filled with regret but also a hope for redemption moves me, and also reminds me that that’s not where my life is anymore.
The song that always gets the biggest reaction live is “Manifesto,” the fifth track. … It is an immigrant’s anthem, and when I play it live the room inevitably goes completely silent. After the song, people are filled with emotion. … It’s a rallying cry, it’s a fight song.
How does Boston influence your music?
I have been, from the start, excited about making music that is rooted in American roots traditions and at the same time deeply Massachusetts. And probably also very much Boston music. … I also bring a dimension of being an immigrant and dealing both in my life and in the work and the songs with issues of racism and classism. I think part of what draws me to Americana music is that woven into the fabric of the music is dealing with class.
Do you experience class issues in Boston?
Working-class people experience class issues everywhere, and Boston is no exception. I think [there is a] particular way that Boston is small and segregated. … In Boston there is more of an opportunity for the [wealthy] and the folks with privilege to hide out in the areas where they live.
Would you like those people to listen to your songs?
They are not my main concern, but I’m thrilled if anybody likes them, and if they mean anything to anyone. My big hope is to play for working people. [I play] a lot of shows in my neighborhood, in Dorchester. I would like to be known for representing Dorchester.
Muhammad Seven and the Spring’s self-titled debut album is available on all streaming platforms. For information, shows, and streams visit muhammadseven.com.