I’m waiting in a quaint little coffee shop, named the Coffee Jar, that is snug and cosy amidst the busy hubbub of Camden. I’m here to meet the founder of Beatnik Events, Russell Swallow, who is a performing musician and experienced busker.
A little while ago, I’d been scrolling through some music pages on Facebook hoping to pin down a corker of a paid gig opportunity. The eagerness of my millennial-damaged thumb (too much scrolling has left it in tatters) came to a halt…
‘100 Days of Busking’. I must admit, the word busking can sometimes give me shivers like an arrow down the spine because it isn’t always easy. You wear your musical heart on your sleeve in the hope a busy commuter will blink an eyelid at your handmade cardboard sign with ALL social media handles exposed. Perhaps one generous change bearer will feel it’s ok to part with a few coppers. Maybe some silver if we’re lucky right?
As I’d read on … this wasn’t any old busking scenario. The project is born from the wholesome intentions of Islington Council.
Russell hasn’t arrived yet so I can’t give the game away … but the scheme includes organised pitches, travel expense cover and the all-important support and guidance. Yes, Music Maestro. This is a new kinda busking.
After a short wait, Russell is here with the widest of smiles and a greeting hug. It is no wonder Islington Council has come to Russell for his help to deliver a project that helps so many. A flat white is anchored between Russell’s clasp and a half-guzzled latte in mine, we begin.
“The idea was to get more people on the streets of London to play music…”
Prior to chatting with Russell, I’d assumed it was his company, Beatnik Events, who had created ‘100 Days of Busking’. But with a courteous manner, Russell makes sure that I understand it is Islington Council’s lightbulb moment first: “I can’t take credit for creating 100 Days of Busking. It was created by Islington Council. But the idea was to get more people on the streets of London to play music.”
Thankfully, before my nosiness gets the better of me, Russell expands on why the council came to him for an incredibly important delivery of a project that finally nourishes the live music circuit: “I was invited to manage it because I’ve got links with the community as I’ve been running events in London. I’ve been in North London for the last 10 years so I know a lot of musicians. It’s really wonderful to be able to give musicians support”
My faith in humanity is relatively restored with Russell’s sincere and kind intentions for helping deliver the project. It is clear that the established musician is simply doing this to help and guide other singers, guitarists and so on. In an industry where sincerity is not always present, this is comforting and refreshing to hear.
“Before today I’d wanted to gain a little more understanding on the scheme”
Before today I’d wanted to gain a little more understanding on the scheme so I’d sought after one of the beautifully talented buskers who was a day away from performing her slot. Matilda Gracia has the vocals of an angel. The notes sound as gorgeous as velvet feels. And her guitar playing? Fab. So when she agreed to have a chat over Skype I was thrilled. I wanted to gain some insight into how this innovative music scheme was impacting the musicians. A first-hand account.
First things first: I was itching to discover how Matilda came across ‘100 Days of Busking’. Had it been the same way I did?
The twenty-two-year-old singer-songwriter explained that: “There are many Facebook pages such as London Musician Network. I have all the notifications on and a small showreel always ready. As soon as any gig comes up, I am there applying. For 100 Days of Busking, it is close to me in North London. So I thought this was perfect. I busk anyway and I’d love to be involved in a scheme that is just down the road!”
It was instantly clear that the accessibility of the scheme was certainly a beneficial factor for north London residents such as Matilda. And of course, it would be. Lugging equipment around (cube amp or not) can be a ghastly experience if you aren’t well acquainted with the menacing escalators weaving in and out the tube stations. People offer to help… then stop in their tracks as you turn around to reveal not only a 17-stone amp but also a rigid mic stand and your guitar. Oddly enough the kind person is now halfway down the left-hand side of the escalator making a dash for it.
Getting carried away with all things music, Matilda also noted that: “It is about always growing… Busking is something I’m doing more and more. And a way I earn my living. I’m doing music full time. Busking is an amazing tool… no matter if people want to listen to your music, that’s what is gonna happen. It is amazing how much more comfortable I am now.”
Performing is something that is at the core of Matilda’s day to day life and likewise for so many musicians, which is why the project is extremely prevalent.
It was also a pleasure to speak with Matilda. She had a positive energy that was infectious and it was clear from just a 15-minute natter that she has a plentiful amount of exciting developments about to unfold.
Back with Russell amidst every mid-morning coffee run in Camden and our chat is progressing into in-depth topics surrounding the scheme. I am intrigued as to how many locations the project is showcasing at. Russell explains that: “It is happening in three areas. Fonthill Rd, in Finsbury Park. Chapel Market in Angel and Navigator Square by Archway Tube Station. Each of these areas has really nice streets, they’ve got shops, they’ve got lots of people coming by. For some reason or not, they haven’t had much busking happening. The idea is to provide a space where musicians can perform and be rewarded for their hard work.”
With a down to earth spin on things, Russell continues: “You know, if you’ve got your cup of tea and a sandwich … you may feel like there is nothing going on so it’s best to go home. But we’d love people to be able to speak to each other, bumping into friends and hearing some music.”
Well, I’m sold.
It really would be hard to condense all that Russell is sharing with me on the music scheme. But with this new initiative breathing life into music, I’m desperate to make a note of everything.
Russell has a warm and guiding tone as we discuss the questions I have meticulously planned out at around 5 measly minutes to midnight the night before; always the organised journo.
Oddly enough, we stem off the questions slightly and veer to some insightful ground. Russell’s eyes are as bright as the crisp moon whilst speaking about 100 Days of Busking. But the illumination only increases when we naturally progress onto discussing the advice he’d like to give on busking for anyone just starting out, or a musician who is already in the thick of it: “When I first started I received so much advice and insight. I’d love to share that”
With a sincere offering of guidance that so many of us musicians desperately hunt down for, I am delighted to put questions aside and perch my self on the stall, all ears.
Russell advises: ” It’s the small things such as; you can buy a kids plastic mic stand. This naturally takes off a lot of the weight. It’s still sturdy but it won’t be breaking your back. If you also take half of it off and have a gooseneck, you’ll have some metal that folds. Then it can be broken into two pieces. You can travel more easily.”
I want to know more!
Still fully-engaged, the singer-songwriter continues to explain: ” Having a little trolly, like a Granny’s trolly is good” We are both on the verge of a small chuckle because it’s hard to know if any musician can remember the actual name for the trollies that miraculously get you from A-B.
Russell carries on: “Just making it as lightweight as possible. Be really inventive. Once you’ve found your pitch, have a really nice board with your name. Really big- that is really important so people can see. Have fairy lights on your mic stand. Be sensible with your music. More often than not, people in the street want to hear a song they know. Then disperse your original material with the right balance.”
And it’s this supportive and encouraging guidance that is provided along with the project that simply makes it marvellous. What Islington Council and Russell have created is a platform which not only showcases music for passers-by but so much more. It’s a pool of advice for those who need it, financial support for the short/long travel (when have buskers ever had that pleasure? ** There is a limit of course!) and it’s the intent it has for keeping music alive.
“It has reconfirmed my belief in the power of music”
Bloke ina Hat (also known as Trevor) is also a performer for 100 Days of Busking. A few days ago, I was lucky enough to have an in-depth account of his experience with the scheme with some wonderful points made. He explains: “Being given expenses to perform has allowed me to put the money towards buying the equipment needed for playing outside where there is no electrical source for standard equipment. Being invited to play means I have not had to worry about being moved on, fined or having musical instruments and equipment confiscated. It has allowed me to play longer sets than I may do at gigs, to incorporate my extensive repertoire of cover songs and to be in control of my own sound which in turn has allowed me to experiment with my sound.
The time is running quicker than a double espresso on tap. I’m drawing to the moment where I ask the usual: “So, what’s next for 100 Days of Busking?”
Russell shares: “We want to be spreading the word.”
I nod in complete agreement.
“Just to let them know ‘you’re great’.”
He continues: “We’re always getting feedback and giving it to the council. The reason we do this project is to provide a platform for musicians and to provide confidence. A lot of musicians we have booked in have received professional bookings from being seen at one of the pitches. For me, I want it to generate a good feeling. Giving opportunities to people. Just to let them know “you’re great”. Developing these links between the artists and the local community.”
Then Russell takes a deep breath and simply says: “To make some more music!”
100 Days of Busking needs you. The scheme needs your support. You can do this by sharing links, following the event page, applying for a slot or writing a review. With its name comes an easy guess at it’s given duration. So let’s change that 100 to 1000. This scheme is healthy and full of chances for musicians across North London. It’s nice to think that it’s vibrant positivity and success will be infectious. That the rest of London will follow. Then who knows what will be next?
Show all the love for Russell, Matilda and Trevor! Here are their socials:
Bloke ina Hat: https://www.facebook.com/blokeinahat/