I’ve busked a few times in NYC and London, and can tell you that it’s not for everyone. It takes nerves of steel, and skin seven layers thick to perform for professionals running to work, tourists hustling to see the sights, and shoppers heading to the next clearance sale, and waiting for that precious few who stop, listen - and yeah, give you money. It takes a special kind of performer to busk, but I’ve seen the power of music stop 50 people in their tracks in a subway tunnel in NYC to listen to a lone violinist playing a Soundgarden song, or a group of teen siblings harmonising Eleanor Rigby a capella, and it was absolutely stunning. I will spend the next 12 months talking to professional buskers, sharing their experiences, discussing the equipment they use, and their best practices and strategy for making a living doing what they love to do. First up is Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter, Katie Ferrara.
Katie was born and raised in East L.A., and is a true Angeleno. Which is rare to find in Los Angeles, because everyone living here seems to be from somewhere else. I met her at The Runway, a new downtown area in Playa del Rey on the westside of Los Angeles where Facebook, YouTube, and other burgeoning tech companies have their campuses. The narrow streets of this perfect new prefab modern community have a faux downtown USA vibe, and are filled with young business professionals, mothers with their kids, and midday shoppers.
When I turn the corner, I can hear Katie’s voice from about 50 metres away, and I’m drawn to it like siren song. I find her sitting in front of a storefront with her merch table front and centre, singing one of her originals. A few people are having lunch a few feet away while others stand in a semi-circle watching and listening to this raven-haired chanteuse. Her voice is beautiful; familiar, yet unique. Katie mixes some covers with originals, and frankly, I can’t tell which ones are hers, and which ones are not - that’s how good her songs are, and that’s how seamlessly she makes the covers her own.
Katie just released a new single, Weightless, and when she’s not busking, she performs at local clubs like Hotel Cafe, travels around the world to perform, and is busy in the studio making new music. As her three-hour set comes to a close, we sit outside the nearby Whole Foods store, and discuss music, songwriting, and her busking career over some sushi and pizza.
How did you get started in music?
I joined the choir in high school, and then started teaching myself how to play guitar while I was in college. I would say my career began about eight years ago when I started recording my own music while living in London. I recorded two EPs overseas, then moved back to L.A., and started playing in clubs on the Sunset strip. I wasn’t very successful at making money, and that experience led me to start busking, and developing my musicianship out on the streets.
Where are your favourite spots to busk?
I busk in Burbank, Santa Monica, Universal CityWalk, Highland Park, and various farmer’s markets around L.A. I’m mostly at CityWalk these days, and I like to go once a week to play. You have to apply to their street performer program in order to busk since it is a very popular spot with high foot traffic. I really enjoy playing at the Marina del Rey farmer’s market because it’s close to the ocean, and I love eating all the really great food! People are very supportive.I used to go out to the Santa Monica Pier on the weekend, but I live too far away to do it all the time. The view from the pier is incredible. I think my other favorite busking location has to be Universal CityWalk because the tips can be great, and I make a lot of fans playing out there.