Busking in L.A. with Katie Ferrara

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.

Busking in general has its challenges because people just assume that you aren’t that great; playing in places where people appreciate what you have to bring goes a long way.

Take us through your busking setup...
I have different setups for different situations; it all depends on how long I’m playing for, and if I’m traveling or not. If I’m going to be in the same spot for a while, and there is power, I will bring a PA system: I have a Fishman SA 330, AKA ‘the fish stick’, and I love it because of the onboard effects. The guitar sounds great through it; many of these portable amps don’t do the guitar justice. I will also bring a chair to sit in, a drink holder, iPad clip, a rug, and my pedal board. I have a TC Electronic Play acoustic pedal which I can use to add harmonies to my voice, and loop beats; and I use a Sennheiser or an AKG dynamic mic. I basically bring the same set up I would take to a bar/winery gig. If I need to pack light, I will bring either my Mackie Freeplay amp, or my Crate Limo as my sound system. I love the Freeplay because I can easily take it on a plane, and the battery lasts a long time. The Crate Limo is an amp that has been discontinued, but I love the onboard reverb and guitar effects. It’s also pretty loud, and I can sit on it if I don’t have a chair! I always bring my AirTurn mic stand; it’s so portable and lightweight that it can fit into a suitcase.

I also bring my Voyage Air Guitar. This instrument is special because the neck folds down so that you can bring it on an airplane, or pack it easily in the trunk of a car. It’s got a full-sized body which makes it different from other folding guitars because the volume and sound quality is not compromised. I’ve tried traditional travel guitars like the Taylor GS mini, mini Martin, and KLOS guitars. These are all great smaller body guitars for songwriting, or coming up with ideas on the fly, but they just aren’t loud enough for me, and sound a bit clunky. I think if I finger-picked a lot, and played bluegrass, then a mini-guitar would be fine, but I play a lot of rhythm guitar in alternate tunings. When I’m not traveling with my folding guitar, I keep it in a Ritter guitar case. They make really great soft shell gig bags that are waterproof and lightweight. The quality is similar to a Mono gig bag, but at half the price.

Is L.A. a challenging place to busk?
There aren’t too many challenges compared to other places in the world, I would say. We have great weather, and the rain is only a problem in January and February. In the summer time it can get pretty hot, though. Busking in the heat is not fun at all, but then there are plenty of spots in Venice and Santa Monica as well as in the South bay. The one thing I will say is that busking in very touristy areas can be challenging due to the oversaturation of artists. The Santa Monica promenade always has too many performers, in my opinion; and that can affect the amount of tips and sales you make, as well as how loud you can be. I see artists playing over each other all the time. My advice to anyone who considers busking is to find places in L.A. that need live music, because then people will see you as a commodity. As musicians, we should be building community, and not competing with each other for a space to be heard. I think busking in general has its challenges because people just assume that you aren’t that great, or you are looking to get famous. Playing in places where people appreciate what you have to bring goes a long way.

How do you promote yourself?
I have a sign that I like to display in front of my setup with my name, website, and Instagram so that if people want to find me online, they can take a picture. I use social media quite regularly, and live stream every performance on Periscope or Instagram so that I’m not only playing to an audience in person, but also to my online fans.

And what’s next for Katie Ferrara?
This year I will be releasing my first full-length record, and doing some touring in the fall. I can see myself still continuing to busk, but I also see myself opening up for some bigger artists, and playing in venues with my band. @katieferraramusic

Interview by Will Hawkins @realwillhawkinsmusic