BUSKING WITH BILLY BRAGG
I’ve sung in bands on and off over the years, but performing in public has always been a nervous, shaky and awkward affair for me. I had a piano and two guitars until I sold all my stuff a couple of years ago to try to catch up with rent arrears and get back on my feet – and I haven’t really sung or played since. I had always wanted to try busking but found the idea daunting – especially doing it alone.
But then came a challenge I couldn’t turn down – busking outside Camden tube station with Billy Bragg, one of my musical and political heroes, who was happy to tutor and coax me through our favourite playlist.
It didn’t help that the Sunday before our busking “date”, disaster struck; I lost my voice. How on earth was I going to get it back to be able to sing A New England with any degree of tune or competency? I took to Twitter for help, and tried everything that was suggested: hot water with honey and lemon; lashings of turmeric neat on a teaspoon; my own Feisty Soup with garlic and ginger, chillies, lemon and tomatoes. By the time the day arrived, I was still speaking in a husky voice.
Billy and I met for a quick rehearsal and busking lesson beforehand at the Underworld in Camden, going through a few songs we had chosen together. The Times They Are a-Changin’ by Bob Dylan was my request – it seemed fitting, and having gently rehearsed it to myself in the kitchen a few days before, I knew it was within my severely limited vocal range. As we left the intimate cocoon of the pub, my bouncy excitement became more of a trudge as, heart in mouth, I babbled and swore, and panicked that I couldn’t do it, terrified that stage fright and nerves would overtake me, and that my tentative voice would abandon me altogether.
We found a spot outside HSBC, sniggered at the irony, and I took a swig from my hip flask of hot water, honey and lemon, and another swig of Buttercup cough syrup before we kicked off. Billy played guitar and I shouted along beside him: “I was 21 years when I wrote this song and I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long … ”
Standing on a corner singing, with people rushing past you, is a strange experience. You want to stop them, ask them why they’re not staying to listen. But gradually, a crowd started to gather, and several people took out their phones to record us. Initial fear had given way to a surge of adrenaline, in response to a positive reaction from the assembled crowd. A white-van man even stopped at the lights and whipped his head round to listen as we belted out Oh My Sweet Carolina into the noisy, grey streets.
We’re not really used to spontaneous outbursts of singing in the UK. I recently spent 10 days in Tanzania with Oxfam visiting food and farming projects, and one of the things that struck me most on the trip was the music; everywhere we went, men and women would dance and sing to welcome us to their villages. When I came back to London, the only music to be heard was an old accordion player sitting outside Marks & Spencer, trying to catch the eyes of passers by to make a few quid.
Now it was my turn to be the busker. I discovered it is a queer juxtaposition of vulnerability and empowerment. I put on my performance face, threw my head back, and enjoyed myself – but safe in the knowledge that standing beside me on my right hand side was a man with decades of busking experience and a natural affinity with the crowd. Between us, and over four songs, we made just over £38.
If I had been asked to go it alone, I might have refused, and I never would have experienced the rush of street performing.
Call me romantic, but singing Can’t Help Falling in Love on a busy street corner is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. Even if it was in a husky croak, and I couldn’t manage the chorus.
Originally published in The Guardian, Friday 21 March 2014. Photography by Linda Nylind for The Guardian.
Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe>