The Life of a Busker: An Interview with Sam Ashton
By Timea Koppandi
There is no denying that the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted culture and the arts severely. With theatres and music venues remaining closed for the forseeable future, it has become even more crucial to celebrate the work of artists, musicians and performers. In this interview, Sam Ashton, a singer and songwriter based in Canterbury, talks about his work during the pandemic. He also shares his stories of music whilst travelling and his experiences of busking, even sharing tips on how to be a successful busker.
TK: Can you tell me more about your experience busking?
SA: Before I came back to the UK about a year and a half ago, I [went] travelling for many years. I used busking and music to largely fund my travels as well, and I played in many different countries and a lot in Latin America. It’s the closest connection to an audience that you can be, because you are face to face with whoever your potential listeners may be. You can really gage who is into it or not, because they are all there. Whereas when they walk past, you see their reactions and have a direct connection with them. Also, many beautiful things can happen. For example, when I was in El Salvador, playing at a fruit and vegetable market, I got like 1 dollar and 10 cents for an hour of playing - which in Latin America was still not a lot – but my guitar case was absolutely full of fruit and vegetables. I used to get 25 dollars an hour. These types of things are beautiful. Another time in Nicaragua, there was an older lady, she had no money at all but she was selling these little rings with hearts in them. She wanted to give me one, but I told her that the music is free, because I knew that she didn’t have much money. But she was so insistent of me taking this ring, that I ended up taking it. I was really touched by that. For anyone who wants to do busking, even though I have done it many times, sometimes it can still be daunting. But it’s only the first couple of songs and by the end you feel glad that you played. It’s very good practice. After that time of playing on the street, I was a much better musician than I was before.
TK: What are people’s attitudes towards busking?
SA: It varies across all countries. For example, in Switzerland and Germany buskers are very well received, they are treated and viewed as street artists, which is what they are, even if they are a homeless person. That is still them doing their art. The donations are more generous and a lot more frequent. In the USA, they are very generous and giving in certain states. I haven’t been in every state, but in the West, you will definitely make a good amount a money. But in the UK, they are not quite as well receiving of buskers. Depends where you go, but a lot of people put buskers in the same brackets as homeless people. What better way to enjoy the day then playing music for free for strangers? The wealth of musical talent in the UK is absolutely huge. People walk down the street, and even if you are very good, they have seen some other very good people. In the UK there is such a huge number of very talented musicians, who kind of oversaturate the industry.
TK: Can you tell me more about your relationship with music, your influences?
SA: It was always a game to me, since I was a kid. But I have always played regardless of whether I knew that this was what I wanted to do in life or not. It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 and I did a karaoke on a holiday somewhere, and my father told me, ‘you do know that you can really sing.’. Me and my brother had a band together, and I had a good band at university. But then I went travelling and music became something different. It became my livelihood. I wanted to make some really good music and express myself. There is a band called the Teskey Brothers. I was lucky to meet them, apart from the brothers. Kind of Otis Redding sound soul music. Blues has always been a big influence on me, B.B king and all of those great soul artists.
TK: I remember you were saying that you wanted to do a show at the University of Kent. So now, with the current situation, how are you coping with that and what are you doing?
SA: Well, I’ve done a couple of videos from my home to share with people. They got a lot of really good responses. I chose songs that are bringing messages of hope and positivity. To be honest, the media is so toxic, they love to spread hate, they don’t like to spread too many positive messages in the media. It’s very easy for those people who are already fearful to become very fearful. The power of the mind and spirit over the body is endless. As they continue, one has to keep on spreading light in the darkness. We are in the darkness - in lockdown, and everyone’s by themselves, and some are self-isolated. We just have to keep on spreading light and spreading love, and positivity because people hear too many negative things if they watch the news anyway. Also, we were in the process of recording a new piece, so that’s still ongoing. Obviously, in terms of playing shows, you can’t really play any shows now. It’s a big blow - we had a headline show in London lined up, which was a really good opportunity that we managed to get. But, now it’s likely to never happen. That’s a shame, but it’s only a drop in the ocean from what all the other musicians are facing. Friends who were on tour, who were in Europe, had to drop everything and come back home. I’m doing all I can do - writing new material, working on new material, doing some videos, and working on the EP.
TK: I was wondering what kind of advice would you give to people who would want to do what you’re doing, or what mentality would you say is more likely to get them there?
SA: Do what you do for the love of doing it, and not for anything else. If you enjoy it and you want to do it, then go and do it. Don’t let fear or anything stop you, because everyone’s going to appreciate that. If I see someone who I don’t think is going to take the world by storm, but is really enjoying what they’re doing, I would still love to watch that. So even though they’re not going to be the next Ed Sheeran or whatever, just enjoy it - that’s the main thing of anything that you do creatively. There’s no point doing it otherwise. But also, there’s so many ways to take your music forward. Just go to open mic sessions, meet people, ask around, and then there’s lots of places which are entry level places to play gigs. And there are lots of types of places that are easy for people starting out to get a gig. For example, one of the easy ones, if we do ever get back to normality, in Canterbury, is Bramley’s. They have an open mic on Thursday, they have an acoustic session in which they have a gig. And a lot of the people who have been chosen to play those gigs are those people who came along to the open mics. So, open mics are so good for people starting out; to get practice playing in front of an audience, and to meet new people. So, I recommend playing open mics. I remember when I was at University, I went to see this gig in Southampton, and there’s a great band up there. I had no band, nobody to play with, but I saw this band and I thought to myself: ‘I’m going to play there’. And we ended up being one of the most popular bands there. They used to ask for us there all the time. We played a birthday party for this famous punk guy, who used to play with The Clash. We played at New Year’s Eve parties, at that venue. So if you just think ‘I’m going to do that’, and set your sights on it, it’s easy to achieve things. Determination, and doing it for the right reasons.
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