Busking it in Plymouth …

Anyone knows if you walk through Plymouth city centre you will inevitably usually hear and then see a Busker of some description. Ever wondered who the hard-working folk are that provide a welcome soundscape and visual surprise in amongst the busy shopping crowds?

Wonder no more.

Kat Towers – of Plymouth 4 Buskers

Kat Towers of Plymouth 4 Buskers gives us a full picture of just what it takes to be a busker in our city…

Plymouth is a fun place to busk! It has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere that is characteristic of the Devon way of life. People are generally down to earth and laid back. With the amount of cafes around it makes it easy for people to sit outside and relax over a cuppa, taking in the sights and sounds of the city and enjoy some free entertainment!

The fact that the main centre is pedestrianised also makes it easier to play somewhere that isn’t too noisy with traffic and has good footfall.

All the buskers know each other and have a friendly, respectful working relationship.  We follow the timeless unwritten code of busking etiquette which works really well.

Together we provide a huge variety of styles and performances, from the typical guitarist/singers to saxophonists, flamenco guitar, freestyle rap, living statues, pavement art, even tap dance! It is quite local compared to many cities in the UK that see a lot of touring buskers. Most of the musicians you will find in the city centre are native to Devon or have made it their home.

Here’s some more information about some of the most well-known buskers in the city centre…

Phil … loves a bit of Bob Dylan

Phil-  63 year old Phil is a very well-established and long admired busker in the city, having played music here since the 1980s. He’s very easy to spot with his colourful clothes and big bass drum set up. He was born in the Caribbean, moving to Scotland when he was four years old. He trained as an aerospace engineer but then found out he was losing his sight. Knowing his career was over he decided to give busking a try and nearly 40 years on he is still doing it.

He has busked all over the world- from Athens to Helsinki and even across America. He has won the busking championships in Belfast and toured with Mad Dog Mcrea. His travels brought him to Plymouth many years ago and he can normally be found on New George Street, providing a gentle, folky soundtrack to the bustling area. His favourite songs to sing depend on his mood but he loves Bob Dylan. He has been really touched over the years when receiving hand written notes in his case from people expressing how much they appreciate his music and love what he is doing.

Here’s Phil featured in a Mad Dog Mcrea video – LINK HERE

Bess – sound and vocal ability still growing

Then there’s Bess who talks in detail about her  busking background

“ I am 21 and moved from London  to Plymouth when I was 9. Being brought up in a family of musicians and around so many music lovers at and early age made music such a compulsory part of my life. I started out in my school’s choirs; I was very blessed to have so much knowledge fed into me via the great music teachers- about singing, what it takes to have the commitment and loving all different genres of music. I always wanted to be in a band though, so envied and made close acquaintances with people in/out of school that were doing that. Eventually I started to teach myself how to play guitar with support from my dad and some great guitarists I met, so that made me more eligible for being a band member.

Loved playing music with friends a couple years above me, some being Jack Cookson, Amelia Lock, Ella Kenny and Ben Tucker – a band that teacher/muso Ollie Hayne had started. At the same time I was developing my own versions of covers and even writing a few of my own. This was when I was 14/15.

My first open mic I played was the B-bar, Cafe Acoustica and from then on have always gigged as a solo artist in school, bars, pubs and just about anywhere- meeting so many great musicians on my adventures of open mics and gigs. I moved to Brighton when I was 17, attended BIMM and studied songwriting. Had an awesome time there but I was young and had unfinished business in Plymouth that called me back after my year long course.

I moved back and met twice the amount of great people that played cool music which encouraged me to stay here permanently. Eventually these friends and I included, after many great jams, decided to make a band, being the Lincoln House Band. Had so much fun playing covers with these guys in our own funked up, Gypsy jazzle’d way. Have to thank Elani Evangelou, Nic Watson, Jack Joyce, Dan Baker, Stephen Sampson and Rich Palmer for all the great music times at their house partying, recording and out gigging too. Amongst these people Steve was a great encouragement to me as a solo musician and got me into the busking scene around the same time the band started.

Since going out into the street to play music I have learnt so many good but also hard things whilst wanting/needing to busk. When I first started out busking, I also had 30 hour contract at a nursing home as a Health Care Assistant, so there was no real need for me to go, just went when I wanted to. I enjoyed it a lot mainly because of the positive energy I was creating for people passing by. I got and still get, so much support, beautiful words and compliments to how my voice makes people feel and that I should continue doing what I do. That is what has kept me going through the tough times of when I had to leave my job and become basically a full time busker, during the coldest months.

I now busk on an average of 1-4 times a week, depending on how I feel as I’m still recovering from and still experiencing back problems. Playing music keeps me going though, especially busking and how spontaneously ‘things’ can happen. I almost feel most comfortable playing in the street, as naturally a lot of society block you out so it almost feels like casual playing. On my good days many singular people or small groups sit and enjoy my (sometimes) quite alternative versions of songs that I love to do. Some songs I really enjoy playing but some maybe not so much, and I love the fact that a handful of people passing, feel that from my different performances. My sound and vocal ability is still growing and hopefully I will have made a CD soon that expresses the current feel of the songs I play.

At the moment I’m taking on at least one well paid gig a month and busking to make ends meet, which makes me happy because It means I don’t go to a job I don’t want to do. I’m always the kind of person that has always cared about people in general and how everyone copes in the world we live in. My caring nature in combination with being a musician, helps me connect with humans better than before, in that making it easier for me to hopefully have a positive impact on them and the same is returned to me, when I see them smile. That is why I continue to busk and play music everywhere I can.”

Gavin – loves modern jazz

Then there’s Gavin.

Gavin plays saxophone in Plymouth on a regular basis. He grew up in Bradford and has lived in Devon for many years. He learned the classical flute when he was 12 after being inspired to learn by an angelic female friend, then started to play the saxophone at 18.He began busking when he was 17 to make sure he always had a bit of money in his pocket! He has busked all over England, in Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, Germany and New York to mention but a few places. His favourite place to busk so far has been in the historical town of Bath, which enjoys a great reputation as a busking hot-spot. (See him busking in Bath here ) He has had many great experiences while busking. The best thing about busking for him is when people are so touched by the music that it brings tears to their eyes. His favourite music to play is Modern Jazz and he also plays lots of classic pop songs.

Gavin online – LINK HERE

Kat – loves the spontaneity

And there’s me of course  – Kat

“ I am 30, I am originally from Plymouth. I spent my teenage years in and out of college and all sorts of jobs, not really having a clue what I was doing with my life. I eventually found a love of travelling and have travelled to and volunteered in many places including Japan, India, Nepal, the USA and Europe, my favourite being Alaska.

I started busking acoustically in the subways in Plymouth about 6 years ago when I was job hunting after coming back from travelling. I found it really fitted in with my nomadic lifestyle and I haven’t looked back since. People were really friendly and encouraging, often taking time out to tell me how much I had made their day by singing their favourite songs. I think busking is an essential part of the city experience as it can make a big difference to the well-being and happiness of people who have been touched by a song or melody. I believe music has the power to heal the soul like no other art form can. I have busked and played music all over the world, the best being in Tokyo, Japan. I love to play soulful mellow songs, my favourite artist being Billie Holiday. “

The best thing about busking is its spontaneity. You never know who you will find when coming into the city centre and what exciting art you may experience, so it’s always worth a look!  A few of us busk “full-time” so generally you will find at least one performer, any day/time from 10am until 5pm. New George St and Armada way outside BHS are a good place to look!

But locations  depend on the particular buskers, we all have our favourites.

I love BHS because the Original Pasty House is very friendly and supportive, letting us play close to their café. It’s a great place to grab a cup of tea and I enjoy entertaining their customers who sit outside. The top of New George Street is also very popular due to high footfall coming in and out of Drake Circus; Tesco is also very popular due to the seating in front of the store where people can sit and listen while they eat their lunch!

Most people that start out busking are just doing it for fun, but soon become addicted to the highs and lows of street performance! Busking is a great way to gain experience practicing your songs and at the same time make a bit of cash. It is a good sounding board for your music as people are more likely to come and tell you what they enjoyed or didn’t enjoy when you are on the street rather than performing in a venue.

You also have direct contact with your audience and get to play for all ages and types of folks from every walk of life. Children can experience the joys of live music, which for a lot of the really young ones is a completely new and incredibly exciting experience. It also gives personality to a town, and brings the area to life.

Another side of busking which people may not realise is that we provide a support network for numerous people on a daily basis. Many people that come and chat with us may be vulnerable or lonely. Having that regular interaction with a friendly face can really make a difference to those people and we fully embrace our roles as a “civil lighthouse”, to quote Johnny Walker, a famous busker .

A lot of the people who sit and enjoy our music may not go out much in the evenings for various reasons such as a disability or lack of money, or they might just be having a terrible day and need cheering up. Street art means that they get to experience a live performance for free, in the day, and feel rewarded by contributing a small amount of money. Brightening up the day of those that need it most is a huge part of any job that takes place on the street and it is something that is dying out, with more chain stores and less community spirit in cities.

People often wonder what practical issues we face as buskers and artists.Busking regulations are different in every city.

At the moment, there are no regulations for buskers in Plymouth. The main problem this has led to is the fact that we do not have any representation, rights or protection. On the whole we have a good relationship with other street workers such as Big Issue vendors and charity workers, but in the future we hope to be able to share public space a little bit more equally between them and ourselves as currently they dominate the pitches available in the town centre.

We have formed an organisation called “Plymouth 4 Buskers” to promote busking and raise awareness of our art. We are hoping this new organisation will lead to some exciting and fun events to look out for in the future. We are also currently in talks with Plymouth City Council, The City Centre Company, Drake’s Circus and The PARC ranger team to come up with a code of conduct that will give us a voice and a fairer allocation of space available for us to play.

The council have been pretty supportive and willing to listen to our point of view so far and we are really excited for the future of busking in Plymouth!

Busking is one of the most unpredictable jobs in the world. You can go out and have the best day of your life, receiving gifts from people, getting lovely smiles all day, basking in the sunshine, getting crowds of people clapping for you and kids dancing cutely to your songs while your hat fills up nicely, or you can be completely demoralised after getting soaked through from rain, breaking all your guitar strings, getting yelled at by someone who doesn’t like your music, getting told to move on by security, and having a pitifully empty hat.

The smiles and the real appreciation we receive from kind strangers totally make up for those bad days though. So when you next walk past a busker, please remember how tough it can be, say hello or smile, and show your gratitude for live street art! Those things are what make busking worthwhile and keep us going.

Kat Towers Music – facebook page 

So it’s time to say – take it away Kat …


2 thoughts on “Busking it in Plymouth …

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