By Simone Goldstone | Soundcheck Columnist
Lightening splits the Louisiana sky, its thunder a familiar chorus to Joe Marx and James Gaudreau. Joe, a Newport Beach native, and his friend James have been rolling the dice with their passion for busking on a cross country “On the Road” adventure, singing on sidewalks and taking cover from downpours on doorsteps.
We huddle under the rod iron balconies, watching the humid storm rage above us. James’ dog prevents us from escaping into the lobby, so we nurse our Sazeracs on the hot New Orleans pavement and talk about the way of life these singer-songwriters have taken up.
Turns out both boys met at USC while earning their music degrees, so they are not amateurs in their craft.
A cross-country busking excursion, and the chance to perform live every night while venues are still relatively shut down, is a rare treat for singers during Covid. Even better for audience members like myself, to have a private concert at neon drenched street-corners. Passers-by could request songs, dance on the street, and enjoy the musical score to their vacations.
I asked Joe what made him start busking?
“My first-time busking was when I was in junior college,” he told me. “I was about a year into learning guitar and one of my closest music friends would busk right outside the main exit of the Trader Joe’s where I worked. They’d make upwards of $60 an hour off the foot traffic from the customers, then they’d buy their groceries with the profits. I must have watched them do that 20 times before I decided to try it for myself.”
James got a different start to busking. While he studied abroad in Australia, he was surprised to find that Melbourne is the busking capital of the world.
“Busking is a big deal there,” he said. “All these kids were having a blast. I asked this one dude who said he made $100 an hour and sold his CDs for $20 each multiple times a day. The busking in Australia was amazing, I had four different bands with different types of music. We could do pop or bluegrass, and we had one guy raging on the fiddle. It didn’t feel like a gig where I had to start and stop at one time, I could kind of just do whatever I wanted.”
His Australian success almost kept him from returning to America, but eventually he did come back.
Joe has been busking on Corona del Mar for many years, so I wondered how the OC compared to other areas.
“Street performing in OC is great! The weather is fantastic year-round and so many people love to be outside around here. Also, if I ever feel like I’ve played in OC too much, I’m only an hour away from either San Diego or Los Angeles.
“Which songs get the biggest audience reactions?” I asked him. His answer: “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Hallelujah,” and “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran.
“And ‘My Girl’ by the Temptations, ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ – people will stop and listen,” said James. “We used to do ‘Thriller’ or any Michael Jackson song when you’re night busking. Everyone stops and listens to ‘Stand By Me’ or ‘Blackbird.’ People want to hear songs that either touch their heart or make them want to dance.
Watching James sing his original songs gets the best audience response. Last night, as he launched into his personal tunes, a passer-by stopped and said, “Dang boy, that’s pretty good!” The tips rolled in. Joe feels similarly, saying his originals are also crowd pleasers. “My songs are heavily influenced by Ed Sheeran and John Mayer. I write a lot of happy/feel-good music, but I also have a nice portfolio of sad ballads and angsty raps.”
I wondered if the music requests varied from city to city.
“Different genres are popular in different parts of the world, but for the most part mainstream pop and classics will get people vibing no matter where you are,” said Joe. “That said, if you are busking in New Orleans and you know a lot of Jazz and R&B, you’ll do significantly better than the other guy who is strictly playing Shawn Mendes and Pitbull.”
“What have you learned about people and music since you started busking?” I asked them.
“People really like live music,” said Joe. “I used to be insecure about street performing because I felt uninvited and that I was pushing my music on people that were minding their own business, but every time I go out, people tell me that they wish people would do it more often and that it makes their day.”
“You can access a different side of people,” added James. “Somebody could be [so rude] and you play a song that touches their heart, and it’ll look like you’ve touched their childhood or something. Their eyes will just tear up. You have no idea how much some songs mean to people, even if they might not even express it. It’s less about learning more about people, but rather seeing a different side of them. Love and human connection are the deepest things we can experience, and true compassion for somebody is pretty [freaking] special. And music is easily a really great way to achieve that. Music is also a great way to access the inner child of people and bypass their walls, ‘cuz so many people have walls.”
I wanted to know their favorite memories from busking.
“Honolulu, Hawaii was pretty exciting!” exclaimed Joe. “It was my first time flying with all my gear and I was able to pay for my trip in two sessions.”
“Busking is just so surreal,” said James. “I’ve played in the rain under an awning like this and people will be huddling under just to listen to me sing ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ by U2. It’s much more intimate then gigs. You’re playing under streetlights and people will pass by and then somebody will just turn around and listen and cry.”
While passing through New Orleans, I decided to try busking. I rented a guitar from a music shop in the Bywater, settled in Jackson Square, and strummed good-old fashion folk tunes, from Bob Dylan to Scott McKenzie. I’d always assumed buskers were a mix of runaways, transients, travelers, and other ragamuffin ramblers. However, turns out anyone can busk, and most simply trade one life for the other.
The more permanent of the New Orleans buskers look out for each other. I met one named Cameron Baker who went to UC Berkeley before deciding stage-less street shows were more rewarding. It wasn’t that hard to see why. In my two hours of singing and playing my little acoustic guitar, I had one of the best times of my life. Not to mention, a mere two hours made me a whopping $70. New Orleans tourists, perhaps generous from a well-enjoyed drink, were glad to stop and listen.
One man asked to see my guitar (“Ok, but please don’t steal it—I’m renting it,”), sat down next to me and played his wife a love song he wrote her. The tips poured in for simply my lending of a guitar, and a good time.
People’s enjoyment of music is infectious.
I found another busker, Emerald, from St. Lucia, and we dueted some classic Peter Paul & Mary.
Blake, the manager of a restaurant at Jackson Square, materialized out of thin air, strummed a complicated chord on my guitar, and told me that performers could eat for free, since we were entertaining the patrons, anyway. A po-boy never tasted so good.
In my time busking in the Bayou, I learned it really doesn’t take a lot to make people happy.