A Busker's Life For Me

Stephen Catherwood on singing on the streets of Belfast, shooting the breeze with the locals, and his enduring fear of the stage

How did you get into busking, and was it nerve-racking at first?

Honestly, I was unemployed at the time and had just moved to Belfast. I was looking for work and playing guitar a lot in my flat, and I thought I'd try heading out to busk. I figured I was playing guitar for a few hours in my room everyday, so why not head out and try it on the street?

I was very nervous to begin with and I felt like I was imposing on people. But after the first day, the general public had been very supportive and had said some very nice things. It was a really nice feeling, so I decided to head out the next couple of days to see how it would go.

How do you decide what songs to play, and does it depend on the time and place?

When I started I didn't have that many songs. Most of the stuff I played when I first began were pieces I wrote to practice different techniques. I didn't want to be playing any one song for too long, so I'd try and play as many different pieces as I could.

I was playing one day and a man came up and asked me what song I was playing. I told him it was one of my own and he told me he thought it was great. So since then I decided to play more of my own material and songs that I enjoyed playing. I love playing the Last of the Mohicans theme, which most people seem to like. (See video below.)

Do you have to perform crowd pleasers that you'd rather not?

I play the Game of Thrones theme, and 'Drifting' by Andy McKee, which are kind of crowd pleasers. But those are amongst my favourite songs to play anyway, so it's a win-win situation.

What is the longest period of time you've busked for in one sitting?

The longest sitting was maybe about six or seven hours.

Is it worth it, financially?

I'll just say that every penny that goes into my case makes a difference to the quality of my life. I guess it's the old cliché of the struggling musician, but it's the truth. Some days, busking gives you a bit of extra spending money. Some days, it buys you food and electricity. It all makes a difference, and sometimes that difference can be significant. It also allows me to continue to play.

Do you see strange things happening on the streets, or do you switch off to the world around you?

Honestly, most of the time I just stick my head down and keep playing. I still get a little nervous if people stop to listen, which probably sounds stupid. So I find keeping my head down and playing does me fine.

I've looked up before and there was a big group of tourists that had stopped to film me. Your brain goes into panic mode and you think, 'Don't mess up, don't mess up.' Then your head goes blank and you forget how to play the guitar. Although it's happened a few times now and if I make a mistake, I just laugh it off. I figure if I'm taking it that seriously, I'm doing something wrong.

Have you experienced any negativity from passers-by when performing?

I'm lucky in that I haven't had any serious issues when playing. You'll get the occasional drunk, which can sometimes go either way. Sometimes they're friendly enough. They'll stop for a dance before they move on. Sometimes they want to play the guitar or have a nice long chat, or sometimes you can get a bit of aggression. But it's never gotten out of control.

I am lucky, though, that the response I've got when busking has been mainly positive. My favourite one was when I was blattering away and drumming on the guitar and there was a father watching me intently. Sitting next him was his son, maybe about three or four years of age. He had his face scrunched up and both hands clasped tightly over his ears. It made me laugh. I thought that would be a great album cover.

Is there a community feeling amongst buskers in Belfast, or is it every man and woman for themselves?

It can be everyone for themselves, but I think everyone that plays out in the street can relate to each other. We're all musicians, and most of us need money. Sometimes it's great and other times it really can be hard work.

I empathise with other buskers, particularly over the winter. Winter's tough. Overall, though, I'd hope that the feeling is supportive from buskers and the public. I'm sure that there are people that think I'm making an awful racket, and they might be right. But other people seem to like it, so that's one of the reasons I keep doing it.

Was it easy to make the transition from busking on the streets to performing on stage?

I always get nervous playing live on a stage. It feels so formal, or like you're being put on a pedestal or something. Busking can be a bit more laid-back. You're trying to win people's attention for a couple of minutes, whereas on stage it feels like you're presenting yourself to be judged.

When playing the Black Box, I was so nervous that my hands were shaking for about an hour after I'd played. It all went well, though. I was relieved and happy. It was a really good day. The best piece of advice I got was from Biggy Bigmore. He told me, 'It's just busking, but on a stage. Pretend you're busking and enjoy it.' That helped me a good bit. Playing was fine, but anytime I talked into the mic, I was a gibbering heap.

What are the major differences between performing on the street and performing on stage?

I think there's less pressure playing out on the street. I'm totally aware of the irony of someone who wants make a career out of music being terrified of play gigs. But that's where the busking really helps build confidence.

If your recording career took off, would you give up busking completely?

I think that would depend on availability, but I owe a lot to busking and it's been a great experience that's created opportunities for me and has been a great way to advertise my music. I would hope that people would still want to listen to me play as well, and as long as that's the case, I think I would. Being out on the street on a nice sunny day is the thing that makes me happiest. I really do feel lucky that that's the case.