Joshua Burnside's DIY Tour of the States
Unsigned singer-songwriter on lessons learned from organising a tour of America
You recently returned from your first tour of the States, something of a DIY affair. How long were you there?
Three weeks, and it flew by. It was myself, my brother Conor and my girlfriend Rachel. We'd played a couple of shows before – we'd played down south and across the water – but not a tour. We saw so much and did so much. No gig was the same.
How did the gigs differ?
One day we'd be in a student bar, the next day we'd be in someone's basement out in the woods. We played a lot of house shows. The DIY scene in New Jersey is so cool. People come out of nowhere to see bands play, and these tiny basements were just packed. It was sweaty, everyone was wasted and the atmosphere was just really, really good.
It's an unusual leap for an unsigned artist from Northern Ireland. How did the tour come about?
A guy was putting on a festival and he knew Andrew Farmer from Sons Of Caliber and wanted him to play a show, but he couldn't do it because he was getting married, so he recommended me. The organiser heard my stuff and said, 'Do you want to come over? I've got loads of Air Miles. I could fly two or three of you over, just for the festival.' So I was like, yeah! I decided that if I was going to go there, I may as well stay for a few weeks and book a tour.
Where was the festival?
It was in the middle of nowhere, in a little student town called Shippensburg in mid-state Pennsylvania, an Amish town. The guy who runs the festival, his uncle is Amish, so we got to go to an Amish farm and they let us have a go on their buggies and stuff. It was insane. They're Mennonites, which is slightly different and means that they use electricity and shave their beards. We met the mum and she had 15 kids!
They were really nice and happy to talk to us about what they do and what they're all about. They're all so skilled, so good with their hands. They can build these huge machines and farm the land. They had huge farmer hands from doing manual labour all day. They work from 6am to 8pm every day. I felt so lame saying I'm a songwriter.
What was the festival like?
It was in this arts centre and I expected there to be ten people there, but there was about 200 – they sold out. It was the first time the organiser ever put it on, and it was an absolute success. It was a beard festival – a beard contest. He must have had about 40 guys from the state and some of the beards were incredible.
There was a guy called Incredibeard. They got him to come over from San Francisco to judge the beards, and they had different categories, like ginger beards, best moustache, longest beard, thickest beard. It was pretty cool. There were loads of people from the town selling jewellery and CDs at stalls, and a few bands. People really dug it and we sold all our CDs, pretty much, after the first three gigs.
How did you book the rest of the dates?
First, I got in contact with promoters and venues but after a while I thought, it's just too hard. They don't know you, they don't know if you're going to bring a crowd, so there's no reason to book you. So I just went straight to the bands.
Every area that I thought might be good to play, I just trawled Bandcamp for artists I thought were cool and weren't huge, because they might not have gotten back to me. I was trying to find the right bands at my kind of level.
That must have been painstaking work.
Yeah, it was two months of constant emailing, and for every 50 emails you send you maybe get five or six responses, but even if people didn't have a gig they might know someone who puts on gigs. We started in Baltimore and the guy who put on the festival lent us his car, and we borrowed instruments from other people. It was probably the cheapest tour anyone has ever done in the history of tours. We spent so little money. Diesel is so much cheaper there, too. It was so good.
How did it differ from performing gigs in Northern Ireland?
Especially at house shows, I feel like you get to connect with people way more. After a gig here, in Northern Ireland, you go off stage and get pissed with your mates but at the house shows it's basically a party afterwards. You're just hanging out with everyone and you can ask people if they want to buy a CD when you're talking to them.
Your music draws from a lot of US indie-folk and Americana artists. Was that part of the appeal of going there to play?
I never even thought about it. A lot of the bands that we were playing with were really out there, especially the house shows. We played with bands that would do noise and experimental stuff, and we were on at the end and I'd feel really commercial compared to them, playing my folk songs, but they really dug it.
I was really impressed by how many people came to see these bands who were doing really weird stuff in their basement. It's hard enough to draw a crowd in Belfast with really good, semi-commercial music.
Did you make money from the tour?
After the first week I had more money than I came with, from the shows and stuff, but then New York happened and we probably partied a bit too hard. It's not often you're in New York.
Was the tour a one-off experience, or do you hope to try it again sometime?
I have plans to go back next year and the year after, because I've made so many great contacts. People who put on shows every week and really liked us and said, 'Come back any time and we'll put you up and do it again'. So I want to do the exact same thing but twice as many shows. We only got as far as New Haven in Connecticut, so we'll go up to Boston, and maybe Chicago, and wherever else.
It was an incredibly ambitious thing to do – other musicians may have lacked the drive, imagination and determintation to see it through. Do you think that jobbing musicians set their sights too low?
A lot of people wait around, hoping to meet some guy who's going to book their tour, but it always seemed to me that you just have to do everything yourself. I think it's far more rewarding putting out your own record, putting on your own show.
I think you have to do that, and if someone sees that you can do all that and build a fanbase, do a tour, put out records and do it well, then maybe they'll take an interest and help if they can. There's no point waiting around for someone else. Just do it.
What lessons will you take from the experience, and perhaps pass on to other acts from Northern Ireland?
I'm really inspired by how they're just doing it over there. It's a tip-based thing – people come in and throw the bands a couple of dollars. If you don't have any money, you don't have to pay in. But they were so generous. One of the shows, we walked away with €160. I rarely get paid that well for a gig here.
I'd like to put on a house show. I was actually talking about it with one of my best mates who lives out in the sticks. He's got a big empty space downstairs that nobody's using, so we were thinking of putting on a show there, getting people to tip, promoting it well. It would be good fun. We could do it regularly. You don't need venues, or promoters. You can bypass all that.
What's next on the itinerary?
I want to play a few gigs here now, and maybe a few dates on the continent. I feel like I've learned a lot from this tour. But I'll see how it goes. I'd really like to record my next album first and go on tour again after that.
Visit Joshua Burnside's Facebook page for more information on releases and upcoming concerts. Main image courtesy of Tom McGeehan.