Grafton Street attracts buskers from everywhere vying for attention and hoping to earn a living. And for every 12-year-old Allie Sherlock, who has signed a five-year-deal with Patriot Records and appeared on Ellen DeGeneres show, there are many more plying their trade and making it a better place. We spoke to some of our favourites and heard their story.
“I like Dublin because it reminds me of a psychedelic film noir. Some towns are like a page on Facebook. It’s all presented to you”
Over the last 20 years, NC Lawlor has built a career as one of Ireland’s premier blues musicians. He’s booked countless gigs and residencies, supported the likes of Seasick Steve and Shane McGowan. and even travelled to Texas to play with legendary outlaw country star Billy Joe Shaver.
And yet, no matter where life takes him, he always returns to Dublin. “I like Dublin because it reminds me of a psychedelic film noir. Some towns are like a page on Facebook. It’s all presented to you. But this place feels like it’s full of history and ghosts, rights and wrongs, triumphs and tragedies.”
Lawlor’s journey began as a young boy in England. Due to “bizarre family circumstances”, his family moved to Manchester, and although he speaks of those years in unfavourable terms, they did have a formative effect on his music.
“When I first started guitar, there was a bar on the Manchester Road called the Black Horse, and every weekend, my friend and I would stand outside listening to this music. It was mostly taxi drivers and manual workers, playing the most incendiary, guttural blues.”
Though Lawlor would later play in indie bands before taking a break from music, he still remembers his first encounter with the blues. “There was a visceral energy to it that I really liked. It was very feral and punk in its delivery, and it had a beautiful DIY, lo-fi aspect to it.”
Years later, Lawlor returned to Ireland with a degree in fine art. It was 1998, and he was living in Dún Laoghaire, struggling to support himself as a painter. Desperate to make some money, he began to busk on the pier.
“I did very well financially, and I could begin to live off that and continue to paint. But then I got really interested in songwriting and music took over everything.” Riding the wave of the Celtic Tiger, Lawlor booked residencies in various bars and restaurants. At his peak, he was playing five gigs a week. But for Lawlor, these were creatively stunted times.
“I had become quite jaded. I was a bar musician, I didn’t really busk that much anymore. My writing suffered, because when you play 5-6 nights a week, you don’t want to pick up a guitar when you go home.”
Things came to a head when he was offered a place in Billy Joe Shaver’s tour band. After playing all over Britain, Lawlor accompanied the band on their American tour. But, what should have been the culmination of his career became a time for serious reflection.
“It was quite a bittersweet experience. I’ve always been a fan of Billy Joe Shaver, he’s the godfather of outlaw country. But the reality of it is, I’m not a Texan outlaw. That’s not my identity. We were doing the same songs every night, the same setlist, and I just found that creatively, I couldn’t continue like that.”
His return to Dublin coincided with the recession of 2008. Residencies began to dry up and he had to go back onto the streets to earn his money. For Lawlor, this was a blessing in disguise. “I had gotten into a rut in the bars. I became less and less creative, and it became more of a routine.”
“When I came back, I fell in love with Dublin again. There was a huge, eclectic music scene that I’d overlooked, and I wanted to find the music I wanted to make.” It’s only in the last few years that Lawlor feels he is reaching his full potential as a musician, something he attributes in part to his increased busking.
“The very nature and energy of a place like Grafton Street will definitely inform how you play. It really informs the music. The great thing about the street is it’s always changing. It’s an aggressively capitalistic place. There are tourists walking around. People who are homeless. People who are stinking rich. There’s every possibility of human energy on that street. So somehow you drink it all up and spew it all out. And I get hooked on that in music. If I get stuck creatively, I love to go to the street and re-engage with that energy.”
“It teaches you to get out of your own way. You can’t be intellectual or perfectionist. You have to be right there in the moment. And putting yourself there brings ideas and expressions you couldn’t have conceived through thought.”
In addition to constantly busking and gigging, Lawlor is making tentative steps towards recording an album down the line, “if only to make a document of my work and clear the attic.” When asked where his work ethic comes from, he gestures to his hands, which have the words ‘True Grit’ etched upon them.
“It came through years and years of self doubt. Last year, I got this tattooed on my hands to remind myself that I don’t get anything done creatively without getting my hands dirty. And that’s usually where the gold is. In the grit.”
“I’ve narrowed down my setlist from 100 covers. I have 20 that I know I will make money from”
Jacob Koopman only planned to stay in Ireland for a couple of months, but five years later, he’s still playing on the streets and building his following. So what made him stay? Our rich busking scene? Our strong cultural heritage? “Actually I got a girlfriend. Irish girls, man,” he grins.
Ah. Fair enough.
Koopman began busking in Amsterdam almost ten years ago. “I always used to play with someone else. I was a drummer that can harmonize, which is gold. Other musicians used to say, you can keep time and harmonize? You’re the perfect support!”
When busking was banned in Amsterdam, Koopman, who is Indo-Dutch, returned to Bali. He came home to work, but realized he could still make money from music. Gradually he started to build his skills as a frontman, and when a friend came to Ireland to busk, he decided to join him.
“I came here with five euros, but my friend said you have to try the Guinness, so I spent my last fiver on a pint! The next day, we busked on Grafton Street for the first time and made great money. Within two weeks, I got an apartment.”
Though Koopman landed on his feet, he still struggled with the transition from drummer to lead singer and guitarist. “You have to be a salesman. The first few times I performed solo, I would say ‘Oh you can buy my music but it’s not very good.’ You can’t do that! If you want to sell something, you have to say ‘I have this product and you’re going to want to buy it because it’s great.’”
Slowly, he began to learn from the performers around him. “I’ve seen some people play shit music, but it’s their confidence that makes them so good. It’s something you gather over the years. Anyone can be that charismatic. If you want to make it, you have to think, ‘fuck it, I don’t care what people think of me.’”
Another hurdle was his setlist. Koopman’s tastes range more towards prog rock and synth pop, but in order to make the most money, he’s had to be more pragmatic. “I’ve narrowed down my setlist from 100 covers. I have 20 that I know I will make money from.”
That’s important, because in addition to covering rent and living costs, busking is considered one of the last remaining avenues for independent artists to support a solo career. Like most buskers, Koopman is constantly reinvesting his money back into his music. In the process, he’s become a one-man record label.
“Nowadays, musicians have to do everything from graphic design to management to event organisation. You’re thrown in the deep end, and if you don’t know that shit, you don’t make it anywhere. No one’s going to help you in the beginning. It’s a difficult job and I don’t think a lot of people understand that.”
Regardless of what led him to stay in Dublin originally, the city has become Koopman’s home. It’s a place that offers him an audience and income beyond what Indonesia can offer, and he speaks of its streets with great affection. “I see more opportunity here as a musician. Grafton Street is famous all over the world for busking. It’s a really iconic street, and I think it’s wonderful.”
“I’ve realised I’ve had to masculinize myself to be taken seriously”
If you walk down Grafton Street this weekend, there’s a good chance you’ll find hundreds of people huddled around Brown Thomas, applauding and taking videos on their phone. At the centre of this congregation isn’t the latest season display, but Meg LaGrande, a commanding busker who’s bewitched crowds with her unique fusion of trad, electronica and pop.
Originally from Canada, LaGrande moved to Ireland to pursue her passion for Celtic music. She had quit playing lucrative Celtic shows around the world to concentrate on songwriting, but was struggling to gain any traction. All that changed after a chance encounter with the Pierce Brothers, a band that made their career from busking in Melbourne.
She met the group after performing a shaky gig in the Róisín Dubh, and over a long night of drinking, they invited her to play with them the next day at Sea Sessions in Donegal. “It was so validating, because I’d been trying to make this shift to performing and songwriting for a year and a half, and I was going nowhere.”
Inspired by her whirlwind weekend with the Pierce Brothers, LaGrande committed herself to busking in Dublin. “It was very stressful. I was very bad for a very long time. I remember at the end of the first month, I was surviving on food from the Hare Krishnas. But after a while I not only had enough money to pay my rent, but a little bit to put away to record my own music.”
Since then, LaGrande has continued to blossom as a performer, thanks in no small part to the tutelage of other professional buskers who traveled to Ireland to play on Grafton Street. These musicians taught her the importance of claiming her space and creating an atmosphere.
Unfortunately, many of these buskers have been driven out of the city by noise complaints to the council. LaGrande is very outspoken on this issue, and believes that by-laws on noise levels need to change. “I would not be the performer I am today, had I not met these musicians. We need professional buskers to be drawn to this street and set an example for our local musicians. You can’t be what you can’t see.”
LaGrande is wonderfully candid about her experiences in the Dublin busking scene. When asked if she’s encountered much sexism amongst her peers, she answers with only the slightest degree of trepidation.
“We’re… a very good community. But there are inequalities that come from existing in a male dominated industry. In the last year especially, I’ve realised I’ve had to masculinize myself to be taken seriously. When I meet an agent, I always have my leather jacket on, because I feel like more of a lad subconsciously. My hair will be up and my voice drops. You often think ‘please don’t sexualise me, please think of me as a capable session player first.’”
If LaGrande is frank about some of the issues with busking in Dublin, it’s because she views Grafton Street as a precious resource for musicians, something to be protected tooth and nail.
“It’s incredible, it’s changed my career. It’s the validation and encouragement you get from complete strangers. I remember I did one of those televised talent shows and I was completely shafted by one of the judges. It would have destroyed me if I’d done it before busking. But after the show, I had a little moment where I laughed, because I didn’t believe it. I have an overwhelming gratitude for this place.”
“Obviously you have to make a living but if I have a day where a load of crazy shit happens, it’s definitely worth it, even if I make bad money”
Jason McNamara is a drummer of incredible scope and versatility. In the space of an hour, he’ll run the gamut from hip-hop to bossa nova and afrobeat. That makes the music that got him into drumming all the more surprising.
“It was actually Nu-Metal,” he laughs. “I saw Staind and Vex Red at the Point when I was 15. You could feel it in your chest. I thought it was so powerful.”
Throughout his teens, McNamara played in a series of bands. It wasn’t until his early twenties that he realized that he could make a living from music. Eventually, he summoned the courage to bring his drums onto the streets, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“It’s been about 11 years, but it feels like a whole lifetime of experience. It’s mad the amount of people I’ve met, the projects and opportunities I’ve been involved in. It’s a whole spectrum. I’ve been punched in the face, and on the other end, I’ve fallen in love.”
Busking is much more than an income to McNamara; it’s a skill that allows him to meet people all over the world. “All the trips I’ve gone on and the places I’ve visited, I wouldn’t be able to do that unless I played music. It enables you to prolong trips, and it’s a really great way to get to know a place.”
It’s led to some incredible experiences. In Kaohsiung, he played a New Years Eve party to a rapt audience in his hostel. In St. Petersburg, he taught a percussion workshop for orphan teenagers. One time while playing in Estonia, a girl watched him play for an hour before leaving a note. Later, a friend translated it.
“It said, ‘your sound made my pain go away.’ I don’t take it for granted at all that people are affected by what they see and hear in the environment they occupy. Even if you go out and help one person, that’s amazing.”
“The experiences and the connections you make with people are priceless. The money is a bonus after that. Obviously you have to make a living but if I have a day where a load of crazy shit happens, it’s definitely worth it, even if I make bad money.”
He recalls one time in which he was playing on Grafton Street with Acid Granny, a crazy noise group who operate out of a trolley. Halfway through the set, a young child walked up to him. “He was dancing and talking in a language I didn’t understand. I offered him a drum stick, but he wouldn’t take it. So I spontaneously put a pot on his head and started playing it.”
“So I look to my right and there’s two lads on a trolley going mad on synthesizers, then there’s this kid squealing with happiness as I’m banging him on the head. The sun’s shining, we’ve a massive crowd, and I just think ‘How did I end up in this situation?’ It’s magic.”
Words: Jack O’Higgins
Photos: Killian Broderick