Meghan McDonald

Sound experimenter, visual poet and filmmaker

Busking Across the U.S.: A Social Experiment and Testament to Human Kindness

Pittsburgh, Pa. Photo still by Brandon Clemens

Pittsburgh, Pa. Photo still by Brandon Clemens

This post was published on the Huffington Post on 10/19.

An Emotionally Naked Performance

As a street performer, the question “What’s it like busking?” is posed to me often, usually coming from curious bystanders and fellow musicians as they gauge whether or not they want to try it out for themselves.

And because this summer I took my street gig on the road to 20 cities across the states, I received this question tenfold in the aftermath -- although it was technically my second most asked question.

Imagining what it's like busking is somewhat of an easy task -- even if you’re someone who cannot fathom the idea of performing in public.

Picture the busiest street corner, subway station or park you pass on your daily commute. Depending on the time of day, passersby are simultaneously ignoring their surroundings as they stare at their phones, while still managing to weave in and out of one another.

Visualize stopping at the most crowded point of the street or station and shouting “Hello!” at the top of your lungs.

Whether or not people react outright, most eyes make their way to you and then instantly dart away. But in this scenario, that doesn’t stop you. You continue to shout greetings at these strangers while most make dogged attempts to appear as if they haven’t heard you at all.

Occasionally, a few drifters stop by to chat — they didn’t realize it, but they were searching for someone to acknowledge them. They welcome your hellos. Some stretch the limits of small talk and ignore your subtle cues that you want the conversation to end. But all in all, you’re grateful that someone was listening.

Mix all of those social elements with music and you have yourself a comparable experience to what it feels like performing in public spaces -- out of place, in everyone’s way, sprinkled with a few lasting connections.

After playing in 20 cities this summer, I became quite comfortable with putting myself in socially uncomfortable situations. I performed among the best buskers in the country in New Orleans' French Quarter, to an antsy Fourth of July crowd in Austin, to the tourists and local weirdos on Hollywood Boulevard, was booted off of the Santa Monica boardwalk, snuck in a few rounds at Seattle’s permit-required Pike Place Market, among many other crowds and backdrops.

The concept of marrying music with the road is one of the oldest unions since humans started manipulating sounds -- just as busking is one of the most ancient professions in recorded history.

Arguably the most embedded type of performance, buskers implants themselves among the bustling traffic, the irritated late interns and the homeless. The listeners don’t initially go to the performer — the performer goes to the listeners. And eventually, if you’re lucky and good at what you do, the listeners will momentarily halt their day to enjoy a moment with you.

Safety? What About It?

Busker in Balboa Park in San Diego. Photo by Meghan McDonald

Busker in Balboa Park in San Diego. Photo by Meghan McDonald

In many ways, my busking trip was more of a social experiment than a test of my musical abilities. It was people who tipped me for my songs, and people -- some of whom were essentially strangers -- who hosted me all across the country.

One instance of this stranger-to-stranger trust that dumbfounded me time and time again was a family I found on Couchsurfers who opened up their home to me -- located in a trailer park in Idaho -- as they were away on vacation.

While I was thrilled to be so well received in a myriad of different settings, the “strangers” aspect was what had initially dimmed my prospects for this trip -- nearly leading me to throw in the towel before even taking off.

Which brings me to my first most frequently asked question: “What about your safety?” — which was, humorously, the last concern on my mind when first planning my trip.

After announcing my summer plans, I received so many questions regarding my safety, it actually inched its way into my mind as a concern, initially deflating my excitement (especially when it was revealed to me that many feared for my safety because I was a “small woman traveling alone.”)

But after traveling 8,450 miles (that’s 177 hours, or about 7.3 full days, spent in transit), the most dangerous occurrence was a homeless woman following me in broad daylight for two hours in Atlanta, leaving me unscathed and loaded with a funny story.

The concept of strangers being something to instantly distrust was turned on its head as these strangers-turned-friends ended up being the “how” behind me being able to complete my venture.

Except for one instance, my room and board for the entire trip was provided by hosts. Without their hospitality, I wouldn’t have completed my goal.

Which leads me wonder: What are we actually afraid of when we say we fear for our safety? Is a fear and obsession over safety a socially accepted way of closing ourselves off to other people and new experiences? 

Although, to be fair, it's not a foolish question to ask -- "Are we safe on the road?" -- but more-so a question that never receives a complete answer.

Vernal, Colorado. Photo by Meghan McDonald

Vernal, Colorado. Photo by Meghan McDonald

The road's never-ending pivots can lead you down Montana's ink-black highways, where the star-dotted sky is shades brighter than the miles that stretch on so far that each minute seems identical to each hour. Or the road can weave you in between Colorado's mountains and fields, with colors so vivid, you have to double check that you're awake.

At the end of the day, though, the setting wasn't the truly defining layer of my trip. Nor were the countless tunes I sang to myself and to bystanders.

While the music may have brought the people to me, it was the people that inspired me to continue along for all those miles. Just as they continue to keep me plucking away at my guitar strings one note, one shy smile and one performance at a time.

 

Writing Music: The Idea

This is the first part in a series of blog posts on writing music

Some songs stem from clever lyrics that eventually match up with a catchy tune. In other instances, the music comes first. Whether you are primarily a composer or a lyricist, there is no right or wrong process for songwriting — all paths lead to the same product: a completed song.

For me, a song idea may come in a different form each time with one theme in common, no matter the route: There is no start or finish time for writing music.

While some may not be able to fully “clock out” from a job (constantly checking emails, etc.), I am incapable of clocking out from songwriting. But, then again, I would argue that the same goes for poets, inventors, journalists or anyone constantly on the lookout for ideas.

HOW A SONG TAKES FORM (FOR ME)

A lyric may sprint across my mind on the train, at a meeting or on the toilet. My phone’s notes section is littered with potential intros, choruses and bridges to songs that then get dumped into a Google Doc I’ve created, titled “Encyclopedia of Random Thoughts.”

I try to add recent notes to my "Encyclopedia of Random Thoughts" at least once a week to keep my songwriting in order.

I try to add recent notes to my "Encyclopedia of Random Thoughts" at least once a week to keep my songwriting in order.

When a melody (or bass or guitar solo) pops into my head, I use the voice recorder on my phone or the Music Memos app (which is a personal favorite and must-have for musicians).

While this increasingly digital world does have its own set of mishaps, I must tip my hat to the ease technology has provided the songwriting process, especially in the day to day.

There is no ideal setting for ideas to thrive. I have found that I come up with my most useable material when my mind is in a manic state — and to be honest, that’s rarely at home when I’m clutching my guitar, waiting for an idea to pop up. It’s when I’m stressed out, or when I miss the subway train, after getting yelled at, you name it, that the lines or melodies start to rush in.

Although, to me, alone time is a necessity for the compilation phase — for combining which lines go with which melody. (Please note that this is just one way of putting a song together and is a more scattered approach.)

A concrete example of how the compilation process worked for me on a lyrical level was the collaborative song (co-written with Jonny Altrogee) “Nobody’s Postcard.”

Selected lyrics are below with blue lines coming from separate entries in my "Encyclopedia of Random Ideas," with additions from my musical partner-in-crime, Jonny (JA):

See lyric video here for full lyrics.

To put a scene to the lyrics, this song originated from Jonny kicking off practice with a really catchy guitar loop. (Jonny’s biggest strength, in my opinion, is his ability to combine strong rhythms with his relaxed guitar methods. He has a neat freak, yet spastic sound to his strumming.)

Once he had an instrumental sound going that we both agreed on, I started sifting through my one-liner entries, eventually piecing together a song that shaped into an ode to disconnectedness. 

AND NOW FOR SOME UNSOLICITED ADVICE

A benefit of writing songs with one-liners is that, if an overarching theme can be maintained, the effect is almost poem-like. The lacking aspect, however, is letting go of specificity and a linear storyline.

“Nobody’s Postcard” can almost be applied to any circumstance and person dealing with disconnectedness. Ambiguity is a cape — if you choose to make it part of your songwriting process, eventually you have a cape that can fit any listener who chooses to try it on.

As a side note, for writing poems, working on art or any craft, I encourage you to work with your obsessions. My line “Nobody’s made a postcard for where I’ve been” originated from an obsession I had with postcards.

There was a point last year when I couldn’t walk past the Strand without tearing through their postcards section and buying at least five. Crazy? Eh. Song material? Definitely. Follow your quirks. If you don’t know what your quirks are, ask a friend. I’m sure they’ve had a mental list going for quite some time now.

Also, work with technology. Email the lines to yourself; put them in your notes section. Don’t trust your memory to retain the lines you come up with, say, before bed or throughout the day. I don’t care how great your memory is — there’s something sacred about the material that we come up with in the heat of the moment that should be documented immediately.

I tend to think of my one-liners and melodies as coming from an unworldly muse. If I don’t take care of or use what she gives me, my well of ideas may end up dry one day.