Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by music sounding so perfect that you couldn’t move even if you wanted to? This is what happened when I encountered Stephen James for the first time on Wicklow Street in Dublin where he was entertaining the crowds on a sunny Friday morning. I managed to grab him for a quick chat about the ins and outs busking for a living, his love of song writing and his plans for the future.
So Stephen, is music a full time job for you?
At the moment I pay for my life through busking and gigs, depending on which is more fruitful. I moved to Dublin about eight months ago and I lived in Galway for twelve years where I busked on the streets and played gigs. Since moving I’ve been going around doing all the open mics. I’ve played Whelans six times; I’ve been asked to do the Ruby Sessions four times; I done Vicar Street on New Year’s Eve to a sell out crowd which was pretty cool.
What’s the biggest difference between Galway and Dublin for a busker?
There’s more people in Dublin! You have to get in earlier in the morning. Busking in Dublin is like a full time job, you have to get in early to get a good spot. You wait for your spot and you have to sit there nursing it till around 11am anyway. The amount of money you get will depend on the spot you get. More often than not when I come in busking I haven’t a penny to my name. I’ve spent it on bills or insurance or rent so I come in to town with a goal as to how much I need to make. Generally those days are the days that I don’t make it, but I love busking in Dublin – it’s my favourite city to busk in.
Does it make it harder to enjoy what you’re doing when you have a certain amount of money that you need to raise?
Not at all. I normally approach it like being stuck in traffic and not getting there on time. If you’re going to be late, you’re going to be late. If I don’t make it, I don’t make it. The old phrase “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is true. I love playing music. I’ve worked a few other jobs like a mechanic and I worked as a labourer for a long time and then I work at scaffolding for twelve years. I don’t want to do those jobs anymore. I found music and that’s my passion. For me, the biggest transition was learning how to play cover songs because I don’t particularly like doing it. Playing cover songs is where the money is and you need money to live. At the end of the day it is a job but I do like it. It makes writing my own songs and being able to sing those on the streets a viable option – then I’m happy.
You’re obviously incredibly committed to your music then?
Yeah, I am fully committed to it. I depend on it 100% for a living. Everything else gets shelved for it, but I’m willing to do that because I am committed to it. I guess when you find someone who is like-minded it makes the world a better place.
How did you first get into music? When did you first start playing?
I never played music until about six years ago. Well, I was a DJ from my early teens and was in to dance music a lot. I saw a guy on the street one day playing a bodhran actually, because I love traditional Irish music too. My sister gave me guitar lessons over the phone from Sligo! When I started playing I just started writing. I think in the first year of me playing guitar I think I wrote maybe 70 or 80 finished songs. I think I unlocked some sort of creative lock or something. I kept learning, did some courses and it just went from there. At this stage I think it’s an obsession!
Where does the inspiration for your songs come from?
They come from people mainly. I wrote three songs this week; they come from my experiences with people and things I see. I can sit at a coffee shop and watch other people and tell you all about them, whether it’s stories I’ve made up in my head or real life. I don’t watch a lot of TV but I read a lot. B usking will tell you if a song is good. I always try them out on the street before I try them at a gig.
What has been your most interesting experience while busking?
You get to meet a lot of cool people on the street. You get to meet some not so cool people too though. You develop a hard skin quite quickly. While I was driving around Ireland – I was in Ennis – it was lashing rain and I went busking outside a small shop. A gang of youths came up to me; they were rough and ready and were just looking for trouble. They were just egging each other. I ended up giving two of them a CD each and ended up getting them on side. They brought me up to another spot and started warning people off, telling them to leave me alone. It was cool, because music did that. Music brought us together and I ended up having the best craic with them.
You have an EP coming out soon. What’s your long-term plan?
Well have the EP coming out very soon as you said. The album is three-quarters done so that will be out soon too I hope. The ultimate plan though is to be a touring musician. I want to keep writing, recording and releasing music fo as long as possible. To be as creative as possible for as long as possible. I am most happy when I am writing.
Stephen can be found in Dublin city, usually on Grafton Street or Henry Street , or you can head to one of his gigs. To keep up to date with gigs or find out any further information, visit his Facebook page.