Nothing makes a city feel more alive than the music of buskers bouncing off walls, echoing down alleyways. Last December I traveled to Seattle’s Pike Place Market to talk with buskers and get their stories. I first ran into pianist and songwriter Jonny Hahn, who’s been playing piano on the corner of Pike and Pine for thirty years. As I approached, his music was playful yet intense, his head held high as he sang, hands and feet working the piano, and he somehow played flawlessly with gloves on! Between songs, he told me about himself and the busking life.
DOPE: Most of your songs are very political. How does the public react to you and your message?
JONNY: I get the full range of responses. Some laugh, some get pissed, some don’t even notice. One time, during the Bush administration, a guy rushed up; he was furious. He shoved my tip jar to the ground and ripped my signs down because the political message pissed him off so much. People need to realize that art in public places is invaluable. It’s a boon to cultural consciousness. Out here, just expressing yourself is a political act. It speaks to free-spiritedness and the democratization of culture.
You’ve been doing this a while. How has busking changed over the years?
Where to start? One big change is the digital revolution has had a major impact on busking. With streaming and MP3s, CD sales have plummeted, which was the heart of my business. Making money from tips was never my main source of income, and now, even that is dropping off. People will take pictures and sometimes even videos but not throw a tip in the jar. So business has gotten tougher. I’m not out here to be the starving artist. I’m here to make a living.
Your lyrics are so intense and thought out. What’s your creative process for songwriting?
It starts with a kernel of an idea, like a subject of interest or a concept. It percolates in my mind for a while. Eventually, I’ll sit down, turn off the phone, and play with ideas both lyrically and musically until something starts to gel. It can take a long time. It can take five years for a song to come together, but there’s no rush. It’s like this guy who strapped a bunch of helium balloons to a lawn chair back in the 1980s—have you heard this story? He had this crazy idea for twenty years, and then finally it came together, and he was sixteen thousand feet in the air. It’s like that. Things percolate.
The crowd ebbed and flowed, so I let Jonny get back to work. I wandered through the market until I spotted Faith Grossnicklaus playing violin between Pike Place Flowers and Left Bank Books. She wore an overcoat, high heels and a yellow rose in her pin-curled hair. She looked like she’d just stepped off a train in the 1920s. Faith recently moved to Seattle from Creswell, Oregon, where she learned to play violin at the age of seven. She grew up attending the Oregon Country Fair, and as soon as she could play a tune, her father encouraged her to take her fiddle there and play for the crowd. She’s been busking ever since.
DOPE: What’s a day in the life as a Pike Place busker?
FAITH: It starts the night before, with setting my pin curls. Then in the morning, wake up, makeup and hair, and get myself to the market by 10:45 so I’m ready to go for an 11:00 set. In those fifteen minutes I choose a flower for my hair from Pike Place Flowers, grab a yerba mate from The Creamery, head to the bathroom to make any last adjustments and put on my high heels, leaving just enough time to wander back out to the market and find my pitch [busking location]. I aim to do two to four sets before 5pm to make it a solid work day.
Do you make a living at this, or is it more of a side-gig?
Busking has been my full-time job for the past four or five years. It’s completely possible, but as with anything, it takes a lot of hard work and strategy. Since last summer, I’ve been trying to make it more of a side-gig to my business, Bone China Designs. When I’m not busking or touring with my band, Roselit Bone, I’m making wearable, porcelain, bone-inspired creations. I just got my business license a few months ago and that’s where I’ve been putting most of my energy lately.
What’s the strangest or most surprising thing that’s ever happened to you while busking?
That’s a hard one. When you put yourself out in public, ANYTHING can happen. Whether that’s meeting Nick Cave at a farmers market in Edinburgh, Scotland, or realizing that the guy who’s been ‘looking for change in his pocket for too long’ is, in fact, not looking for change and has been touching himself while watching you play. That weirdness aside, I’m always surprised by the wide array of people who will tip a busker, how many people know Irish step dancing, and how many people want to tell a complete stranger with a violin their entire life story. You never know what’s going to happen when you’re playing in public.