Netherlands singer-songwriter Graeme James discussed the art of making strangers give him money, before playing Wilmington on Nov. 2.
Graeme James knows how to hypnotize strangers into pouring out their wallets/purses for him when he’s street performing.
It’s a skill James seriously had to hone in 2012 when he became a full-time busker to meet ends meet.
James, who now lives in the Netherlands, offers an alluring one-man-band live show featuring foot-stomping electric violin, guitar, bass, baritone ukulele, mandolin, harmonica, percussion and vocals as he recreates his fierce tunes in real time with a loop pedal.
Nine years after starting out as a full-time busker, James has certainly leveled up. He now plays indoor venues around the world. He’s garnered over 25 million streams on Spotify and Apple Music. Additionally, he dropped a new album titled “The Long Way Home.”
James returns to North America to play a 10-city tour, launching at The Grand (Baby Grand location) in Wilmington on Saturday, Nov. 2.
Weren’t you a teacher at one point?
I trained as a primary-school teacher. I was very young when I started, maybe 17-years-old when I started studying at university. After two-and-a-half years of study, I had a bit of a meltdown, realizing I was going to be in charge of 30 kids. I sort of self-sabotaged and dropped out of the course with six months to go. I got a series of very strange and very normal jobs, working at things like KFC and driving forklifts.
The prospect of 30 kids scared you, but what about the idea of performing in a room full of drunk adults?
It’s quite similar. There’s a lot of overlap [laughs]. When I was about 10 years old, my father decided it was time for my brother and I, and him, to go out on the street and play Christmas carols at Christmas. It was an absolutely mortifying prospect as a 10-year-old to think I might see one of my friends or they might see me, more specifically.
Because my brother and I were particularly cute at that time, with playing instruments and whatnot, we made an absolute killing. We made a lot of money and I think that kind of let me know I was doing alright. That then led me to doing some of my own street performances as a teenager with solo, acoustic violin. That really cured me of any stage fright I might’ve had.
What’s a strategy you used to encourage people to give you money when you were busking?
It’s a weird thing, but somehow people can sniff out if you’re trying to get something from them. What that often looks like is I’ll go into a circumstance where I’m really wanting to just play some music and enjoy myself. I’ll put on a show that’s amazing, even by my own standards, because I’m having fun, I want people to engage with it and I really want to serve people in that moment; I want their day to be better.
When you have that kind of attitude, people feel generous towards that. Then you have this situation where it’s like: ”Dang, I just made $400 dollars.” You go home and you’re counting your money and you go, “I’m going to go out there tomorrow and make $400.” But then you only make like $20 bucks because you have the wrong attitude [laughs].
What key differences have you noticed about the United States compared to the Netherlands?
My experience in The States isn’t a typical one. It’s probably more similar to a truck driver or something like that, because you play a show, try to figure out how to wind down from the show, then you hop in the car, drive to your accommodation, get as much sleep as you can, wake up the next morning and then you drive.
For the vast majority of The States, or at least the motorways, it’s almost like a facsimile of itself. You drive along until you see the trees on both sides of the road, two or three lanes, you drive past the signs waiting to see the Chipotle or Starbucks, depending on whichever you want [laughs]; then you do the same thing again and arrive at the location and take the photo of the thing you’re supposed to take the photo with for social media, and you play the show and repeat the process.
It’s a very different kind of view, but I think one of the things that comes through is you meet great people at the shows.