In 2002 I was living in Montreal, Canada trying to earn a crust from music and my main source of income was busking in the Metro, the city’s underground train network. The system by which the buskers operated was very loose and unregulated. If you wanted to perform on an given day you’d have to arrive at a cafe on St Denis Street near Berri-UQAM by 530 am. Some of the buskers would be there all night so they could get first pick of the locations. The best time of day to play was just before or after rush hour and the best location was at Berri-UQAM station, because it was huge, had great acoustics and there were always lots of people waiting for trains within earshot. Names would go down on a scrap of paper which would then be hidden in a secret place by the first of the day’s buskers. Whatever was on the paper was the word of the law. It was definitely a flawed system. Sometimes I would arrive at my spot--having gone back to bed after getting up at the crack of dawn to secure it--to find someone already there who either didn’t know about the system or didn’t care. An argument would ensue which I would invariably lose because of my lack of fluency in French and I’d have to pack up and move elsewhere. Sometimes this meant spending a couple of hours riding from station to station until I found a free spot.
I had some weird offers of gigs from busking in Montreal. On one occasion a guy asked if I would I come and play at his friend’s restaurant in a couple of weeks. Would $200 be an acceptable fee? Would it?! I would have done it for a plate of spaghetti. He said it would just be a casual gig and I said, cool, no problem. I arrived on the day of the show and set up in the corner. The restaurant was empty except for the waiter, the guy who’d booked me and his female companion. Well, I thought. This is going to be a little awkward. They sat and smooched while I tuned my guitar and tried to think of a song I could play that didn’t concern a break-up or personal emotional trauma of some kind. I drew a blank. Every song I’d written was at best downbeat, at worst, positively depressing. I decided I would just play my usual repertoire but would slur the words so they wouldn’t be able to understand what I was saying and to switch minor chords for major sevenths which have a much more hopeful feel to them without sounding totally out of key. It went ok for about fifteen minutes and then the guy came over and told me he was going to propose and could I play The Lady In Red by Chris De Burgh? Or as I call him Chris De Urgh. Sorry, I said, I don’t know how to play it. Which was true by the way. As much as I hate Chris De Burgh I would have played it if I could. I would have theoretically played the Birdie Song by The Tweets if he’d asked me. He was visibly disappointed and walked back to the table crestfallen. The atmosphere turned sour after that and a few minutes later he came over again and thrust a wad of notes into my hand and told me I could go. I’ve never packed my gear up so quickly in my life.
Around the time I was busking in Montreal I had my first taste of success as a writer of television music. I’d run into Luc St Pierre, an old music friend, in a supermarket and we’d exchanged numbers. He’d been working on a terrible French Canadian show called Tribu.com and said he needed a song to replace Radiohead’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ for the opening scene of the new season premiere. “Ah ha!” I said, “I have a song that could work. And Radiohead are from my hometown by the way! In fact Fake Plastic Trees is a song I play in my busking set!” I was oversharing in excitement. I was convinced that my song ‘Unnatural World’ was a perfect fit and happily the show’s producers agreed. It was my first TV placement and I was paid $1500 which was a very big deal to me at a time when I was living off scraps. I tuned in to watch the show a few weeks later and was amazed and shocked to hear my song playing underneath the opening scene of the season premier in which two major characters from the previous season--and their baby--die in a terrible accident with an eighteen-wheel freight truck. The scene ended with my mournful falsetto hanging in the air as the camera pulled back from their freshly dug graves. I prayed it wouldn’t prove to be a metaphor for my TV music career.
I was busking in the subway the day after the episode aired and got to the point in my set where depression had started to overcome me as it always did when nobody was stopping to listen, and I decided to play ‘Unnatural World’ to twist the knife even deeper. As I began to sing I noticed a young woman who’d walked past me had stopped and was listening, enthralled. I sang my heart out and when she walked up to me afterwards she asked me in wonderfully French Canadian slang “C’est tu la chanson d’Tribu ca!?” I confirmed that indeed it was and to my immense pleasure she gasped and clutched her breast in disbelief that a real live pop star was playing right there in the subway! Franchement! C’est incroyable ca! I sold her copies of both my albums for a five dollar discount and even signed them for her. She thanked me profusely and walked away, still shaking in surprise. Wow, I thought, I could definitely get used to this.