Every block of New York is filled with something musical, from Brooklyn's DIY warehouses to Carnegie Hall's storied stage. Even the subways, with their clanging cars, screaming door-alarms, and over-crowded commutes can be an oasis of pleasant melodies (more so if James Murphy has his way). For Underground Sounds, City Guide highlights the best buskers in New York—musicians who may not have made it to the big (or small) stage yet, but have found a way to survive by playing to the constantly-moving multitudes underneath the city.
It's a blisteringly hot Saturday in July, but the Bedford L train station is relatively cool. On the platform, husband and wife duo Thomas and Jamie Kopie (a.k.a. Coyote & Crow), armed with a banjo and a portable kick-drum, break into an old-timey cover of the George Gershwin classic "Summertime." Almost immediately, the hipsters, tourists, and post-brunch idlers form a wide circle around the band. Some film them with cell phones, while others drop dollar bills into the small box in front of the band. Even the most sour-looking hipsters can't help but tap their toes as the bouncing Appalachian melody carries through the station. Then the trains arrive to carry away Coyote & Crow's temporary audience, and exchange it for a new one. I caught up with the band between songs to talk about their daily busking routines, surprising past jobs, and stories from the subways.
Interview and images by Nathan Reese
How long have you been busking for a living?
Thomas: I've been busking for three and a half years, and she's been joining me for the past couple of years.
What inspired you to start?
Thomas: When we first moved to the city about six years ago I saw a lot of people doing it. [Then] I got pushed out a job and I needed an income, so I decided to give it a try.
Where you from originally?
Thomas: I'm from Utica, New York.
Jamie: And I'm from Watertown, up by Canada.
When you first started, was it intimidating to just start playing?
Thomas: Oh, yeah! When I first started for the first couple of months I just did instrumental—I didn't sing at all. I had never really sang, and that was most intimidating thing for me. Same with you, I think?
Jamie: Yeah, definitely. Singing in front of people was a big fear of mine.
How does picking a spot work? Do you use the MTA's official sign-up?
Jamie: It's a big community of musicians and we all sort of work with each other. We trade off spots throughout the day, and take shifts just like a real job. There is MUNY, but we aren't a part of that. Most people who perform down here aren't a part of MUNY. It's a kind of no rules type thing.
How long have you been playing music?
Thomas: I dabbled a little bit when I was a kid. Then I got into skateboarding for a while and that took me pretty far, but I got hurt and I couldn't do that anymore. So I had to pick music up again. It's always been a huge passion of mine, but as for playing it, I'd say I've been doing it for maybe four years.
I see that you have recordings for sale. How did you guys end up getting studio time?
Jamie: There was somebody on the platform, actually. He offered to do a free recording for us.
Thomas: Yeah, he was like "Do you want to do a demo?" and we were like "We can't really afford that," but he offered to do it for free. It allowed us to get some stuff out there.
How much would you make in a good hour?
Thomas: Enough to survive, if I can just say it like that. We live off of it. We work for about four hours a day, I'd say, so you do the math [laughs].
Aside from the Bedford L, what are your favorite spots to play?
Jamie: We play a lot on the F and M line. Sometimes the L platform at 6th Ave.
Thomas: Union Square is pretty fun to play. Then there's downtown, Broadway-Lafayette, West 4th, and Washington Square is really big right now.
Do you mostly play covers or write your own songs?
Thomas: When we do covers, we do our own renditions. If you want to do that song, just listen to that artist. We try and do old-time renditions and write our own music as well—it's kind of a mix.
Who are some of your influences?
Thomas: Old-time: Doc Watson, Bob Dylan's a huge influence. Lonnie Johnson. New stuff: He's My Brother She's My Sister, Gillian Welch, Brown Bird.
Today when you came out, did you know you were going to play the Bedford stop?
Thomas: No, I hoped that I was, but you never really know. We never really orchestrate anything beforehand. You just hope you made it out early enough to catch a good spot.
Is there ever any tension between musicians trying to pick a spot?
Jamie: There's been a couple [of times], but for the most part everyone is pretty cool
Thomas: It's been awhile since we've had a bad altercation. At 6th Ave. I was there for about an hour and a bucket drummer set up and just started playing over me. If he over to talk we could have set up a time, but now the whole station just sounds terrible because there's so much racket going on. Some of the stations you can fit two or even three musicians in, but at 6th Ave. it's pretty tight quarters.
Do you guys think you'll keep laying music for a living?
Thomas: I can't see myself going to back to a regular job after doing this. Hopefully playing music is where it's going to be, but we built our instruments. She plays a standup banjo bass that we built, so maybe if this doesn't do it, but maybe we'll start making instruments.