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 will highlight 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.
I'm heading to Manhattan to run some errands after visiting a friend in Williamsburg. As I enter the Lorimer L station, I hear a softly strummed guitar and voice that manages to cut through all the noise. He's caught the attention of several people waiting for the train, and a woman tosses some change his way: "This guy is actually pretty good."
When I decide to make an approach to introduce myself, it's in the quiet between two trains. Commuters are still shuffling determinedly, but the station is mostly empty; our troubadour is taking a break. I soon learn that the singer/songwriter goes by the moniker Poorly Made, but that his first name is Mikhael. His music, acoustic folk—which Mikhael compares to The Tallest Man On Earth or Ed Sheeran on his Facebook page—could easily capture a crowd most any Brooklyn venue. (His guitar case, scattered with crumpled dollar bills, makes it apparent he's doing at least doing somewhat alright for himself.) Over the course of our short chat, Poorly Made tells me about busking for a living, why he chose this particular station, and how much he makes in an hour.
Interview and images by Nathan Reese
How did you start performing in subway stations?
I went to film school for like a whole year, and then when I was done I was shooting a whole bunch of short films and stuff, but it was like, infrequent work. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 16, and I was playing for my friends one day and they were like ‘dude, just play on the subway.’ So I did! And that’s what I do now. [Laughs]
How do you choose your spot to play?
Usually what I do is, I’ll come in and I’ll see where most people come from. Like, from here, most people are coming from the G train, coming up towards this bench. So I sit up here because they have to come past me. But usually if I go to a spot and there’s someone else there, you just ask them when they’re finished and then you’ll just come back when it’s a better time. It’s like an unwritten list.
Have you ever had a conflict when someone wanted to play in your spot?
One time I was right here and right across from me on that bench, this dude just starts playing, and I was like [shakes head and starts playing guitar] and he left.
I can tell you have a bit of an accent, where are you from originally?
How long have you been in the States?
I spent a year in Georgia, and I’ve been in New York for a year and a half, so two and a half years.
Aside from playing in the subway, do you ever book shows?
Oh yeah, I play all the time. I want to try and book my own shows soon, but right now I’m sticking to open mics and tryouts—things like that. Doing my recordings here and there. I played the Hollow Nickel Battle of the Bands. That’s the only battle of the bands I’ve ever been in, actually, and I won.
How much money do you usually make an hour, if you don't mind my asking?
Like, ten, twelve an hour?
Thanks so much for talking to me. I'll let you get back to work.
For more on Poorly Made, and to hear more of his music, check him out Facebook.