Mitch James spent two years busking and playing open mic nights around Europe, sleeping in hostels and on park benches, before getting signed to Sony. Henry Oliver asks him how he did it, and what songs make buskers the most money.
Mitch James, a 21-year-old Auckland singer/songwriter has released two singles after being signed by Sony New Zealand on the strength of his YouTube videos. When Sony got in touch, he’d been traveling around Europe playing wherever he could –playing street corners and open mic nights – and sleeping wherever he could – hostels when he had a good day busking and park benches when he hadn’t.
Now, he’s back in New Zealand, signed to a major record label, recording with proper producers in proper studios and is about to embark on his first New Zealand tour – the Humble Roadie Tour, which will take him, in a kombi van with his buds, to ten cities around the country for the rest of March.
The Spinoff: You’ve played a lot, especially around the UK and Europe, but this is your first ‘proper’ tour. How does it feel to be about to take your music around the the country?
Mitch James: It’ll be a lot of fun. It’s been an idea of mine for a couple of years, to go from the top of New Zealand to the bottom in a kombi van with a couple of mates, a couple of beers and just play some real small, intimate shows. Just to get it off the mark and familiarise myself with New Zealand audiences. I was in Dunedin, on Castle Street, crashing on one of my mate’s couches, and we were having a big bunch of beers and decided that we wanted to call it the Humble Roadie, so that was what we designed as the humblest option. I just thought the whole idea of doing something humble, calling it humble, letting everyone know its humble – doing it in a van, in small venues, it’s almost just a laugh y’know, but it’s such a cool way to get people familiar with you and just letting them know you’re not a big shot who thinks too highly of yourself.
You just seemed to appear out of the blue, signed to a major label. How did you get here?
I finished school at 17 and I read about Ed Sheeran’s blueprint – basically going to London and gigging every single night, whether it’s an open mic night or a gig for a meal or just busking. So I flew over on a one-way ticket with £20. I didn’t realise that the tube into London was more than £20 so I had to jump the barrier, got off at Hyde Park, jumped the barrier there, then the hostel I was staying at was £18 a night, so I went and got a bottle of water, slept, woke up and started busking the next day.
I did an open mic or a gig everyday for the next six or seven months. I didn’t really have too many places to stay, I slept a lot on the street when I couldn’t afford a hostel or there wasn’t a couch – I’d always ask at gigs ‘has anyone got a couch for me to stay on?’
I would busk during the day, but in London there’s such a saturation. There’s only certain areas you can busk and if you’re lucky enough to get a spot you typically, in a three-to-four hour session, which is until my voice can’t take any more, only get £15-20, which is enough for a shitty dinner and a hostel.
What were you thinking? Were you just super optimistic …
Yeah, suuuper optimistic.
Or did you not realise how much things cost over there?
A bit of both really. I was extremely naive, looking back. I thought I was going to go to an open mic night, someone’s going to notice me and it’s all going to unfold like a Cinderella story. But that was pretty far from the truth.
How long did you do this for? Two years?
Yeah. I would have busked over 100 times, played over 200 gigs. It’s pretty buzzy looking back. I don’t do too much busking now, but it’s definitely the lifeblood of where I got all my performing skills and how to interact with people when you’re on stage. It’s interesting when you busk because most of the time you’re playing to no-one, just passers-by, but sometime when people stick around, more people will come. As soon as there’s two people, two turns into four, four turns into eight, and then from five minutes ago when you had one person watching, now you have thirty or forty people surrounding you.
That was my apprenticeship. It taught me how to interact with people and what songs are more favourable. And more than everything else, it’s the sheer amount of hours you put in. If you’re doing four hours a day until your voice can’t take it anymore, you’re just getting better. If you’re putting in the work, you’re going to get better.
What’s the best song to busk? What makes you the most money?
It’d definitely be ‘Thinking Out Loud’ by Ed Sheeran. That’s universal. And ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain’.
Would you play your own songs?
Yeah, I’d mix them in there. If I had a good crowd I’d play two good ones and then be ‘This is one of my own’, and if they stick around you know if that song’s a goodie.
You went to the UK to try and make it, but you ended up getting signed back here …
Yeah, I was in Munich last year with a Kiwi bloke who runs a hostel there. I was playing gigs on the weekend and putting videos up on Facebook and YouTube and I got an email from Sony. Honestly, I thought it was a yarn. I saw the footer and it looked kinda low-res. I was like, ‘I don’t know if Sony would have low-res footers’. I was very cynical actually. I was Googling the A&R’s names to see if it was legit. Because when you’re putting a lot of stuff online, you get people who have your contact details who make out something to be amazing, but you pay. Like, ‘We can put your song on the radio, but you have to pay a monthly fee’. So it was a pretty special feeling because after all I’ve been through, toiling away, doing the shit no-one really wants to do, when you finally get that validation, it’s what you do it for.
How did Sony hear you?
It was MAALA actually. He was in the studio with Jaden [Parkes], who’s does A&R for Sony. One of my oldest mates, who I hadn’t seen in years had seen one of my cover videos and sent it to MAALA, who clicked on it, by chance, while he was with Jaden.
What song was it?
It was a mash-up cover of ‘7 Years’ by Lukas Graham, ‘Don’t Forget Your Roots’ by Six60 and ‘Let It Go’ by James Bay. When I was doing those cover videos back then that everyone was sick of seeing a dude playing a single song on a guitar. There are thousands of dudes that do that. But if you mix people’s favorite songs together, that’s a point of difference. Do it with a nice backdrop, and nice scenery instead of your bedroom, just separating yourself.
Were you watching a lot of those cover videos?
Yeah, I’m a big studier of things. I’m also a big believer in the law of attraction so I figure if I put all my concentration, all my everything into something, study the whole thing and mold myself to whatever I figure is successful and only focus on that, eventually it will manifest itself into what you’re visualising. So you have to keep a close eye on pop music as a whole and the people that stick out to you – what are those qualities that stick out to you and how can you apply them to yourself?
But you’re not just watching Ed Sheeran, you’re looking at the people on YouTube covering Ed Sheeran?
Absolutely. It always used to get me down in a sense to see all these amazing people in their bedrooms doing an amazing job and nothing’s happening to them. So if you study that and looking into what is separating them all. Because half of them can sing better than these [famous] people. I notice that being in the actual industry now, a lot of these people can’t really sing. A lot of it is just how you market yourself in making your content attractive to people. A lot of it is driven by who you are as a person and whether people want to get to know you.
So when you finish the tour, what will you be working on now? An album?
Yeah, the first two songs are doing so well and I’ve literally got 49 songs ready to go that we’re going to narrow down for an album. Loose release date of October/November. But I’ve got three albums ready to go. But hopefully we’ll just make it so packed to the rafters that it’ll be hard to ignore.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Mitch James’ Humble Roadie Tour, (also supported by Spark) starts in Auckland on Friday 17 March and ends in Dunedin on Thursday 30 March. Buy tickets here.