Behind the Busker: Covers from the Heart with Caleb and Hari

This week has proven a bit unsuccessful in terms of finding fixtures of Oxford buskers to interview. After being rebuffed by the violin lady, turned down by the guy playing the guitar on Cornmarket, and coming home an hour after a wild goose chase for the guy playing the big machine with the handle that turns, I decided to speak to some of the newer buskers in the area just to see how their perspective shifted from those who’ve been doing it for forever.

I hit a jackpot with my first interview, two men who were having a chat while cleaning up a microphone and guitar setup. Caleb Cryer had just finished his set, his first in Oxford. It was a Thursday afternoon, not the best for busking. The crowds were almost nonexistent and the few buskers who were there seemed to be searching for an audience almost as much as I was searching for them. When I approached Caleb and his friend Sri Hari, the vibes seemed chill like the day itself. We were all eager to chat despite the biting wind.

Caleb, despite also being from the US (he’ll probably be mad if I don’t shout out Texas specifically), had only busked in smaller towns in the UK like Ellesbury before hitting Oxford. He noted that people are more friendly in smaller towns, and the small crowd that day made him regret not coming out on busy weekend days. It was mostly older people who interacted with Caleb, especially with his folk covers, but being in a city filled with younger students definitely made busker conversations more rare in his sessions.

Now, readers, here is where I will admit that I got completely sidetracked in my interview (don’t blame me, I was sick…) and we ended up spending half an hour just talking about music: our loves for music, the instruments we play, and some discussion about songs and artists. Hari learned guitar by himself when he was in 9th grade, later learning to produce songs. What fascinated him was the ability of using things like samples and soundscapes to create music even without traditional instruments. Made sense, given his progressive rock background, though my experience of sampling in music was limited to Steve Reich and Daft Punk. Caleb, on the other hand, was more of a bluesy guy, loving folk music and some lighter rock from a very young age. 

We discussed his use of the term “indie”, as it’s really shifted throughout the years. Let’s be honest, most people would think about Clairo more than Neutral Milk Hotel when we think about indie, and the three of us agreed that the term has come to be the umbrella of a lot of different genres. The rise of bedroom pop and social media publicizing has led to lots of people being able to put out music they love. We agreed that it was great that more people could enter the music industry, but the rise of so-called “bedroom pop” has decreased the need to publicize originals, or even good covers, in public ways such as busking. However, performing live added an aspect to music-making that publishing recorded music never could do, as Caleb noted: “It’s enjoyable… It really helps your self-confidence, especially if something ends up good, like if there’s a fiver in your guitar case. Plus, roughly put, there’s less effort, production that goes into it.” Hari added, “It’s more raw.” Perhaps that is why it feels so different listening to a busker cover your favorite song vs the original studio version. To paraphrase Hari, there’s something in the imperfections of having people try to stay in time and make music on the spot together that a good studio mix could never recreate. 

We then got sidetracked with talk about Leonard Cohen, original songs, and pub culture, and somehow got to the UK’s obsession with “Sweet Caroline,” Oasis, and ABBA. Good times never seemed more good, until I checked the time and realized that almost forty five minutes had passed and I was very, very late. Yet I felt that I had created a wonderful bond with these two people, who, despite never having busked in Oxford at all, had contributed so positively to the bustling vibe of the city in just one day. 

Illustration credits: Yii-Jen Deng