Busking without a plan B

HIS WAY: Jack Dawson has been playing experimental classical music on the streets since the age of 13. Picture: Marina Neil
HIS WAY: Jack Dawson has been playing experimental classical music on the streets since the age of 13. Picture: Marina Neil

TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD musician Jack Dawson hasn't worked a real job since he was fired from McDonald's as a teenager.

Despite this minor setback, the Novocastrian street busker doesn't seem too concerned. Guitar-playing has given him his main source of income for years, he's gained international success from a random YouTube video and he recently played guitar for legendary local band Firekites at the annual Sydney Festival.

"I've been bugging [lead singer] Tim McPhee from Firekites to let me join his band because they're one of my favourite Australian bands," Dawson says.

"I'd go into his Abicus shop and pester him. I [first] met him at a Firekites gig. They were playing at The Cambridge and I jumped the fence. I was only 17 and wasn't allowed in. That's when I first heard them live."

In late 2014, Firekites released their new album Forever Closing Sky after a six-year hiatus. After its release they were asked to play for the Sydney Festival in January 2015.

"I don't think they were planning to play this new album live because it's such a big work. All the songs are about eight minutes long," Dawson says.

"There are so many parts [to their songs], and there are only four of them, so they needed extra hands."

He's now back to working on his own music; there's talk of a Firekites' tour, but until dates are locked in, there's a bit of a break.

For Dawson's specific style of music, he says he wears many hats.

"I do the poor man's jazz. I dabble. I'm a guitar player, although I just had my first violin lesson and I think I'm going to buy one. I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for the parents of beginning violinist students now that I understand how hard it is to play and how easy it is to produce horrible sounds," he says.

Dawson first started busking at the Hilltop Plaza in Charlestown when he was 13. He was waiting to be old enough to work full-time but quickly realised that he was making more money busking than he would have when he had a part-time job with a minimum wage. He was making $20 an hour busking.

Playing classical pieces and jazz standards, Dawson busked most Saturday mornings for three or four hours. When he was old enough, he got a job at McDonald's because busking was making him feel like a second-class-citizen or a beggar. People would make fun of him.

"McDonald's wasn't a lot of fun," Dawson says.

"I got fired and then had to pay for schoolies, so I went back to busking, and in a short period of time was able to pay for it."

He says when he returned to busking, he realised he wasn't 13 and adorable any more, and the classical songs didn't interest anybody.

"I figured out people started taking more note if I started drumming original rhythmic things on my guitar," he says.

A few years ago, he experienced internet success with one of the instrumentals from his CD and he temporarily shelved his songwriting style to make way for a more experimental, classical style.

"I got filmed busking in Sydney by a tourist and it got uploaded to YouTube. At present it has more than 300,000 views," Dawson says.

"Overnight I had fans all over the world, which was pretty cool."

Though his instrumental brought him internet fame, he enjoys writing lyrics and singing. And all of his gigs are with vocals.

Recently, he's been playing solo gigs along the Central Coast and in Newcastle, playing at venues like the Great Northern and the Lass O'Gowrie. He performed at The Brewery for New Year's Eve and will be one of the supporting acts for Paul Dempsey's gig, Elsewhere, at Nobbys Lighthouse on March 14.

He says the gigs don't always pay as well as busking. He's busked on the east coast from Melbourne up to Noosa. He's also busked in the US.

"I did some busking in the States. I did well in Chicago. It was absolutely freezing, middle of winter, my fingers were falling off. I didn't think I would do so well, because they don't have large coins, but I forgot in the US they have a tipping culture," Dawson says.

"One gentleman gave me $60."

He probably wouldn't have expected this when he first began his musical journey. On his eighth birthday he was given his first guitar and started lessons.

"I've had a lot of really good teachers. I was always a bad student. I didn't take to it quite naturally, I got easily distracted," Dawson says.

"I buckled down when I got to uni and started getting lessons from Adam Miller. He's also an absolute world-class guy. He travels all over the world playing guitar. He's really good."

Dawson was also taught by local legend Steve Cowley, whom Dawson describes as "the cream of guitar players".

"He described teaching me [was] like pulling teeth," Dawson says.

Dawson received his bachelor of music degree 1 years ago.

"I very nearly studied fine art in uni. They sent my conservatorium acceptance letter to the wrong address," he says.

"It could have been very different. I rang them up and they admitted to having sent the letter to 51 instead of 15, so I backtracked and went to school for music."

Dawson says he hasn't really needed his degree since he's graduated.

"I don't know where it is. I was in the States adventuring when the degree got sent to my house. Nobody signed for it, so it got returned to sender," he says.

Now that he has done so well with his classical, experimental style, he's eager to return to writing songs with lyrics, and he's working on his next album. Recently, he's begun giving guitar lessons at his second home, Muso's Corner. He says he's patient with his students because he knows how rubbish he was as one.

Dawson says he's going to be a musician for the rest of his life.

"I haven't given myself a plan B."