L train station musician talks benefits of busking as a career

Singer and songwriter Robert Leslie in a promo photo on the subway (Photo by TheDustyRebel)

Singer and songwriter Robert Leslie in a promo photo on the subway (Photo by TheDustyRebel)

By Sabina Mollot
At a few subway stops in Manhattan and Brooklyn, U.K.-transplanted musician Robert Leslie is proving that New York City is still the place to go for musicians to follow their dream.

Looking a bit like Donatello’s vision of David with his long hair and hat brimmed with flowers, the slightly built 22-year-old regularly slays, not giants, but the crowd with his original, folksy rock tunes. At least he does briefly before it disperses, commuters dashing off into the L train at First Avenue or Union Square. Leslie also sometimes performs at the busy G line Metropolitan Avenue stop in Brooklyn. It’s just as busy as the Manhattan stops, he pointed out, but there’s not much competition for donations.

“It’s such a popular spot, but people haven’t worked it out yet,” Leslie said. Of course, the L line also has its perks. “The L train gets more delays and that’s good for me.”

Leslie usually works evenings, targeting straphangers going home from work and later after going out. He’ll also decide what to play based on how they’re acting.
“If I’m playing for drunk people, I won’t play a quiet song,” he said. “I’ll play something fast and rowdy. Sometimes, people are coming back from a show and they’re quietly discussing it and I’ll play something more complex.”

On his busking career, which has led to other gigs above ground, including an upcoming concert at Iridium jazz club, Leslie said this week that it began as an experiment.
He knew he wanted to come to New York to pursue music and had already had some experience performing on the streets around Europe.

Robert Leslie (Photo by Emmanuel Rosario)

Robert Leslie (Photo by Emmanuel Rosario)

“People said New York was the center of the world for music right now so I just bought a plane ticket,” said Leslie. “I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
Leslie’s originally from Manhattan, but his Dutch and English parents had moved around with him many times, including to London and Amsterdam.
His trip back to New York took place in February, 2013 and since then, he’s remained stateside. At first he stayed in a hostel, but now lives in Bushwick. It was soon after his arrival that Leslie went from being a street performer to underground one. This wasn’t a difficult decision. It was after all the dead of winter, and besides, when riding the subway, Leslie liked what he saw.
“I was very impressed with the quality of the subway buskers in New York compared to other places,” he said. “They’re quite solid.” And, he added, “There were hundreds of subway buskers.”

Soon, Leslie was able to find his groove, staking out spots to play. According to his online bio, it was actually the other musicians who gave him helpful tips on where to go and “showed me the ropes.”
And when he told his parents what he was doing for a living, they were supportive.
“They don’t support me financially, out of principle,” he said, “but they like that I’m playing music, getting experience.”

And fortunately, it didn’t take too long before Leslie started to get noticed. His performances were seen by someone last summer who was inspired to organize a rooftop concert featuring only subway buskers. That, along with the press that accompanied it, led to even more gigs. He now plays every Thursday at Karma, a hookah lounge on First Avenue and First Street, from 8-10 p.m. Leslie’s also currently working on a CD he’s recording himself of original music. Naturally, some of it’s inspired by his night job. “One song, ‘Old Brownstone,’ has a line about waiting for the G train,” he said.

Though there’s currently something of a crackdown on subway performers, Leslie’s never even been told to move along by police or the MTA.
“You’re allowed to perform on the subway as long as it’s on the platform,” he said. “You’re just not allowed to play on the train or use amplification.”

In fact, he said, there haven’t really been any truly negative experiences except once when a homeless person swiped a $20 bill from his donations. The man had leaned in to leave a dollar so Leslie said he didn’t notice right away that he’d also sneaked out the larger bill.
“Now I know not to leave big bills in the case,” said Leslie, who typically earns anywhere from $20-$40 an hour in tips.

But, he added, he has to keep his sets limited to two to three hours at a time this time of year because of the stifling heat in the stations. So he’ll play, then take a break for 45 minutes, then come back and do another set. In the end, the money earned still winds up being enough for him to get by, and it’s more than the other musicians he’s friends with earn — making music, that is.
“All my friends who are musicians have day jobs, like they’re waiters,” he said. “I feel like I’m building my career by meeting people every day and then they follow me on the internet. A lot of jobs you just kind of do and you don’t enjoy them.”

Leslie’s show at Iridium, 1650 Broadway at 51st Street, is on August 5 from with sets at 7 and 9 p.m. Cover is $15. For more information about Leslie, visit robertlesliemusic.com.

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