Damon Valentine works in retail by day, and gigs as a Singer/Songwriter by night.
When I first heard him busking just off of Oxford Street (and had to stop and listen just like everyone else) I had no idea he was already on his way to success.
He tells us why street performing is still so important to him.
When and how did you start performing publicly?
I remember the first time I sang in front of anybody was when I was fourteen. I was very shy at that age and any guy into singing at my school was putting himself up for some serious bullying. So I kept it on the down low until a friend dogged me so much that I just gave in and sang a few lines to her one day. I remember her reaction being surprisingly enthusiastic and it encouraged me to get singing lessons after school twice a week which really helped.
My first ever “gig” wasn’t until a couple of years later when I got up at the end of year assembly and sang two songs in front of the whole school. That was a feeling I’ll never forget for many reasons, but it was ultimately the defining moment when I decided to pursue music as a career. I remember thinking “this is all I ever want to do”.
You’ve shared stages with some amazing artists (including Elbow and Laura Marling), but still make time to busk the streets of London. Why?
In ten years, I can safely say I’ve opened more doors for myself by playing to passers by than I have in any other way. I’ve introduced so many people to my own music just from singing songs with a sign in my guitar case, and that’s invaluable because it breaks the barriers a stage creates. You’re far more approachable and on the same level and, more often than not, you’ve surprised people with a song they love or it reminds them of a particular time in their lives.
There was a chap I recall a few weeks ago who sat on some steps and listened as I sang “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol. When I’d finished he came over and explained that it held a special place in his heart because it had been his boyfriend’s favourite song, and they’d played it at his funeral. I felt awful because I thought I’d upset him but he assured me I hadn’t, and by playing that song at the moment he walked by, I’d given him a few minutes happy memories. He dropped some coins in my case and walked off into the crowd with a warm smile on his face. It made me feel so privileged to have been able to instigate and share that moment.
That’s what it’s all about, giving passers by that time in their day where they can just stop and listen, and be taken to a positive place in their thoughts, and forgetting their troubles momentarily.
I remember Irish folk musician Fionn Regan telling me to “keep sailing past the window of opportunity” when I was starting out a few years ago. And that’s what busking gives you, the window of opportunity. I’ve had so many amazing experiences and met some amazing people, all from singing on the streets. I absolutely love busking because of that! It’s in my blood and I find it the most addictive, liberating feeling. I just have to do it. It’s a total release and I get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t.
This year saw the release of your debut EP. Did it take a long time to get this completed?
The whole project from planning to release was all DIY, bar some help in the form of advice here and there. I didn’t have any label backing so once I had a good idea of which direction to take the record, I was eager to get things in motion. I’d been writing constantly since moving to London in 2010 but never released anything, so it was bloody great to get going again!
I had a strong vision of what I wanted, and by May 2013 I’d gathered up some pals from the Glasgow music scene, booked a little studio up there in the West End, and recorded five tracks to tape. I then came back to London and spent the summer mixing them at home until I was satisfied.
After that I set myself some realistic goals in terms of re-branding, building a website, designing artwork, etc. It was a massive learning curve as I did everything myself and just picked things up as I went along, but ultimately it was amazingly satisfying! I decided to put it out as a free digital download because it was my first release, but to mark the achievement, I commissioned 150 limited edition CD copies, all signed and numbered to sell at gigs and through my website.
As well as releasing your EP, you were also picked for Spotify’s Unbleached Sessions this Summer – how did you find the competition?
It was just utterly awesome to be involved. I remember being so shocked when I found out I’d been picked as one of the six acts, especially as there were over a hundred bands and artists in the running so I felt extremely lucky!
The gigs themselves were top nights and great opportunities for all the acts to get their music to a wider audience. The exposure was something I’d never experienced; I heard my name mentioned on Spotify several times a day for three months, did interviews with NME and Clash and gained nearly a thousand Instagram followers, which was amazing! Everything was run so professionally and I was blown away with how well we were treated. I’d do it all again in a heart beat!
What advice would you give someone thinking of changing careers to do something completely different?
Follow your instinct, don’t be scared and work hard. People are often frightened of the unknown and lack of security, but it’s these things which often make us feel the most alive.
It may be hard and tough at times, but I know I’d rather spend my life pursuing something I love, than something I didn’t because it made me feel “safe”. Ships were built for the ocean, not to stay in port. I like to think the same thing applies to people too.
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