By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Standing on “the bridge” at Pike Place Market — the Desimone bridge suspended over Western Avenue in downtown Seattle and home to the Market’s craft vendors — Carly Calbero sings and strums her guitar as visitors pass by. Sometimes, people will stop to listen, surprised that such a strong voice can emanate from someone as petite as Calbero. Some may even buy a copy of her CD, “The Outlining.”
For 19-year-old Calbero, an aspiring musician, this is a good day.
As a 2010 graduate of Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Wash., Calbero was accepted into the Berklee College of Music in Boston — a prestigious school for gifted musicians.
But even with the help of financial aid and scholarships, Calbero could not afford to attend her dream school.
So Calbero declined Berklee’s invitation and became resourceful. She opened up her own recording studio in her bedroom. She read resources online on how to make her own recordings, while using her background in music theory. And she took up street performing to build a name for herself.
Out on the streets of Seattle
Calbero sees street performing as a full-time job that pays the bills.
“I try to play five days a week. A lot of musicians say [street performing] isn’t a job, but it really is. I get up in the morning, I make sure I have everything I need before I head out for the day. And if you include advertising for myself, [my music] does take up all of my time.”
On a typical day, Calbero will make the commute to the downtown Seattle area and arrive around 9:00 a.m. She’ll then make her way to Pike Place Market, where she prefers to play because the Market regulates their buskers to allow fairness among performers.
Each performer is required to purchase an annual permit before playing at the market. Then, they must mark a spot on “the bridge” or elsewhere in the Market before performing their allotted hour for the day.
Calbero may play at the Market anywhere from 11:00 a.m.–3:30 p.m. But instead of waiting around for her timeslot, she sings at other spots around downtown, such as the bus tunnel or Pacific Place mall.
The coved, glass entranceway to Pacific Place even affords her free, natural acoustics. “It’s a great effect because it amplifies your voice outside without the need for a nice [public address] system,” said Calbero.
But street performing isn’t just a job for Calbero — it also allows her to tweak new music and hone her performing abilities.
“Typically, when [Calbero] writes a song, she takes it out to the streets, tests it out on the crowds, and then finalizes the music she writes,” said Nika Wascher, Calbero’s fiancée and one of her public relations managers.
“When [Calbero] first broke out on the street, it was hard to get by because people ignored her. But as she found her voice as an artist over time, the experience of working the crowd really developed her stage presence.”
A community among performers
But discovering the best spots to play in downtown Seattle did not come naturally to Calbero.
“When I first started performing last summer, I once went down to the Market and there was absolutely no place to play. If you don’t get down there early enough, you won’t play for the day,” said Calbero.
But she met veteran buskers who not only taught her the basics of performing at the Market, but even showed her new places she could play. Although competition can be fierce among performers, as spots and time slots are scarce, Calbero shares a competitive but respectful relationship with the performing community.
“This one time when I was playing at the Market, I was switching off with a violinist who did improvisation in her set. As I started to play myself, another percussionist started playing, followed by another guitarist, and before I knew it, we were jamming and had this mini crowd around us,” said Calbero.
“Even though I’m competing with the other [performers] for spots, especially in the summertime, when you’re down there and actually playing, the music is all that matters. It’s a nice feeling of community.”
Calbero also receives support from listeners, including a few regulars who have taken the time to buy Calbero’s CD or Market vendors who’ve gotten to know Calbero beyond her music. “The nice thing about having regulars is that people enjoy seeing me every day and aren’t getting tired of [my music],” she joked.
Some of Calbero’s humor is also reflected in her music. She often strays towards dark, sarcastic, humorous lyrics to croon about the pains of growing up and relationships. Calbero describes her music as “driving indie girl rock,” which reflects her strong and independent mentality.
Because of this, Calbero likes to impress new fans with her voice — especially those who question her ability to sing based on first impressions.
“People will ask me, ‘How does that big voice come out of that little body?’ ” said Calbero, who is 5’2″ and half Japanese and half Filipino. “I like to break the stereotype some have that Asians are weak or have a high-pitched voice. I want to show that we do have a voice and we can be strong with music and performing.”
Rolling past the challenges of street performing
Although Calbero has gained confidence and free exposure from street performing, the natural elements are one of the biggest adversaries in playing music outside. Snow is particularly difficult as it prevents Calbero from getting around Seattle or even playing her guitar.
“The wintertime is hardest because of how cold it is. Once, I played at the Market on New Year’s Eve, which was great because of all the crowds that were out for the evening. But it was snowing, and even with all the layers I was wearing, I could only play for 30 minutes at a time before running inside to warm up. You can only play for so long when it’s cold.”
But weather isn’t the only challenge that she faces. Sometimes, people brush off Calbero’s busking as too casual for recognition.
“News reporters weren’t interested in [Calbero] at first,” said Wascher. “No one wanted to cover ‘just a street musician,’ and few people invested any time in getting to know her music at all.”
“When I first promoted [Calbero’s] music, I called KOMO News 4 to do a spot on [her],” said Sonja Wanichek, Calbero’s mentor and second public relations manager. “The news station turned down our story. And when I asked why, [the news station representative] said her music is too ‘light for their palette.’ ”
However, there was one media outlet that thought otherwise.
A couple of months ago, a scout for Rolling Stone magazine came to Seattle looking for local street performers to apply for the publication’s “Street to Stage” contest, which searches for the best musical talent on the nation’s streets. The winner will get a chance to perform professionally at a major music festival in Austin, Texas, in 2012.
After submitting her music for consideration, Calbero was recently chosen as one of eight finalists for the title and was featured in the magazine this month. Local news stations started clamoring for her as Calbero picked up new fans along the way. The experience has been a whirlwind for her.
“It’s been interesting to watch the excitement build among my fans,” said Calbero. “People are rallying together to help spread the word about the contest … Some of the other [local street performers] have even voted for me!”
In the long run, Calbero hopes to get signed to an indie record label.
“I think you lose that closeness with fans if you sign onto a major record label fast and cultivate a big audience too quickly,” said Calbero. She plans to stay independent with her music, getting to know her fan base personally and growing with them over time.
“[Calbero], even if she wasn’t making money, she’d still be playing the streets to improve as a musician.
Other performers are great, but few have the heart she has,” said Wanichek, about Calbero’s appeal to fans. “You see street musicians all the time and they’re a dime a dozen … when was the last time you heard of a girl playing on the streets who got scouted by Rolling Stone?” ♦
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.