As the son of an Anglican clergyman, my
earliest musical experiences involved playing the guitar at the
front of church, and combing Mission Praise for familiar
songs to learn.
My musical horizons broadened when a family
friend lent me the LP A Hard Day's Night, and I discovered
the Beatles, aged nine. As a teenager, I had one CD, OK
Computer, by Radiohead, which was exciting and absorbing
enough to see me through to university.
One night, during Freshers' Week at Durham
University, where I'd gone to read politics, I took my
guitar out on the streets with a group of friends, and played for
passers-by. To my delight and surprise, a small crowd gathered, and
when a hat got passed around spontaneously, I had made about £20
after an hour. My busking days had begun.
As a busker, it is really important to engage
people who don't yet realise that they're your audience.
I spend a lot of time playing some of the greatest songs
of the past six decades, from the Beatles, Bob Dylan,
Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, the Smiths, Radiohead (of course) -
which are familiar to people. Many times, people say that they saw
the Beatles in 1964, or some other similar story. Over the years,
my love of these influences has, I hope, rubbed off a little on my
own song-writing, which I would describe as being rooted in the
folk-rock, storytelling, troubadour tradition. I've also been
influenced by people like Don Francisco and Keith Green from the
The Jonny Walker Band was formed last year, as
I decided to start doing more indoor gigs. Before getting the band
together, I had had relatively little experience of playing with
other musicians. I hadn't been in a band since my schooldays.
Fortunately, the skill and talent of the other players makes up for
my lack of experience.
When we're all in the room, we're a seven-piece
band comprising an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, drums,
keyboard, cello, and backing vocals. We perform songs that I have
written and sung as a soloist, but there is a fullness about the
band's interpretation of my songs that adds something different and
I've always been a lover of good lyrics, and
songwriters who tell stories. That's something I try to do. I write
about the things that matter to me, and I seek answers to my
questions. It's natural, then, that a lot of my songs deal with
faith, doubt, and everything in between. I try to convey the stuff
of life and the way I feel about it in my lyrics - from the birth
of my son to questions about why there is so much suffering and
pain in a world created by a loving God, or the death of a homeless
woman I knew in Liverpool.
I've been a full-time self-employed musician since
2006; the majority of my income comes directly from
busking. I also perform at weddings, private parties, and any other
gigs that come my way. With the Jonny Walker Band, I've been
playing more gigs with an emphasis on my own music recently, and
I'd like to spend more time doing that.
When I'm not angry or wound up - which I am too
often - I have a great love for people. I really enjoy being able
to change the way people feel for the better by singing them songs.
I hope to create spaces for people to think, relax, laugh, and feel
freer to express who they are. One of my favourite things is to
watch children dance in the streets, unhindered by expectations of
what's appropriate or allowed. It's even more wonderful when their
mums and dads join in.
I'm very excited about being invited to play at
Greenbelt. I remember queuing as a 15-year-old to watch
Adrian Plass at Greenbelt, and then watching Sam Fox launch her
short-lived career as a Christian pop star. It's been a quite few
years since I last came to Greenbelt, and it's an honour to be
coming as a contributor.
I'm also speaking about the Keep Streets Live
Campaign. I helped to set it up to protect access to
public space for informal performances of art and music.
It started in Liverpool, when the city council
tried to criminalise street musicians unless they got a licence.
It's happening across Europe and America, in the name of
maintaining order, but really just keeping the streets for people
who want to shop and spend money. But what happens in public spaces
reflects on society and wider culture.
I felt it as a personal affront, happening
where I was born, and in a city which had so much music; so I set
up a petition, and we had a street event which lots of people came
to, and sought a temporary injunction in the High Court. Liverpool
backed down, and, two years on, we've worked with the council to
draw up an agreement that is really inclusive.
Now Camden has invited me to be a decorative part of its
plans. These would make Camden the most restrictive local
authority in the country, criminalising all street performances
unless a licence is obtained, except for music as part of a
religious ceremony or service. Mark Thomas, Mark Vanderveld, Billy
Bragg, and Bill Bailey got involved . . .
. . . and we founded the Church of the Holy
Kazoo (News, 4 April). The
council's by-law would allow them to confiscate your instrument,
fine you £1000, and give you a criminal record. The two dogmas of
our Church are that every piece of music ever written is our hymn
book; and, every time we play, it's worship.
Cultural freedoms need to be protected just as much as
religious freedoms. I'm a follower of Jesus, but I'm
embedded in this world, and I've lots of friends who are hostile to
faith because they see the Church as part of an oppressive
Establishment rather than being on the planet to carry Jesus's
message of liberation to the poor and broken-hearted. Christians
should be wholeheartedly joining in to protect public spaces for
openness and freedom.
As a busker, I feel a little bit afraid to see
a policeman or council worker walking towards me. It's a privilege,
as an educated white man, to see the world through those eyes -
like a homeless person, or a beggar. I did a module in Political
Theology for Peace in Lancaster University, under Dr Roger
Mitchell, who wrote The Fall of the Church, about what he
sees as the unholy contract between Church and State. Jesus was on
the side of the oppressed, and I hope that the campaign is,
We don't keep formal membership records -
people can't be censored for apostasy - so anyone who wants to busk
in Camden can join. I've set up the campaign Keep Streets Live as a
not-for-profit organisation, and produced a policy that can work in
any city where there are problems, that uses existing laws and
doesn't cost anything to implement.
Dad went to a school for clergy orphans. My mum
is Canadian, and met Dad when she was living in a Christian
liturgical-dance community. I was born in Liverpool in 1980, when
Dad was at Liverpool University chaplaincy, and moved to Paraguay
in 1989, when Dad became the chaplain to the English-speaking
congregation in Asunción. I have a brother and a sister who are
both younger than me. We came back to England in 1994, and settled
in Leeds, which is where I still live. I'm married to Philippa, who
is a fashion editor, and we have a son, Joseph, who is 19 months
old. We are expecting our second child in December.
Having grown up very much in the Evangelical Christian
sub-culture ghetto, what I like about Greenbelt is that
it's a conversation with the wider culture, which I think is
profoundly important. As a busker who plays on the high streets of
Britain every day, and spends a lot of spare time challenging
restrictive local-authority policies around busking up and down the
country, I know what life is like on the streets of the UK in 2014,
besides having the perspective of a struggling Christian who
somehow survived life in the goldfish bowl that is being the son of
missionaries and a vicar.
I grew up with an ever-present sense of God,
mediated through the faith of my parents and my full immersion in
the life of the Church. At the American missionary school in
Paraguay, I was taught a hell-fire repentance gospel which scared
me into regularly re-dedicating my life to Christ on an almost
quarterly basis. As I grew older, I questioned my faith very
deeply, and lost it at one point. I experienced God as absent
during this time. I describe the journey since then as a faith that
runs towards the questions instead of running away from them. God
is mainly mediated through my relationships with the people I
If I was locked in a church for a few hours,
I'd choose to be locked in with Don Francisco, and Simon
Jonny Walker was talking to Terence Handley