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Interview: Jonny Walker, musician, founding director of Keep Streets Live Campaign

15 August 2014

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 Christian-music world.

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 fresh. 

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, too.

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 encounter. 

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I'd choose to be locked in with Don Francisco, and Simon Peter. 

Jonny Walker was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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