I Sang and the World Didn’t End: Busking in Amsterdam with Louis / Subterranean Street Society

The only thing that kept me from bailing on my busking in Amsterdam experience was the fact that I was leaving the next day for Leiden. Worst case scenario: I would embarrass myself thoroughly and never show my face again in Amsterdam (or at least around Leidseplein). Hopefully, there’d be no one around to capture the moment and immortalize it on YouTube and I would escape relatively unscathed. Besides, my host did say clapping was an option. Even someone prone to embarrassing herself (e.g., me) couldn’t possible embarrass herself too much just by clapping, right?

Also: the inevitable small talk. Not sure which one I’m worse at, small talk or singing. (Um, come to think of it, I reckon I’m actually better at singing and Lord knows I’m no great shakes at that.) A quick peek at Airbnb showed I was the only one who’d signed up for the experience that day — it was a Wednesday — so I wasn’t going to have the option of just smiling and nodding and listening and having someone else carry the conversation. Still, it was only going to be a couple of hours so…I mean…come on…what’s the worst that could happen?

All of which is to say that I was more than a bit nervous when I walked up to Leidseplein three weeks ago to meet Louis Puggaard-Müller a.k.a. Subterranean Street Society to try my hand at busking.

I needn’t have worried. Fast forward a couple of hours later, when Louis gave me the choice to sing or not, I actually said, yes, please, I’d like to try singing. 😀 Wasn’t even that nervous. 😀

But let’s go back to the beginning.
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One could spend hours on a bench in the sunshine just listening to Louis sing. He was already playing at Leidseplein when I got there — and there were benches and the sun was shining — and at first I just took a seat and took it all in. I didn’t recognize the song but his performance was enthralling. When he finished, I got up and introduced myself.

“Hey,” he said, smiling. “You’re early.”

And it was smooth sailing from there.

Louis played a few more songs at Leidseplein while I observed how people reacted to him as he stood there singing his heart out. We then walked over to Vondelpark, going through a passage at the Rijksmuseum that was a favorite among street musicians because of its excellent acoustics. We talked about street musicians and busking etiquette. We talked about the museum, and the nearby Van Gogh Museum, and Vincent himself — the tragedy of his tale but also how lucky he was to have his brother Theo having his back all that time — and money, and art, and luck, and hard work, and music. We talked about what brought Louis to Amsterdam (a Dutch girl) and I mentioned his song Leftover Wine, which led him to ask how I found it/him (I have semi-decent stalking abilities) (not really, Google’s just weirdly efficient at putting scraps of info together). All this and much more before we even reached Vondelpark, which goes to show how great Louis was at putting people at ease.
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This Airbnb experience that lets people get a glimpse into a street musician’s life — and try it out — is fairly new and Louis still had these cute little notes stuck to his guitar outlining the topics he was planning on discussing that afternoon. He would sometimes consult them but mostly we just let the conversation flow where it will and frequently veered off-topic. (It didn’t help that I often went off on tangents. 😀 Seriously, I would sometimes come to the end of a sentence and realize I’d forgotten what my original point was. And I wasn’t even on brownies. 😀 ) Mostly, I think Louis sensed that I didn’t really need the more technical stuff — as I wasn’t planning on actually making a go of busking — so we didn’t go deep into that and just lightly touched on topics like song choice and location and whether permits were needed.

I picked his brain on stuff like nerves, and fear, and freedom, and what it was like to be living the life he was living. Louis has been doing this for…I don’t remember exactly. Ten years? Long enough that he’s starting to think of passing on the lessons he’s learned from years of performing on the street — part of why he created that experience with Airbnb. Long enough — but he would still get nervous sometimes and was still attuned to people’s reactions. If people laughed while he was singing — and I asked this specifically; if people laughed, even if he didn’t know what had caused the laughter — it would still get to him. If he was giving his absolute all to a performance, laying out his heart and soul, and passers-by just…passed by, not noticing, not caring, that would get to him. And it’s interesting that someone as good as Louis is would still be affected by all that.

There would be days when he wouldn’t be feeling it. There would be days when he’d get really tempted to just pack up and go home, days when he would tell himself, “Okay, just one more song.” And he’d give that song his all and more often than not, the feeling of wanting to go home would have disappeared by song’s end. There were all these challenges but there was also the immense freedom of performing on the street. Of “starting from zero everyday” as Louis liked to say. There was the thrill of connection, of making someone’s day. More than the money — although, of course, money’s not unimportant, one does need money to live — but more than how much was going into his guitar case on any given day, it was about that: human connections.
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There were so many other things we talked about. Nothing was off-limits: even how much he earned and even — because my family happened to pass by on their way to our hostel — whether he had thought of having kids. (Answer: it wasn’t on his radar. If he did eventually have kids, he’d want to be a good father. But it would change things, certainly. And it would also be important to have someone great to have kids with.) (The thing with the first Dutch girl didn’t work out, I gather.) (He has a song called “I’ll leave me before you do.”)

So many things, but we eventually wrapped it up and Louis left it to me to decide if I wanted to go back to Leidseplein and try my hand at singing. When I said, what the heck, let’s do it, he was like: ARE YOU SURE?? 😀 No, he was really supportive, and he let me choose the song. He’d previously given me a list of some of the songs he performed and the one I was most familiar with was “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon, a song I actually kind of hated when it first came out because it was playing Everywhere. All. The. Time! But I liked the cover by Boyce Avenue and Hannah Trigwell, and that seemed like the best fit for us as a duo, so, yeah: “Use Somebody.”

And so: the moment you’ve all been waiting for! (Or not. 😀 )

Here’s a clip of us performing, taken surreptitiously by my sister because I’d kind of discouraged them beforehand from watching me perform because I didn’t want to get all self-conscious. Also, you will only hear Louis singing here because he has a loud voice — terrific for busking — but I swear I was singing too. 😀
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Regrets: none. Except that I wish I’d taken more photos at Vondelpark and taken a video of us rehearsing the song — you’d have heard me then, at least. 😀 Among other things, I’ve learned that my voice isn’t ideal for busking and works better in a more intimate setting. But it’s those other things that are actually most important. I learned so much, gained so many insights, from my afternoon with Louis and I would encourage everyone — musically inclined or not — to give the experience a shot if you ever find yourself in Amsterdam. It was definitely the highlight of my visit.

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If you want to try busking in Amsterdam, you can sign up for the experience here. If you don’t have an Airbnb account yet, use this link to sign up to get $20-$40 in Airbnb credit.

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