Fresh off Edinburgh Fringe, street musician and author Katie Ferrara continues her roving journey of discovery

By Bliss Bowen

Katie Ferrara has stories to tell
Photo by Britta Von Basedow

A frequent performer at Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Pier, folk-pop singer-songwriter Katie Ferrara has self-published “Stories From the Street,” a book that conversationally recounts her experiences as a “professional busker” across L.A., London and Italy. Along with giddy travel sagas and humbling moments onstage, she shares lessons learned from setting up her gear in places where she wasn’t sure she was welcome: “If you act like you need people’s help, they’re not going to want to help you. But if you act really competent and know what you’re doing, you attract people to your performance.”

It’s a handy stagecraft tip that doubles as life wisdom. Ferrara agrees.

“A lot of things I learned from performing I apply to my own life,” she says. “I didn’t want the book to be geared only toward musicians. There are stories about how to be a good person.” (The most poignant is “It’s Not About Money,” concerning a homeless woman in Burbank who upended Ferrara’s preconceptions.) “Through music, I learned all these things like how to understand people and what they need, and understand yourself.”

In 2015, Ferrara was one of half a dozen buskers who won the Toyota-sponsored Feeling the Street competition and were flown to New Zealand to perform at the Queenstown Winter Festival. She’s since performed at the international Ferrara Buskers Festival in Italy, the Fringe Festival in Scotland, and sung under bridges in London. Some of those experiences add charm and color to her book as Ferrara recalls how busking schooled her in the virtues of persistence, self-reliance, being pragmatic yet principled, speaking up for herself — and, perhaps most importantly, questioning everything.

“Don’t take no for an answer,” she writes. “While people are just doing their job, they may never give you a chance to show how good you are. It’s your job to create that opportunity.”

Ferrara, who says she started playing her mom’s guitar at age 17, favors soft melodies and soothing, uplifting themes in her own compositions as well as outside material she covers by artists such as Natalie Imbruglia, Joni Mitchell and Sixpence None the Richer. She is not busking in hopes of getting signed by a passing label executive. Rather, she’s trying to grow artistically, earn her keep doing what she loves, and hopefully land bigger gigs further down the road.

“It may not seem glamorous to some people,” she writes, “but, for me, busking provides a sense of empowerment and adventure.”

Performing in diverse spaces from the Westside to Riverside is a good way to get to know different parts of the city, the native Angeleno observes.

“I think I appreciate L.A. more than I used to. I grew up here, but I didn’t venture out or do much; I’d just stay in Eagle Rock. Now that I’m going to Santa Monica, I go to the beach and I appreciate the stores and the food and the stuff on the pier.”

Over time she’s noticed audiences engage most with songs whose choruses they can sing along with. That’s inspired her to push beyond relationship songs, write about a wider range of relatable themes and “create a sense of community around my music.”

Currently in preproduction for her next album, Ferrara recently returned from the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh — an experience she says changed her perspective on street performance.

“There are two different kinds of performance: the kind where you’re playing and people are passing by and throwing money in your hat and you can play for three hours and make decent money, or you can play a show on the street for a decent crowd. I’ve always played on the street and been in the background doing my own thing. At the festival … you get 30 minutes and you really have to engage your audience. You’re basically playing a show outdoors. People would crowd around and watch like it was a show, and you’d get 20, 30, 40 people standing around you.”

While in Italy this summer, she co-wrote a song via Skype with Paris-based songwriter June Caravel; her Ferrara street-side performance video of “Weightless” is now posted on her YouTube channel.

“Playing out in the street,” she says, “I’m learning how to get to know people and be a more compassionate person. Wherever I set up, I’m just meeting random people, and some of those people get attracted to the music because they want that sense of connection and everybody can enjoy it. Whereas at a venue, you have to pay to get in, you’re kind of separate, [and] there are so many people trying to impress each other and not really thinking about connecting with people. I’ve always felt a little like an outcast [laughs]. Maybe that’s why I like to play on the street. I feel like I’m different, like I don’t fit in sometimes. When I play outdoors, people respond to it.”

Katie Ferrara plays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, during the Marina del Rey Farmers Market at Via Marina and Panay Way. Visit katieferrara.com to hear songs from her EP “Dream Catcher.”

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