Smooth-grooving troubadour Eric Kufs plays a free show at the Santa Monica Farmers Market
By Bliss Bowen
You can observe a lot from behind a microphone on the street, a vantage Eric Kufs occupies regularly. Passersby singing favorite songs, rating overhyped bistros, silently proclaiming identity via T-shirt slogans … and if you’re lucky, they’ll break stride long enough to hear you.
Kufs, who self-identifies as “#streetsinger” in social media hashtags, was a road dog for almost 20 years, singing and playing guitar with his high school folk-rock band Common Rotation.
Farmers market gigs like the one he’s playing in Santa Monica on Sunday don’t possess the cachet of Common Rotation’s concerts with They Might Be Giants and Indigo Girls, or of shows at nightclubs like the Hotel Café, where Kufs will celebrate the release of his solo EP, “Sense and Nonsense in Psychology, Part One,” on April 14.
Yet street performing has developed skills that turn audience ears his way.
“For seven years I played Third Street Promenade pretty much for a living when I wasn’t on tour,” he observes. “Instead of coming home and working at Starbucks or something, I’d play on the street for four to six hours a day for five to six days a week. I do really well at these farmers markets because I’ve played on the street for that long, I have a repertoire, I play a number of different genres, and I have chops that I don’t think I had before I spent that much time playing.”
Kufs grew up on Long Island, where his dad schooled him in “old R&B and soul”: Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Motown, Van Morrison. Those influences are evident whether he’s performing his own Morrison-esque “Same War,” delivering Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” as a mellow-grooving love song, or investing Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” with the smooth warmth that’s his vocal signature. He estimates he has almost 500 songs in his repertoire, including unexpectedly rearranged recent pop hits as well as material from “Sense and Nonsense” and his 2013 soul album “The Long.”
“I really do enjoy playing live in front of people,” he says. “As much as there’s some societal or industry stigma [about] singing on the street with a tip jar, to be honest, I make a decent living playing music, and I’m completely grateful for that. If I was dressed up as a clown singing children’s songs, it might be different.”
Thoughtful and self-deprecating, Kufs projects an amiable presence onstage. For almost 20 years he recorded and toured extensively with Common Rotation, which eventually relocated to Los Angeles (where actor bandmate Adam Busch achieved fame as Warren in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). As Kufs played solo more, he was able to indulge his R&B inclinations and “see what my voice could do.”
Now living in Eagle Rock, he says he recorded a “Woody Guthrie-like” album post-9/11 that remains unreleased. He took a break from politics and social protest during Obama’s presidency, but recent gig announcements on his Facebook and Instagram accounts have been interspersed with postings of new songs like “Making America Great Again” and “Fake News”: “I tell ya that news is fake/ At least that’s what I’m hearing from all the people who say I’m great/ Well up is down and black is white/ A smile’s a frown, day is night/ It’s true … everything you read is fake news.”
“It’s almost so absurd that I can’t even write a serious song about it,” Kufs says with a laugh. “What’s happening? Alternative facts? Reality is in question, and we’re living in a post-fact society? I don’t understand.”
He’s carefully respectful of differing opinions but doesn’t shy away from substantive conversation. What he does try to circumvent is selfies. No matter how much the “paradigm of the culture” has shifted for independent artists, room needs to be maintained for mystery; he prefers to establish any relationship with fans through music.
“Writing a song and recording it and putting it on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter fits me better,” he explains. “I made something. You want to look at my face? Look at my face singing the song. The whole selfie thing, I’m not comfortable with it.”
He pokes fun at himself for sounding “like I’m Taylor Swift,” then turns serious: “By recording the moments you’re living in, you’re taking time out of the moment to document the moment for people who are disembodied individuals in the ether [laughs], in order to validate your existence with their likes or their views.”
He sounds decidedly more romantic on “Sense and Nonsense,” which he’ll promote with a full band at Hotel Café. (He hopes to release a second EP by June.) And he plans to keep playing the solo street gigs that give him independence.
“I do worry about how long I can continue doing it,” he admits. “I have friends who are like, ‘You don’t have to get a job! You don’t have to do something you don’t particularly enjoy doing!’ I’m not the most spiritual guy, but that’s a blessing.”
Eric Kufs plays a free show from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, March 19, at the Santa Monica Farmers Market in Heritage Square, 2640 Main St., Santa Monica. Visit erickufs.com to hear songs from his new EP.