Thursday, November 5, 2009

Interview with Mack Jonsson

Back in July, when I began this blog, I made a list of some of the street musicians that I wanted to interview. Two of these were Mack Jonsson (fiddle) and Pete Reid (banjo) who played in a trio called Ain’t Dead Yet with Tom Terrell (guitar). Through 2007 and 2008, as well as playing gigs around town, they busked fairly regularly on Government Street (usually at Murchies), and off and on, down on the lower causeway, serving up a fun, energetic repertoire of old-time music.

I hadn’t seen Mack out busking since the early part of the summer, and had heard that he had gone to the Okanagan. I finally got a chance to sit down with Mack in early October, after he had returned from doing some apple picking near Keremeos and Cawston in the Similkameen Valley, and we headed over to Chinatown, where we found a table at Bean Around The World, and talked about some of his busking experiences.

Mack, 22, was born and raised in Quesnel, BC. For the most part, he plays fiddle on the streets, but also on occasion plays guitar.

CD – So, what made you decide to try busking?
Mack – I think it had to kind of do with that I was already playing music decent enough, I mean I wasn’t bad, I was performing at a young age, a quality of music where I knew it could buy me a skateboard, and our family wasn’t the richest, and we couldn’t afford things so they told me to just try busking at the farmers market, and so I did and made a skateboard like right away, a really nice skateboard, and so it pretty much started there and I’ve never stopped.

CD – How long have you been busking here in Victoria?
Mack – I’ve been busking here on and off four years. I came here I think it was the summertime, I lived in Ladysmith and I would just hitch-hike here, on the weekends in the summer of 2005. And then I kind of traveled around went east and went south a bit and then just ended up just coming back here and busking for the last two years consecutively, winter, spring, summer, rain, all year ‘round.
CD – And, you were licensed for a year in 2008, down on the lower causeway?
Mack – Yeah, did a year of that, that was good, that was fun. I don’t know why the prices are so high, to have to pay that much. But, it can be lucrative.

CD – I saw you playing earlier today with Micah (Walker), and when I interviewed Dylan (Driscoll) and Tristan (Teal), they both mentioned that they’d busked with you.
Mack – Tristan, yeah. And do you remember Pete and Tom?
CD – Yeah, Ain’t Dead Yet. I have a photograph of the three of you down on the causeway. Anyway, from what I’ve seen and heard, you might just be the busiest busker out on Government.
Mack – Yeah, I’ve been quite the busking busybody.
CD – A lot of jamming?
Mack – Lots of jamming for sure. I like to dabble in all kinds, as long as it’s music and it’s flowing, right, you know, and I dig it, yeah for sure, I keep pretty busy.

CD – Have you busked anywhere else besides Victoria?
Mack – Yeah, I’ve busked all around, I’ve busked in Quesnel, where I was born and raised. I busked a bit in Salmon Arm, (where) I stayed in an abandoned orchard and lived off of nothing but busking one week at the farmers market, and they were super nice. I made enough to get by, and the farmers had so much extra produce that they kind of had to get rid of anyway, that I had so much free vegetables and stuff, that it just kept me going, and it was great, yeah.
From there, I went to Montreal, and that was good, and (then) all the way down the west coast in most nooks and crannies, in Portland, Los Angeles, Seattle, yeah, just all around, wherever. I used it as a tool to travel and experience adventure, for sure.

CD – So, tell me about your busking experience in the States?
Mack – That was a part of what we, me and Pete and Tom, we got a van and we called it “one of the world’s most broke-ass tours”, because we started with no money, ended with no money and had no money consistently. But, we still made our way happily with the greatest experiences, and were well-fed and such, most of the time. But, it started in Seattle, and Seattle was nice, and right away we met an old fiddler, and we were like an old-time string band, or a bluegrass band. That’s what we were doing, and that was kind of the start of me approaching music in a more serious manner than I did before, I started taking it quite a bit more seriously, and it just felt natural to start with the grassroots of western culture, so I became a little bit more kind of slightly obsessed with that style.
CD – And keeping it alive?
Mack – Well yeah, you gotta keep it alive, it’s still happening, that’s why we were called Ain’t Dead Yet.
CD – Like the Woody Guthrie quote?
Mack – Yeah, and it turns out, we didn’t even know, but that was one of his last songs, “I Ain’t Dead Yet”.
CD – Where did you busk in Seattle, would it have been Pike Place Market, or down on the waterfront?
Mack – Not on the waterfront, no, we just stuck mostly to Pike Place, yeah really nice market.
CD – Did you need a license?
Mack – Uh… yeah, we did apply for a license, but they had the temporary thing going on, and it was well worked out, you apply for it, and pay a small amount, like thirty bucks, and then you can busk there for a couple of months. But, if you want the year you can kind of get more of a deal, sort of.

CD – Okay, then you went to Portland, what was that like?
Mack – The busking in Portland is like, they’re just so liberal there, and they’ve got this accepting energy to it, where you won’t really need a license and they’re not very tight-ass about that whole thing.
CD – So pretty much a free-for-all.
Mack – Yeah, kind of a free-for-all, but don’t abuse that, sort of.
CD – And, you mentioned Los Angeles?
Mack – Yeah, that was in Venice Beach, and that was a trip of its own, it was pretty interesting.
CD – And, what about a license there?
Mack – Uh, no, didn’t need a license, not in Venice Beach, it’s pretty open.

CD – What about your style of music? Obviously, you’ve mentioned some of the traditional, old-timey stuff?
Mack – Yeah, well, since I was a kid for some reason, I just needed to become a fiddler, and I really love the fiddle, the sound of it, so my parents gave me a violin lesson, and I got bored for like two months and gave up, and then I realized it was the fiddle that I really wanted to play, and there was the Celtic stuff, and the old-time and the Metis stuff and there’s so many different styles, you could spend the rest of your life, or maybe three lifetimes trying to learn all these different styles, even just in North America alone.

CD – And who are your musical influences?
Mack – Oh, so many, I’d say… hmm, more than any artists who I don’t know personally, for me right now, my biggest influences are my brothers and my friends.

CD – I’ve seen you play a lot, and you do a pretty energetic set, a lot of up-tempo kind of stuff.
Mack – Yeah, I love that energy, its just kind of trying to grab people and wake ‘em up and kind of shake their souls. I think that’s what it was made for, that kind of music. Its just kind of just to bring people together in community and to have a little bit of a hoe-down.

CD – What do you enjoy the most about busking?
Mack – I think it’s the music. And I enjoy watching the reactions from the different people as they just constantly flow, sometimes you get a glimpse of them, and sometimes magic happens, like, you’ll get these moments and sometimes you can really connect with the songs, and you’re in the moment and then you remember “Oh, yeah, that’s why I play music”, that bliss that I found, and hope to find again, and probably will.

To see video of Mack in action, check out the following links:
Cats in Distress
Ain't Dead Yet @ Venice Beach