photo © Gina Mancini, www.notaprettygirl.net
Gonzalo Silva has been slowly making a name for himself over the years, both
for the quality of his songwriting and for his atypical approach to performance.
Most singer/songwriters gravitate toward acoustic instruments, especially the
acoustic guitar. But Gonzalo's love is the bass, and his Flamenco-influenced
approach to playing it a fitting accompaniment to his voice. Even more unusual
is Gonzalo's choice of venue: he largely forgoes playing in clubs and instead
entertains listeners on the platforms of subway stations in NYC, Boston, Chicago,
and Montreal. I conducted this interview with Gonzalo through a series of
emails during late September, 2006.
WB: First off, thanks for agreeing to do an interview with
admire your work and I'm glad to be speaking with you today.
GS: Thank you. I'm always grateful to share my music and story.
WB: Tell us about when and where you grew up. How old where you when
you took up the bass and what originally inspired you to play bass?
GS: I was born in Santiago, Chile and emigrated with my family to the
Boston area in 1980. I soon discovered MTV as a kid and was hooked by bands like
The Police which were a profound influence on me. Needless to say I owe a lot
of my love for bass, singing and songwriting to Sting. I actually started on
upright in Junior High, cause I was tall and had the hands for it. Although I
played classical upright until I graduated, it was in the Jazz/Rock ensemble
at school that I discovered and fell in love with the electric bass, which gave
me the bug to pursue an education at
Berklee College of Music.
WB: Unlike most players, who start out in their bedrooms or garages
and then move to clubs in an effort to get noticed, you've made a career out of
playing subway stations and on the streets. When did you get started busking?
What made you decide to forgo the clubs and take your music to the streets
and subways? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of being a
GS: I started playing in the
Boston T just as I was graduating Berklee.
I was inspired by
Mary Lou Lord, who was
a busking legend around town and had recently signed a major record deal. I
was awful when I started, but when I realized there was money and exposure to
be gained doing what I loved, I got hooked. Playing out in Boston was the real
education. Not only did the streets push me to develop my skills, but it was my
efforts underground that secured my residency at
The Middle East in Cambridge.
Between my “day gig" in the T, playing out in Harvard Square to promote the
Middle East, then hitting the corner stage every Tuesday night for two years,
I found and developed my voice. I had it really good for a while in the Boston
scene. It's when I moved to NYC in 2000, when I had to start over and in a much
bigger pond, that I decided to forgo clubs and just focus on busking.
The advantage being that it took away the stress of advancing gigs, and
frankly got my discs onto hands that would otherwise not venture out to
WB: How often do you play out? And where can we find you these days?
GS: If someone approaches me with an interesting and well paying gig, I'll
consider it. Otherwise since releasing Busker, with my street performing
manifesto as liner notes,
I've dedicated my efforts exclusively to underground tactics everyday
if possible. I've since performed in Chicago and Montreal subways, and go back
and forth between Boston and NYC a lot to promote my music. It's always a
treat when someone from Boston recognizes me in NYC or vice versa. Although
I'm not on the commercial radar yet, my efforts are connecting with individuals
and that's what keeps me going out.
WB: For any musician, gear a primary concern. Many street musicians use
acoustic instruments, as they require no amplification. You play electric bass.
What sort of gear do you use to facilitate playing on the street?
GS: I'm generally oblivious to gear, and what gear I use is very minimal to
facilitate getting around. This especially became the case in NYC when I
started getting busted for using an amp, which is illegal. So I have me a
Fender Amp Can,
which is one of the smaller rechargeable amps, and a discreet headset mic which
I wear around my neck and sticks out of my shirt. My bass of course is my
trusty headless Hohner 4-string
which I've sworn by for over ten years!
WB: Do you use a similar setup when you record?
GS: I just go in direct and pray the engineer gets a good sound. Although I
totally believe it's in the hands, like Jaco said. I'm discovering that to be
the case more and more as I mature as a player.
WB: The first song of yours I ever heard was "Take Me to the Sun," from your
2004 album, Busker. I love that song, as I do many of yours, both because it
has a nice pop sensibility and because it conveys a sense of intimacy and
sincerity. I like the very private, personal vibe of your records. How do you
go about capturing that mood in your recordings?
GS: I don't have the means to produce or compete with most productions, so I've
chosen to go the opposite direction and be entirely myself live. It's as organic
as one can get. So I guess I allow things to happen naturally out of necessity.
I'm glad you like it. Thank you.
WB: You get an interesting tone from your bass. It reminds me, at times, of
an acoustic guitar, which makes sense, given your singer/songwriter approach to
music. One of the odd things about you, in fact, is that you're a
singer/songwriter who doesn't play acoustic guitar! Can you tell me a little
about your approach to the bass?
6th Ave. L platform NYC, Summer '06 (photo by Steve Salathiel)
GS: I love the bass, and I love writing songs. Again, I guess it's one of
those organic things that developed because I was too stubborn to do anything
else. I remember at first, my songs sounded very muddy for obvious reasons, so
whatever sound comes out now is an evolution of hours and hours of playing
underground to transmit what I wanted to hear. Jaco baby, Jaco. All in
WB: Since it's just your voice and the bass, are there techniques, like
chording for instance, that you use more often than bassists in more
traditional bands would?
GS: Conceptually I think I play more like a pianist than a guitarist. My left
hand chording a variety of voices of course, but my right thumb acting as
the bass/left hand, while my index and middle fingers pluck upwards to produce
the upper voices. My technique is very similar to Flamenco guitar.
WB: You have a strong singing voice, but your bass playing is equally strong
and interesting. I imagine a lot of people with your vocal and songwriting
chops would just strum chords on an acoustic guitar and hire a backing band.
But you seem to have a real dedication the bass as well as to singing
GS: I yam what I yam. : )
WB: And by that you mean?
GS: I do what I do, cause it's what came most naturally to me. I consider
myself very lucky my love for bass playing merged with my love for songwriting
early on. Having stumbled onto something that was somewhat unprecedented--fully
composing and accompanying myself on bass--I took it and ran! I don't know
much, but I knew before I could carry a tune, I had found my voice! In music,
that is essential. Hence why I've persisted and why I will continue to persist
with the path I'm on. It's my calling, as cheesy as that may sound.
WB: Besides playing live, you've released four CDs so far:
Subteranean Songs (2001), Despierate (2002), and Busker (2004).
Of those, Busker and Subteranean Songs are currently available from
iTunes. Have you been working on a followup release to Busker?
GS: I'm happy to say I'm finally writing again. Would love to produce a record
this time around and invite friends to play along. That however would require
outside help and funding. I'm confident with what videos and new songs I posted
on MySpace, someone will hopefully come out of the woodwork. We'll see.
WB: "I Believe" and "Here We Go Again," from
your MySpace page haven't yet
been released. Can we expect to see those on your next album?
GS: They certainly are on deck, but I have a good back catalogue of songs,
and basically would choose whatever is strongest, assuming this time around
powers that be emerge to market my music to a wider audience. I feel I've
matured so much as a singer and performer, I've eager to redeem some past
WB: Two of your discs, Impatience and Despierate,
feature you in a trio format--guitar, bass and drums. Do you plan on doing
more recording in combos? Or is it the solo work, just your voice and your
bass playing, that will remain the focus.
GS: I dream of finding my power trio and conquering the world like The Police.
Like I said, I dream.
WB: I know that Busker was recorded by your friend
Bill Wadman in his home studio. Is
that a path you'll follow again? Do you do any home recording
yourself? If so, what's your setup like?
GS: I am a completely useless when it comes to engineering and the like.
I leave that up to the professionals. I just plug in and play.
WB: As an independent musician, how important has the web--iTunes, MySpace,
your own homepage at gonzalosilva.com--been
in promoting your music and finding a wider audience among those of us who,
unfortunately, can't catch you live in NYC, Boston, or Montreal?
GS: I find it to be exciting and certainly owe some sales to it, but it's
limited in that it requires administration and marketing which are not my
strong suits. However, I push a lot of leaflets with my URL in the subway
and find that word is slowly but surely getting around.
WB: Besides your albums and the tips you make from live performance, are there
other musically related pursuits that you use to pay the bills? Do you teach
private lessons? Do you do any session work or play in other bands?
GS: Just like engineering and marketing, I find I'm incapable of doing anything
else that isn't just a true expression of what I do day in and day out
underground. I believe in my art and my path so much for whatever reasons,
that I'm confident some point this dam I've been chipping away at all these
years is going to brake. Again, we'll see.
WB: What inspires you to keep playing and recording? What would you say to
other players who are interested in doing what you do?
GS: I guess I'm an artist through and through. By that, I mean, I do what
compels me. In that regard, I feel blessed. But it's a curse if my self worth
is hinging on what others think. So my advice I guess is, do it for yourself
and make yourself happy. Only then I've found people take a genuine interest.
It's a spiritual dynamic I wish I could find the words to express.
WB: Thanks again for taking time to talk with us, Gonzalo. I wish you
continued success, and I hope that more people discover your music.
GS: Thank you kindly.
You can learn more about Gonzalo Silva at his website: gonzalosilva.com