He started out playing on the streets of Leeds and now Tristan Mackay tells Tom Coleman how he went from busking to the big time.
Many people in Leeds know Tristan Mackay, even if they don’t know his name.
The former Leeds University student has been a fixture in the Briggate area of the city for a number of years now, making a living playing blues to passers-by. Now, however, he’s on the verge of stardom, after winning praise from some of the biggest players in the industry.
It is the latest in a series of successes for the singer, whose song The Wine and Me, recorded in his bedroom, was featured on the hit teenage drama Skins.
“That was crazy,” says Mackay. “I was getting messages from people in Australia saying, ‘Where can I buy this track?’ I was still busking at that point, so I basically just said come to Briggate and I’ll sell you an EP.”
Tristan’s popularity predictably soared, and before long he was picked up by producer Martin Levan, who contacted the singer through Myspace about recording an album.
“Out Along the Wire took about 18 months to do and it’s been a lot of hard work. But it’s had some good reviews so far which is great because we don’t have the backing of a major label or anything.
“Most of the money came from the investment of people across Yorkshire. So it’s nice to have people liking it. Martin is a creative catalyst really. When I first started recording, I didn’t have a band, but he was there to fill in the blanks.”
Following university, Mackay worked briefly as a car salesman, and did a stint as a magician in the VIP rooms of the Leeds club scene. Struggling to make ends meet, the singer was also prevented from receiving his English Literature degree, due to the £26 he owed the university in library fees. “My mum keeps nagging me to just pay them. In a way, though, I think it’s kind of cool,” he says with a giggle. “I suppose it’s more to do with the principle really. I was done with being a student and thought it was time to move on. I started busking because I wasn’t getting paid enough.
“When I first started, another busker came up to me and said, ‘What the hell are you doing playing without an amp?’ He leant me his, and then I started making money. A lot of money. I think in my first day I made about £300 – it was insane. Within a week, I’d made enough to buy a new guitar and an amp.”
Mackay now comes across as rather nostalgic when discussing his experiences of playing on the streets of Leeds, despite the fact that he can often still be seen with his guitar in the Briggate area.
“There’s not as much money in it these days,” he explains. “I wouldn’t want to give myself the ego boost of saying that it was because of me, but when I started there were only a few people doing it.”
The changes that Tristan has seen in the busking scene, arguably mirror those within the industry as a whole. Despite attracting praise from some of the biggest figures in music, Mackay admits he has yet to see the financial returns.
“I’m still busking, and I’m just hoping that when the album comes out people will buy it instead of downloading for free. If people effectively just steal it (the album), then they may as well break both of my hands,” he says. “There’s been so much time and effort put into creating this album, and we didn’t do it on the cheap, we made sure we made it nice for people. Everyone needs to realise that if they keep downloading things for free, it will kill independent music.”
And the difficulties don’t stop there. Arranging gigs is often a stressful time for Mackay who will officially launch the album in Leeds next week.
“Organising gigs often involves a lot of waiting around, wondering whether it’s actually going to happen or not”, he says.
“But I always try to remain optimistic.”
Optimism, aside from his astounding musical talent, is perhaps Tristan’s most valuable quality.
His determination to succeed under somewhat difficult circumstances is seemingly fuelled by his willingness to look for that next “pick-me-up” moment.
“Who knows, maybe the next time we speak I’ll be talking to you from Malibu,” he says with a chuckle.
Tristan Mackay launches his debut album, Out Along the Wire at Brudenell Social Club in Leeds on Sunday. For tickets call 0113 275 2411.
In illustrious company – some other famous buskers
Eric Clapton spent his early days busking around Richmond, Kingston and London’s West End.
Jon Bon Jovi may have the rockstar lifestyle, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots, regularly setting his amp up on street corners to raise money for charity.
James Morrison also has happy memories of busking, saying: “I could make good money – £70 an hour sometimes. And there would be crowds of teenage girls...”
The Pogues weren’t as successful. They were refused a licence for London’s Covent Garden after failing to meet the area’s high standards.