Charlotte Campbell was busking at London’s Charing Cross Station when the most famous person to ever drop some coins in her guitar case walked by. It was February 2020, just before lockdown, and Campbell was performing one of her own songs.
“I try to thank everybody who drops a coin for me and so I looked him in the eye and then I thought ‘have I met you before?’, and I suddenly clocked who it was,” she laughs, “Paul McCartney.”
“And then he was gone. He was quite quick-footed. So I decided to play a Beatles song to let him know I did know who he was. I played ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and he stopped walking and he turned back and he gave me two thumbs up. I was really pleased. That was definitely a highlight.”
Busking as an integral part of work and life
Like many musicians who busk, Charlotte uses busking as a shop window for future work, primarily private parties and weddings across the UK and Europe. On the day she speaks to the MU from her home in Streatham, south London, she has just returned from an engagement at a private party in Frankfurt.
But rather than being simply a showcase for more lucrative gigs, busking is an integral part of her work and her life, she says.
“I think some people think of busking as a sort of stepping stone. And I think I did when I first started it. But it’s only as I started to go along with it that I realised how much I really enjoy it, how much it brings into my life and how many opportunities it’s created for me and I am just so happy to continue doing that. To continue as an independent artist who puts myself out there and gets amazing opportunities from it.”
From the BRIT School to the Southbank
Charlotte busks at various sites around the capital but is particularly known for performing on London’s Southbank, beneath the London Eye. She is also known for her cheerful demeanour and her ability to project in her performances. Such strengths stem from her early training as a musical theatre actor and musician.
At the age of 10, Charlotte appeared in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium. She grew up in north-west London and began learning the flute aged 12 years old but had switched to guitar by the age of 15 years old, inspired by the music of artists such as Carole King, Alanis Morissette and The Beatles.
“When I picked up the guitar and started writing songs I thought, ‘actually this is more like how I want to perform’. So from about 15, I thought seriously about making it my career.”
From 2006 to 2008, Charlotte attended sixth form at the BRIT School, with the aim of becoming a full-time songwriter and performer. She thrived there and says it was an extremely nurturing environment, with inspirational teachers.
The BRIT School taught her the importance of having a safety net to fall back on, which prompted her to enrol on an English degree at Southampton University. It was in Southampton where she really flourished as a performer, playing open mic nights and immersing herself in the local music scene.
After graduation in 2012, she moved back to London and started trying to get gigs. One day, to refamiliarise herself with her native city, she went for a walk along the Southbank.
A space to just go and play the music
“That was the summer of 2012, so London was really busy with the Olympics. I saw someone busking there and I thought ‘this is a great way to get gigs…for me to connect myself’.” The following week she started busking on the Southbank and has been there ever since.
“I just really enjoyed connecting with people. I really enjoyed playing a gig every day, that didn’t need to be pre-planned or promoted or overthought. I would just go and play the music. It felt like the most basic foundation of what I really wanted to do, which was perform, and I could just go and do it. I really enjoyed that.”
Since Charlotte began busking, numerous licensing schemes have been put in place for buskers across the capital. Licences for pitches on the Southbank are administered by the Southbank Centre, and Charlotte says this is one of the more positive licensing schemes in the capital.
All buskers have to audition every month and need to show evidence of public liability insurance, which is a useful benefit of MU membership, she says. There is an established queueing system, with each busker being allocated a one-hour slot. “We’ve got a really lovely community down there,” she says, “and it works really well.”
Taking time to write and focus on songwriting
In late 2012, Charlotte entered a busking competition and won a scholarship to study songwriting at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) in Kilburn.
“I did a year of that, which really helped me write and have a focus on songwriting. And I ended up writing my first album and releasing it at the end of the year.”
The debut album, Blue Eyed Soul, was funded via a Pledge Music crowdfunding campaign. In 2015 she released Making Waves and this was followed up two years later by Endless Light.
Stylistically, her own music is broadly pop, with strong, memorable hooks and tracks varying from joyous and strident as on Streets Of London to reflective and intimate, as on the song Blur. Lyrically, she is insightful, witty at times, with a pure, rich vocal timbre. It’s an engaging sound, enhanced by tasteful production and arrangements.
Since September 2022, Charlotte has been hosting a series of songwriting workshops on the first Wednesday of every month, at Bar Topolski, an art gallery and bar, situated in the railway arches behind the Royal Festival Hall. She says she would like to do more of this kind of work and is currently organising a songwriting show she will host at St Pancras Old Church on 27 September.
Busking gives me a bit of power back
Charlotte is acutely conscious of delivering value for money. She only recently increased the repeat payment setting on her card reader to £3, a fairly standard minimum now for many buskers in the capital. “But when I busk on the tube, I set it at £2 because I think if people are rushing past they’re not getting as much for their money,” she says.
Charlotte says her income is broadly split 50/50 between busking and private engagements. Having these two main income streams gives her autonomy, she says.
“What’s quite nice about busking sometimes is it gives me a bit of power back, because I can charge what I feel I’m worth for a gig because I know if they say no I can still go out and busk that day because I haven’t lost too much income. In fact it’s quite a powerful position to be in”
Like many musicians, Campbell took her business online during the pandemic, performing to her fanbase from around the world, many of whom had stopped to watch her as she performed at her regular pitch, beneath the London Eye.
Such fans sustained her during that difficult time and continue to do so via her subscription-based Patreon page. “I’ve been lucky with the fanbase I have that they tend to want to support you by buying CDs and vinyl.”
I’ve found my perfect career by chance
Over the summer Charlotte will play a number of gigs and festivals in the UK and Europe but the immediacy of busking still holds a powerful allure. And unlike some singer-songwriters, Charlotte has no qualms about playing covers. Her inspired version of The Killers’ Mr Brightside has notched up almost 313,000 plays on Spotify.
“A lot of songwriters feel uncomfortable about doing covers but I really want to give the people what they want to hear. So I’m quite happy to play covers if that’s what they want. “
I think what I’ve always been, at the forefront of everything, is an entertainer. I really want to give the people what they want to hear. So I’m quite happy to play covers if that’s what they want.
There is a lot of negativity and the world’s kind of gone back to this place where everyone’s rushing and angry… I’ve always wanted to be a little bit of sunshine in the world. That’s what I want to put out there. I’ve sort of found my perfect career by chance.”