Maybe you’ve noticed a mysterious man on the street music scene. He sings, he beatboxes, and he plays the cello like a pro. Who is this man, and what’s the secret to his unique sound? We tracked down Joey Chang, aka CelloJoe, to find out.
SCOUT: How did you develop your sound?
JOE: I started cello in 5th grade, and I started playing on the street when in was in high school. I did classical for 8 years. But when I started playing on the street, I took all my classical music out there and I just didn’t feel like it was really hitting people. So I started improvising when I played on the street because I got bored of playing the same tunes over and over. I played on University Ave in Palo Alto, which is pretty ritzy. My most frequent listeners who actually hung out and listened were homeless people and it was just crazy to see the dichotomy of people driving around in Porsches and Lamborghinis. So I started singing about what I saw, the disparities. That’s how I started doing music with a message.
As far as beatboxing and playing cello, I was listening to a lot of hip hop, including The Roots and Rahzel and that turned me on to Doug E. Fresh and other beatboxers. And I thought 'Wouldn’t it be cool if I could beatbox and sing and play cello, and use my time on the street to practice that?'.
SCOUT: Do you do more busking or gigs or festivals these days?
JOE: I do all of that. You know what’s weird? Playing on the street you usually make more money than playing a gig. There’s more people, more turnover. The amount of ears is probably in the thousands.
SCOUT: What are some tips you have for people listening to buskers on the street?
JOE: It’s 100 percent encouraged and cool to stop and listen. A busker is trying to build an audience by putting on a show that’s just so cool that it makes you stop and watch it. As far as getting a tip, that’s 100 percent up to the person who’s listening. If you really like the music, leave a tip, if you don’t have any money, don’t leave a tip. Don’t feel like you’re obligated. A busker is out there giving their art away for free and sharing with the world. It’s like a gift economy: I’m giving the listeners a gift of listening to unique, interesting music that sounds good. That’s my gift to them. If they want to reciprocate, that’s their prerogative. And it’s not always money. Sometimes I’ll get food (I got a basket of strawberries at the farmers market, that’s a good tip). Sometimes I’ll get substances or beer, or their business card. Contact info is actually very valuable, because emails are gold for a musician. The more people you’re connected with, the better off you’re going to be. Right now I’m doing a Facebook battle with a fellow musician called Mana Maddy to see who can get more “likes.” The loser has to buy the winner dinner at Chez Panisse.
SCOUT: Hey ‘Mobsters, let’s help Cello Joe out with this, mmkay?
SCOUT: What are your favorite spots in the city?
JOE: I really like all the places in the Mission, which is the coolest place in the city. Beretta, Jays Cheese Steaks, Udupi Palace, Sidewalk Juice, Foreign Cinema, Ritual and Four Barrel, that whole little mecca. As far as venues and places to catch music, I do the Classical Revolution at Revolution Cafe on Monday nights. That is the spot for live classical music, and it’s in a bar where you can drink! And then the Makeout Room across the street, and Boogaloos for breakfast. My knowledge of the rest of the city is minimal. I live in Berkeley and I ride a bike and get off BART, so I’m pretty limited to the Mission, downtown and SoMa.
SCOUT: You bike with your cello?
JOE: Yes. Since 2007 I’ve traveled over 10,000 miles on my bike with my cello, with all my camping gear and food. I’ve toured in Utah, toured from Sacramento to Guadalajara. I rode from Portland to Vancouver, and I toured 12 countries in Europe. I use a cargo bike so it still has two wheels but has an extended frame in the back. oing up a really big hill is hard, but then when you get to the top, it’s really fun coasting down the other side.
Thanks so much to CelloJoe for taking the time from his epic biking and music-making schedule to chat with us! You can listen to some of his music here, and remember to give him a head start on his Chez Panisse dinner by liking him on Facebook.