Local performers ‘activate the streets’ of downtown Iowa City


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If you’re walking through the Pedestrian Mall and hear an acoustic rendition of “Staci’s Mom” or Death Cab for Cutie on the ukulele, you are probably hearing the musical creations of local street performers.

Musicians call it busking, some call it panhandling, and others call it artistic expression. But no matter what you call it, street-performing in Iowa City is one of the many things that showcases the life and culture of the town.

Andy & Emily — a music duo and a couple in “real life” comprising Emily Brink and Andy Farnsworth — are two UI students who live for street-performing. The two said their passion for music brought them together.

“I had never jammed before,” Brink said. “And then I finally did when Andy was playing guitar, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is fun.’ ”

Brink, originally from Bloomington, Minn., came to the UI as a classically trained violinist. She and Farnsworth met as sophomores while living in Hillcrest and began to play music together.

Brink admits that it was hard for her to loosen up at first when she began jamming with Farnsworth. “ ‘Just play, just play,’ I remember [Farnsworth] said,” she said. But now, she says she would much rather “jam” above anything else.

Coming from Montrose, Iowa, Farnsworth said that despite wanting to busk throughout high school, living in a small town did not really afford him that opportunity.

“There was really no downtown to play in,” he said.

Alex Canfield says he agrees. The UI sophomore came to Iowa City from Ames and says he loves that he can go to the Ped Mall and play his ukulele on a Saturday night just because he wants to.

“Because it’s fun,” he said. “I mean, there is really no other reason. Sure, I get some pocket change that I can do my laundry with and such, but in general, I just meet a lot of new people, a lot friendly faces.”

Andy & Emily say that they head to the Ped Mall as much as possible for the exact same reason — to have fun as well as to perform for the people of Iowa City and spread their sound as much as they can.

Officials from the Iowa City Downtown District love it.

“The [Downtown District] encourages street-performing,” said Nancy Bird, the executive director of the Downtown District. “It activates our streets, adds interest for downtown patrons, and helps make the downtown what it is today.”

Brink and Farnsworth said they love being a part of that.

“When you’re in front of people, it helps to like practice getting out of your comfort zone,” Farnsworth said. “You don’t know who is going to come up and listen.”

“We’re kind of like folk/bluegrass/blues/alternative, but it’s really hard to confine it to one genre,” Brink said.

The couple said it all depends on what comes out of their violin and guitar and Brink’s occasional mandolin. They said they primarily write their own music but do some unique covers for fun.

Their most recent performance was at the beginning of the school year, when they got the chance to play at The Mill.

The two have also taken their music out of Iowa City, playing at festivals in Fort Madison and busking against some tough competition in the bustling streets of Austin, Texas, while on vacation.

Canfield has also branched out; he took his music indoors for one of the first times when he was offered an opening gig at the Blue Moose last weekend by musicians who heard him playing at his Ped Mall spot the night before.

All the musicians agree that the only thing that inhibits street performing scene in Iowa City is the weather.

“It just gets so cold, and you can’t move your fingers,” Brink said. Which is why she said she and Farnsworth have pretty much wrapped up their street-performing season, as have most of the other buskers in the area.

They did say that they will be back when the snow melts, and they can’t wait to get back to their secret performing spot this summer that they have laid claim to.

Although they did not disclose this prime location, they ended with saying:

“Look for us on the Ped Mall.”

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