Whitney Mongé: from busking to performing with the Seattle Symphony
You’ve seen the guitar worn with a strap, the violin under the chin of a busker or street performer their cases open, their hat out or their suitcase is open.
You may have thought to yourself, "well this is joyful!" Or you may have thought, "let me not make eye-contact with this pan-handler." Whatever you may have thought, I want you to know that busking is both a brave and vulnerable way to start a blossoming career.
How did Whitney Mongé launch into it? A friend challenged her to pick a date and time to step out of her personal performance space into the very public one of Pike Place Market.
The date marked on her calendar came and went, but within the week of her personal commitment, she launched herself into the humbling and fulfilling life of a busker.
To her surprise, she made more money that first day than she made working all day at the local corporate coffee shop. Thinking perhaps it was first day luck, she kept showing up and found that the Market just kept providing. Mongé spent over eight years there and, although she's moved on, said that Pike Place Market is forever more “100% home."
“Pike Place really provided me an incredible fan base," Mongé said in an interview with KNKX. "Like some of my best fans saw me playing on the street. And that really helped with getting people in seats when I started playing shows because it was like, not only was I making a little bit of extra money, but I was making new fans and selling my music. And so it just opened up the doors to all the opportunities that slowly started coming my way.”
Busking taught Mongé to use her voice to grab and keep the attention of passersby. She also learned to be blissfully unbothered by the sounds of people and traffic and the city at large. It toughened her skin.
“As a bystander, if you are ever wandering the streets and you hear the music, that's a huge part of our culture and it's a labor of love in a lot of ways for us," Mongé said. "Looking at buskers in a compassionate way and recognizing that it’s not an easy job and if they’re out there playing it’s because they worked really hard to get out and do it.”
Mongé’s career is unfolding in new and magical ways. From her experience as a busker and the pandemic experience as a musician who moved to a new town, she explained that it was necessary to get back to a beginner's mindset. She recalled playing at a particular spot in Pike Place Market called "The Bridge."
"It’s where all the vendors set up. And so it's under a covered area and the acoustics are just incredible," Mongé said. "I was playing and I closed my eyes a lot when I busk and I opened my eyes after playing, my case was full of all these amazing little gifts from the craftspeople. And I just was blown away. These are some of the coolest people. So I feel like that was probably the most magical thing, being welcomed in by the Pike Place community.”
To see and hear firsthand about the impact of Pike Place Market and the busking community, watch the 2014 award-winning film by director Brian Nunes called Find Your Way – A Buskers documentary. Mongé is one of the performers featured in the film.
"One day when I'm 85, I'm going to want to remember this experience," Mongé said. "When he finished it, I was blown away with the story that he got out of it. And yeah, that's a huge proud moment to have me be featured in a documentary."
In August 2021, Mongé performed with the Seattle Symphony as part of their Essential Series.
Mongé also talked about her experience in the music industry and being accepted as a Black and femme-identified artist who plays roots music.
"A lot of times I feel like I'm assessed as a Tracy Chapman 2.0," Mongé said with a laugh. "You know, like, that's the only person they can think of that fits that genre."
But the industry is evolving, Mongé said.
"I am seeing a lot of change, especially right now," she said. "I feel like that era of singer-songwriter’s not necessarily being mainstream is starting to take a shift into maybe that light again. There's amazing organizations that are trying to push more Black voices to the front—and women's voices. Not only is the industry slowly shifting to that, but it just seems like the listeners are really hungry for it."
Mongé said that she feels especially lucky to have connected with Black Opry, who organizes music revues all over the country. Mongé will be performing as part of the Black Opry Revue at the Newport Folk Festival in July.
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