Cam Cole
Photography: Aaron Parsons

BN1 Chats with Cam Cole

Towards the climax of Season 1, Episode 4 of Apple TV’s football-based comedy Ted Lasso, an empty stage slot at a fundraiser – Robbie Williams couldn’t make it – is filled at the last minute by a busker that the ever cheery manager of AFC Richmond, the eponymous Ted, has just discovered on the street. “This is Cam Cole,” says Ted, trying to convince his colleague it’s a good idea, “He’s an undiscovered mega talent.” There’s a moment of tension as the unkempt, dreadlocked busker takes to the stage. He sits down and strums out a distorted blues riff on his guitar, soon bolstering the sound with his foot-powered drum kit and rowdy vocals. Immediately, the audience are out of their seats in raptures at this unexpected musical display, dancing with that special kind of enthusiasm only extras dancing on a TV show can muster.

In a show by Americans that attempts and often fails to portray a very English world, it could be that Cole is the most genuine character we see, partly because he is in fact a real person, and a real busker. After nearly a decade of performing on Camden High Street as a one-man-band, he has made a leap similar to his TV character and has been playing in venues around the world for years, releasing two albums, with one more soon on the way. However, unlike his character in the show, the producers of Ted Lasso didn’t stumble across him in the street. When I speak to him on the phone, Cole tells me the more prosaic story: “Jason Sudeikis, the director behind Ted Lasso, who stars in it as well, needed a busker for a scene and so he typed in ‘London busker’ and I came up and he was like, ‘okay, I want that dude.’” There’s a straightforward honesty to Cam Cole. He’s evidently keen to cut through the artificiality of the modern world. When we speak, Cole is in “chill mode” in a Tesco car park, just about to do a food shop before getting back to practising for his upcoming tour. 

Cole started busking on his own after a previous band fell apart and performing on the streets soon became his route out of the rat race. He tells me he never wanted to spend his time working jobs he didn’t enjoy just to make money, so he made the choice to cut right down on creature comforts and make money playing music in whatever way he could. He sidestepped sky-high London rent by moving into the van he had previously been using for a man-and-van removal venture, and “adopted the lifestyle fully”. 

Since that first van experience, he has upgraded to the point where the comfort and amenities plenty trump the expense of what a flat can offer. “I first lived in a camper van and that was fucking awful,” he says, with characteristic sweary candour, “but then I got a small three and a half ton horse box van and I converted that and made it really nice. It was like a little hobbit house inside. And I had a bigger water tank and a wood burning stove and all that. And now I’ve got an even bigger truck.”

Cole’s current van is decked out in mostly reclaimed wood from an industrial estate in Bow, East London. The doors and panelling are lovingly sculpted to indeed look like something that wouldn’t be out of place in The Shire. His lifestyle is guided by a strong eco-friendly ethos, with recycling and repurposing at the forefront, solar panels on the roof, vegetable oil in the tank and a compost toilet. 

His website describes him as a ‘new age traveller’ but rather than fit neatly into the umbrella of a particular group or movement, he is very much a man out on his own. I mention that I saw a YouTube video of him at an Extinction Rebellion protest and it sparks an extended rant about their controversial tactics of disrupting the lives of ordinary people and his general mistrust of political ideologies, both left and right. 

It makes sense that someone who has extricated himself from the mainstream in terms of everyday life finds less and less in common with the political system that controls it. He has become someone on the outskirts looking in, exasperated by political infighting, aware of how impossible it is to reconcile the urgent obviousness of something like climate change within a political system that is driven on the whole by self-interest. 

He says he believes in a more centrist kind of view, which perhaps refers to something perpendicular to left- and right-wing thinking, rather than an affinity to Blairism. It’s the viewpoint of someone who has had to make his own way in life because the system has failed him, and it comes with a touch of bitterness and anger. He sums it up: “I don’t trust a lot of the cunts out there to be honest with you, mate. I don’t trust any of them. So I’m trying to stay away from politics and just trying to do my own thing. I just want to put on amazing shows, amazing parties, and do cool stuff to get people away from all that bollocks, mate.”

Which brings us back to the infectiously optimistic side of Cam Cole. Through his music and his online presence – his YouTube channel has over 120K subscribers – he is channelling his exasperation in a direction that he hopes can help others escape the woes of everyday late stage capitalism, if only for the length of his barnstorming live sets. “I just want to do positive stuff and create a positive vibe,” he tells me, “and if enough people get on that vibe and that wavelength, all that shit should fizzle out.”

Cole built his act on the streets, drawing crowds with the spectacle of someone making the impressive rock racket of a whole band on his own, a full drum kit condensed into a portable foot-powered contraption. At first, the street performance was an end in itself, a way to make a living, but soon people started asking him if he had music available to buy, so he started putting albums out. Busking acted as a way of getting instant feedback for the songs he was writing. “I used to write songs on the street,” he tells me, “I’d be fucking around, jamming with riffs until I played one that actually stopped people, and I’d be like, okay, I’ll record that.” It goes both ways though. As he tells me, it can turn ugly. “Sometimes people would just walk past and chuck something at me because they’re angry and they just hate life… You get all kinds of people… And you just learn how to deal with them.”

Photography by Aaron Parsons

Taking the show from the streets to conventional venues has changed the dynamic. “I guess, from a street show to a stage show the main difference is I’m trying to get them to come forward on the street. You’ve got to get them to come forward because they’re all standing miles away from you, watching you from a distance. You’ve got to bring them in. Whereas in a show they’re already there, they’re already keen to see you and you’ve just got to play the songs technically, but you’ve got to energise them as well. It all requires energy.”

And he has been successfully bringing in the crowds across the world, recently touring the East Coast of America all the way down to Mexico, the audiences swollen by his Ted Lasso appearance. Cole says he noticed a different kind of reaction from the Americans: “They’re well enthusiastic but no mosh pits, not a single one dancing. They just stand there with their drinks in their hands, smiles on their faces. I finish the song and they just applaud like no man’s business.” This is a contrast to British crowds, who start the evening off tentative and quiet, then when they’ve had a few drinks, chaos ensues. Cole shows great tenderness towards his home country, which he likes to call by its ancient name “Albion”. He articulates this feeling on the song Albion from his second album Crooked Hill. In it he describes a yearning for an idealised England from the past and his pleasure at coming home to familiar shores after being away on tour.   

It’s refreshing to talk to someone who has taken the step to let his beliefs shape his lifestyle, someone honest and vulnerable about the slog of navigating the modern world. When I ask him how he finds these interviews, he alludes to getting the same question over and over again, and I am conscious that he is probably referring to some of mine (perhaps the ones pertaining to a certain TV show). I’m aware that I represent the establishment to some extent, and that his mistrust of politicians may well extend to the press, but he reassures me when I apologise: “it’s chill, man. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.”

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