The money doubles if Jesse gets to work at 7 a.m. instead of 8. Amidst the blur of subway commuters, he goes to the right spot on the platform, pulls out his guitar, and starts singing. Heads start to turn. Some change and some dollar bills fall into his guitar case. Today his office is the Bergen station of the G train. Park Slope has the best paying crowds, but the Bedford and Metropolitan stops – near his home in Greenpoint – are better on weekends.
Jesse Cohen is a New York City busker. The 35-year-old’s deep, scruffy voice can often be heard belting out a classic Bob Dylan track, but, more recently, he’s been singing his own stuff. At 6’3”, he’s a noticeable presence, and his voice is undeniably beautiful. “I get so excited when I hear Jesse singing in the morning,” says Meredith, a mother and avid fan. “He has a voice that brightens the day.”
Jesse hears this sort of thing often. “I don’t have to spend money on Lexapro because I get compliments,” he says. After five years of being a busker here, he’s now recognized on the street. People cheerfully say hello when they spot him commuting. One day a man brought him to an ATM and took out $2,500 for him. “He said it’s what God told him to do,” Jesse says.
A good month equates to about $3,000, but last month he made $5,000. Even Steve Buscemi is an admirer of his talents: Jesse says the actor often crosses paths with him in Park Slope and has told him that he has a great voice.
Born and raised in Bethany, a suburb of Oklahoma City, Jesse doesn’t come from much. He’s the son of a working mother and architect father. “I come from a lot intellectually,” he tells me, as he lauds his parents’ smarts. His surroundings were Midwesterners hypnotized by tradition, fitting in, finding and keeping a mediocre job and spouse. A comfortable, ordinary life, one that Jesse wasn’t content to settle for.
“Uniqueness wasn’t accepted there,” he says. “I knew I was destined for New York since the age of five.” He had a recurring dream throughout his childhood: he’d be in a staircase, staring out a window at the Manhattan skyline. This dream was actually fulfilled at a loft party in Williamsburg three years ago, so he’s pretty confident it’s the place for him.
Jesse worked for a decade at Williams Sonoma with his mother. His official title was case manager, which entailed handling freight transit problems, expensive orders, and high escalation customers. But office work wasn’t for him.
Music is where his heart has always belonged. It started at age five when his mother brought a record player – and countless records – into their home. “I thought it was so cool to hear people singing on these machines that could be played anywhere. I wanted to make disks with me on them,” he tells me. Then he discovered the record button on his mother’s tape machine and started experimenting. He sang and sang, but when he played it back, it didn’t sound like the records. “My mother said that it was because those were recorded in big studios,” he says. Jesse proceeded to study everything about music production.
Jesse learned a lot about songwriting and Americana music, bluegrass, folk, and delta blues. But even after he grew older and more professional, only his friends would come see him play. “It’s hard to amass an audience in Oklahoma,” says Jesse. “There was no way I could make anything of myself there.” He got married in his early twenties, and it was a troubled marriage. Then tragedy entered his life: Jesse’s mother passed away suddenly. He knew it was then time to head to New York.
“When my mother died, she left me her old Volvo station wagon. It was the perfect starving artist machine,” he says. He was sad to sell it, but had to for the funds. Anything Jesse wouldn’t need in the upcoming two months, he threw out. He went to New York with very little and told no one except his brother and sister. He didn’t look back.
Jesse’s beginnings in the City in 2009 were a whirlwind. After learning the transit system, he chose a spot on a platform, whipped out his guitar, and started playing. He put on a brave face and sang to the audience of commuting strangers with his guitar case open by his feet in front of him. He came from a place that stereotyped New Yorkers as an uptight, rude population. But Jesse’s instinct was right: he received a warm reception, with people smiling and dishing out dollars for his talent.
“Jesse’s voice struck me deeper than any voice I’ve ever heard,” says Shae D’lyn, founder of HearME Hub, an organization that brings music studios to disadvantaged children. “I’ve been around music all my life, and was never struck like that. It sweeps you away.”
The good performance experiences greatly outweigh the bad. Cops have given him a hard time in the past, but most are fine with letting him sing on the train platform. Some people having a bad day mock Jesse or clap their hands loudly while he sings. This isn’t the majority of crowd behavior, thankfully.
One accessory has brought Jesse even more positivity: business cards. “People kept asking me for my card and I said I didn’t have one,” he says. “This one guy told me that if I’m going to do what I do, I must have a business card.” So his friend graphic designer made up hundreds of them, and since then (around a month ago) Jesse Fan Mail has been bombarding his inbox. He used to receive about five emails and phone calls a week. Thanks to his new cards, he now gets around twenty per day. He hands me his phone and shows me a string of emails from fans telling him how much they love his music. “It’s crazy,” he exclaims.
Jesse is constantly asked to play random gigs. Once he was paid $300 to perform for a couple in a church over a candlelight dinner. He’s headlined the Busker’s Ball at Spike Hill in Williamsburg. After amassing lots of change in foreign currency, he has cleverly done his own currency exchanges. “I’ll shout asking if anyone’s going to Europe and if they want buy Euro with American money,” he says.
He claims he gets five dollar bills “on the reg.” Jesse has staked out which part of platforms to stand on at what times and at what stations to get the best paying audiences. And it pays his rent. Despite having only lived in illegal apartments (spaces in basements, commercial spots, etc.), Jesse manages to live in nice parts of town for cheap.
The talent doesn’t end at singing and songwriting. Jesse’s also passionate about writing. He’s a self-described literary nerd and claims to be “like Bukowski but without all the prostitutes.” Currently in the queue is a novel about his life that is in the style of Catcher in the Rye, but for people in their late twenties, early thirties. He also has his eyes on Broadway. “I’d love to sing on Broadway for a season, be a stage performer,” he says. And he likes acting. “I just want to live and create art in an authentic way,” he says