Frank Busch's cool-as-a-cucumber reputation is his secret weapon when it comes to performing. The singer-guitarist's confidence endows him with instant star quality, helping him win fans.
On May 11, it also helped him win the third season of Project M, 105.5-Triple M's songwriting competition and reality show.
Unlike many artist types, Busch is lucky enough to pursue his craft full time, fronting local roots-rock group the Mighty Short Bus. He wants the rest of the country to know just how awesome his bandmates are. That's why he signed up for the local radio station's contest, in which local musicians face off in a series of weekly challenges.
"I've seen how much exposure the contestants get on the air. It's getting harder and harder to get on the radio, but these guys deserve it," he says of his cohorts. The band tours the Midwest with fervor, playing 20 shows a month at rock clubs, biker bars and events like Milwaukee's Summerfest.
Raised in a small town, Cuba City, Wis., Busch made his way to UW-Madison in the late 1990s, earning an economics degree in 2001. But his smarts didn't lead him down the path he'd expected. Busch discovered that he liked to sing and play guitar - a lot.
Busch knew he had musical potential thanks to his tuneful family. It just took him a while to grow into it.
"My father was a big-band leader, and his dad had a band, too," says Busch. "I rebelled for a while, though. I didn't pick up guitar until my freshman year of college. My roommate had a guitar and taught me a few things, and then I got interested."
Busch took his newfound passion to the stage, cutting his teeth at open mikes and rounding up some bandmates. It was the bar-concert scene that turned him into a lifer. "I was addicted from day one and started writing a ton," he says.
After a while, Busch's crush on songwriting faded. The task didn't seem like a big deal until the reality of Project M hit him. "When you're in a band, you wear lots of hats: performing, managing the business side of things, and so on. It's easy to say, 'I don't feel like writing.' But with Project M, you don't have any choice. It has to get done and it has to be good, or thousands of people will think you suck."
Busch describes the competition as a constant gantlet of brain-racking exercises. He found the show's final songwriting challenge - writing a tune about Wisconsin's recent political events - especially tough. His entire family was headed to his house for Easter, and the Mighty Short Bus was as busy as ever. All things considered, he had about four hours of free time.
"I ended up writing it off the cuff," he admits. "The funny thing is, that turned out to be the challenge I won."
In addition to the songwriting challenges, Busch enjoyed the show's opportunities to collaborate. As part of the competition, he teamed with season-two contestant Beth Kille for a duet. Meanwhile, offstage, he struck up a friendship with another season-three contestant, Mark Croft.
"He was the guy who made me say, 'I know he's gonna bring it this week, so I'd better do the same,'" Busch says.
Project M also helped him broaden his listening horizons. Busch's playlists already included tunes by Ryan Adams, Tom Petty, Amos Lee, the Black Crowes and Johnny Cash, but fellow contestant Jason Horowitz encouraged him to delve deeper into soulful songwriting with Jackie Greene.
"The second Jason put one of [Greene's] songs on, it blew me away," Busch says. "One of the songs I wrote for the finals was modeled after [Greene's] stuff, actually. He taught me some different ways to approach melody and subject matter."
Though the details of Busch's prize package - which includes a meeting with an Atlantic Records rep and a song on the Triple M playlist - are still being hammered out, he's confident that the Mighty Short Bus will net some new opportunities. Also expect more Project M musician pairings in the future. Busch has plans to partner with contestant Charlie Kim, and he's eager to write songs with other local musicians.
"Now I want to write constantly, with lots of different people," he says. "This experience re-inspired me to work all the time, not just performing but writing great songs."