The Underground Artist

A voice echoes through the corridor of the dirty Paris métro station. It stretches down the stairwell and falls into the pool of bustling passengers, blending with the sounds of clapping heels running to make the train just before the doors buzz shut and it rumbles by. There are homeless women begging for food for their children, men in suits passing in a hurry and dozens of headphone-covered ears bobbing their way to the platform.

Amidst all of this stands Livane Revel.

Her guitar is swung over her shoulder and her red lips nearly touch the microphone as she starts to sing. Her words shape into a smile as people pass, but she doesn’t always receive one back.  She stands on a red, floral blanket with her speaker, a few CDs, her permit and a basket of tips set to the side.

Every few minutes the train roars past to rotate her audience, but she doesn’t flinch anymore. For Revel, this corner has become a public rehearsal studio she has claimed at least two mornings each week for the last year.

As an artist just starting out, this dirty corner is the only place she is guaranteed high foot traffic and a diverse audience. Every six months Revel passes an audition with the RATP Musiciens du Métro association to renew her permit. While roughly 1,000 musicians apply, Revel is one of only 300 to earn a badge allowing her to play in the public space.

As the rush blurs by, a few people stop to say hello or give a compliment.

The clock reads four minutes – the wait for the next train to arrive. As people wait, some take out their headphones to listen, watch, or sometimes drop a coin into her basket. 

The money isn’t consistent, but she’ll usually collect enough to buy groceries or some materials she needs for her guitar. “It’s certainly not enough to live on,” she said. But what she doesn’t make in tips she is compensated for with gigs and artistic connections that may help down the road. By playing in the métro she has promoted small-venue concerts in bars and a recent music video she produced through the help of crowd funding.

A few strangers scratch their email addresses onto a piece of printer paper to subscribe to her event email list; others sing along to the words of an old French classic. Her style is classic and sweet French pop. Over the course of two to three hours, she sings a mix of covers of songs by Barbara and Yves Jamait, as well as her own compositions.

“A girl with an electric guitar like that – that’s sexy,” said Valerie Essel who sang along while waiting for the train to arrive. “I usually have my Walkman on but when I hear music like that, I just have to stop and listen.”

Before a year and a half ago, the thought of singing and playing the guitar alone frightened Revel nearly to death. It wasn’t that she wasn’t used to being in the spotlight, having predominantly worked as a comedian in her adult career. But this was different.

“The first time I played in the métro I had very bad stage fright,” she said. “I kept asking myself ‘what am I doing?’ It was all so strange to me. But after a few songs, I quickly realized a few people were interested by my playing, and that surprised me in a good way.”

Today Revel is not only used to the feeling of playing in front of hundreds of passing strangers on their way to work, but she feeds off the feeling to boost her confidence to carry on.  

“When I leave after playing for two hours in the métro, I’m just bursting with energy and confidence to continue my project, even if it is just myself and my guitar,” she said with a smile spread across her face. 

Revel first experimented with a voice career in 2006 when she began a band with a few friends.

“It was a really cool experience, but I didn’t know how I was going to live off of the project,” she said. “Finally I decided it was costing me more than it was bringing in and I had to end it.

Revel realized soon after that singing was something she had to do, whether it was with a group or alone. For the next two years Revel studied the guitar intensively to bring her abilities up to the level at which she could compose and sing. But she had no connections and nowhere to play.

That’s when she started in the métro.

Now a year later, she celebrates the small success playing in the métro has brought her. People won’t stop every time to listen or give her a tip, but after months in the same place, she has garnered a small fan base. It’s this consistency that has helped her build a network of artistes as well. By playing in the métro Revel met a photographer who offered free photos that would normally have cost a few hundred euros. A film director she crossed paths with recently produced her first music video to her song, “J’aime Cuissiner.”

Whether it’s the homeless man who gives her his last coin after spending the day listening to her pretty voice, or the woman who purchases a private concert, one way or another the métro makes it possible for her to keep playing.

“I’m not employed by anyone,” she said. “I do things because I want to do them, because they are a personal passion. But when I can no longer do it, I’m not sure what will happen.”

Revel has only ever known the precarious career of jumping from one job to the next, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This life… it’s not easy,” she said. “But I don’t know what else I would do. It’s always a little uncomfortable, but the liberty that it brings is worth it—even if it takes the wheel sometimes.”