The French pianist who escaped a sect and then topped the charts

Jean-Philippe Rio-Py grew up in a sect in western France but has since gone on to become a celebrated pianist topping the classical music charts in the United States.

The French pianist who escaped a sect and then topped the charts
French pianist, Jean-Philippe Rio-Py grew up in a cult. He is now topping the classical music charts. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

From a violent French sect to living on the streets of LA to the top of the music charts, pianist Riopy’s incredible journey is the epitome of the idea that music can save your life.

The 38-year-old — real name Jean-Philippe Rio-Py — wrote the score for award-winning films “The Shape of Water” and “The Danish Girl”, spent three weeks at the top of the US classical charts last month and is streamed by millions around the world via meditation and yoga apps.

But it has been a hard road to success, worthy of a fantastical film.

“I had some bad luck that transformed into an opportunity,” he told AFP in Paris.

That is quite an understatement.

The “bad luck” was a sect in the Deux-Sevres region of western France, where he was raised by his mother along with two brothers and two sisters.

He faced beatings and other forms of psychological torment that left their mark in the form of an obsessive compulsive disorder and chronic depression.

The guru who ran the sect banned all music and television but the young Riopy found an abandoned piano and was able to teach himself to play.

“To say that music saved me is a cliche, but it’s true,” he told AFP.

“They would put me on a chair and tell me: ‘Don’t move’. It lasted hours and hours. I loved to make up rhythms in my head that I later transferred onto the keyboard.”

‘The nightmare continued’

Today, Riopy does not like to discuss the details of the sect, but he fled home at 18 and had no contact with his mother for the next 17 years.

He found himself living rough in Paris before heading for Los Angeles — chasing the American Dream, as he put it.

“But the nightmare continued. I was cleaning toilets in exchange for a bed. I ended up on the streets. A priest tried to rape me.”

Giving up on the US, he eventually found himself in Reading, a town outside the British capital, and it was there that his luck finally began to change.

Someone heard him playing in a piano store and offered to pay for his studies on a contemporary music course in Oxford.

From there, he settled in London and began to gig in piano bars.

“My music was so cinematic that it worked well in pubs,” he recalled.

A British film producer, Nick Saunders, heard his music online and offered to represent him as his agent.

Soon he was playing in some of the ritziest venues in the city and picking up advertising gigs for the likes of IKEA, Samsung, and an Armani spot that was viewed more than 10 million times on YouTube.

A surreal full circle was achieved one night when he was invited to play at a dinner organised by Vanity Fair and met Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay.

Impressed by his playing, Martin offered to buy him a piano of his own — a moment that had particular resonance for Riopy.

“When I was 18, before going to LA, I was on the streets of Paris, in the snow. And I was crying and listening to the album ‘Parachutes’ by Coldplay,” he said.

Back from the brink

Although his life seemed to have taken an incredible turn of good fortune, Riopy remained crippled by the demons of his past.

“I was suicidal. I drowned it in alcohol and drugs,” he recalled.

Yoga and meditation helped pull him back from the brink and his career continued to blossom.

He has released a trio of successful albums since 2018 and found great success as a composer for films.

His darker moods are more under control and he says he can finally enjoy life.

“I have the chance to live from my music, to have a wife that I love and two little babies, and to be able to share my music with a huge number of people,” he said.

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Paris street art legend Miss.Tic dies aged 66

Miss.Tic, whose provocative work began cropping up in the Montmartre neighbourhood of Paris in the mid-80s and made her a pioneer of French street art, died on Sunday aged 66, her family told AFP.

Paris street art legend Miss.Tic dies aged 66

Radhia Novat grew up in the narrow streets in the shadow of Sacre-Coeur basilica, the daughter of a Tunisian father and a mother from Normandy in western France, where she began stencilling sly and emancipatory slogans.

Her family said she had died of an unspecified illness.

Other French street artists paid tribute to her work.

On Twitter, street artist Christian Guemy, alias C215, hailed “one of the founders of stencil art”. The walls of the 13th arrondissement of Paris – where her images are a common sight – “will never be the same again”, he wrote.

Another colleague, “Jef Aerosol” said she had fought her final illness with courage, in a tribute posted on Instagram.

And France’s newly appointed Culture Minister, Rima Abdul Malak, saluted her “iconic, resolutely feminist” work.

Miss.Tic’s work often included clever wordplays — almost always lost in translation — and a heroine with flowing black hair who resembled the artist herself. The images became fixtures on walls across the capital.

Miss. Tic with some examples of her work. Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP

“I had a background in street theatre, and I liked this idea of street art,” Miss.Tic said in a 2011 interview.

“At first I thought, ‘I’m going to write poems’. And then, ‘we need images’ with these poems. I started with self-portraits and then turned towards other women,” she said.

Miss.Tic also drew the attention of law enforcement over complaints of defacing public property, leading to an arrest in 1997.

But her works came to be shown in galleries in France and abroad, with some acquired by the Paris modern art fund of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, according to her website.

And cinema buffs will recognise her work on the poster for Claude Chabrol’s 2007 film “La fille coupee en deux” (“A Girl Cut in Two”).

For a spell she was a favourite of fashion brands such as Kenzo and Louis Vuitton.

“So often it’s not understood that you can be young and beautiful and have things to say,” she told AFP in 2011.

“But it’s true that they sell us what they want with beautiful women. So I thought, I’m going to use these women to sell them poetry.”

Her funeral, the date of which is still to be announced, will be open to the public, said her family.