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29 September 2017

The “vagabond” pianist who plays the city as skilfully as the keyboard

His music has that turbulent, impressionistic, peculiarly French feel of perpetual motion.

By Kate Mossman

I meet Francois-Xavier Pierron at Hampstead Heath station early one weekday morning. He says he’s sleeping in the woods nearby. On a good day, he goes right through till 11am. “Then I crick my neck, do a bit of exercise and put my sleeping bag in the tree.” Pierron is wearing a thick grey turtleneck, a beanie and a long, cracked-leather coat – suitable attire for sleeping rough in September. His jeans are slightly yellowed and he’s red-eyed but declines my offer of coffee, taking me to a small ornamental garden alongside the station instead. His fingernails are long for a piano player.

Pierron, 22 and raised near Calais, has been in London for three years. He honed his musical skills on the free pianos of St Pancras station. Local newspapers have reported that he’s playing Ravel – his music has that turbulent, impressionistic, peculiarly French feel of perpetual motion – but they’re his own improvised tunes. He’s as confident as a concert pianist and as loud and untrained as a child. He bounces around like Scott Joplin. One piece is called “Black Horses will not be Mounted”.

For a while, he lived in a hostel in Notting Hill but says he was kicked out. He says he has a loitering ban from St Pancras station now – public spaces aren’t really public, at the end of the day. “They know me,” he adds. “They know I’m not a bad guy.”

I ask Pierron – who also goes by the name of Efe Ikeuseu – why he got in touch. He says he’d noticed I’d interviewed Benjamin Clementine, the idiosyncratic songwriter and pianist who won the Mercury Prize in 2015. Clementine had left Edmonton as a teenager and lived rough on the streets of Paris for a time – he downplays it now, but such stories have always fascinated the music press. In 2008, there was Seasick Steve, the hobo whose hobodom was found to be rock’n’roll fake news.

How do you measure “how homeless” someone is? Why should I be surprised that Pierron has an iPhone – which he charges in a church centre – and a tablet in his rucksack? “I am halfway between homeless and vagabond,” is how he puts it. He was born in Dakar and spent his first eight months in an orphanage. His white, middle-class French parents, who are teachers and artists, adopted him and took him to live on a farm near Calais.

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At five, someone told Pierron his parents were white. He talks about the “mirroring” stage in childhood, where you see yourself as an extension of your parents – followed by the moment he realised he was different and saw himself as if “behind glass”.

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He saved money and went travelling to Spain, where he met Senegalese rough sleepers. Then, there was a bus via France to Victoria. Little steps toward rootlessness, like a stolen wallet. In London, he worked as a kitchen porter and had no fixed abode. An old girlfriend told him he was probably acting out his feelings of abandonment and that he’d get over it in time.

He smokes weed, he says, but he’s not a drunk. He has no girlfriend now but enjoys the company of his “stinky friends”. He says he likes sleeping in the woods because it’s quiet. And he plays the city as skilfully as he plays the piano: his days are full, promoting his strange, strongheaded music.

Through the homeless charity New Horizon, Pierron was introduced to the On Track programme, run by Camden’s Roundhouse, whereby young people out of work can access free music training. He’s popped up at arts festivals, and he’s got a SoundCloud page. The mayor of Camden invited him to perform at Lauderdale House in Highgate, at a benefit for homelessness and mental health, with Alastair Campbell.

And what does today hold? He’s going to the Southbank to have a shower, he says. In the basement of the Royal Festival Hall there’s a staff washroom he can access unnoticed. Then, because he’s not allowed at St Pancras, he’ll play the piano in the Barbican Music Library, with headphones on. He’s booked it for 2pm.