Life in Paris

An Interview with Etienne Belin

Interview – 15.01.2015

“I’ve always had the same goal; to take pleasure in what I’m doing and to enjoy the music that I perform.” – Etienne Belin

Almost three years ago now I met Etienne Belin for the first time. I remember being bowled over by his charisma, his jovial character and most of all, by his voice

I met Etienne whilst working at The Cricketer, an English pub in Paris. Etienne is a regular performer in a number of pubs in Paris and is a fantastic live musician. He primarily sings and plays the guitar, but often adds the harmonica, the tambourine and a stomp box into his performances. He’s the definition of a one man band. As Etienne is one of the leading acts of the Live Music scene in Paris I wanted to interview him to find out a bit more about the man behind the music.

So, Etienne, where did it all start? How old were you when you discovered your passion for music?

I think I started becoming interested in music when I was 16 but I don’t remember exactly how old I was. I started playing the guitar and then I started singing at around 17 years old. I began going to open mics where I watched friends and tried to mirror what they were doing. I never had any music lessons, I just learnt by mimicking other artists.

And is music your dream? Is it what you would like to do as a full time career?

Honestly, I don’t really know. It’s a question that I ask myself a lot and I think, or rather I hope, that musicians don’t need to ask themselves this question. Even for people working in performing arts, they do what they want to do and what they enjoy. I guess it depends on your art, if you want to perform a song based on a specific theme or if you want to add a piano to a song, you just do it. If you don’t want to then it’s better not to! You’ll end up doing things that are second-rate and that don’t suit you. Worst of all – you won’t enjoy yourself!

For now I love performing so I’ll carry on doing it, but the minute I feel like I want to change, I’ll do something else.

How did you first get into music?

It’s a bit of a strange story but I didn’t discover my love for music until I was 16 because I used to do a huge amount of sport. Then I got injured and couldn’t do sport anymore. To start with it was really difficult for me to accept and I was a bit lost. When I realised that I now had a lot of time on my hands I decided to go for a walk. I took the metro for the first time and I found myself at Saint Michel in front of a pub called The Galway. I stopped in front of this pub because there was a guy playing music but I didn’t go inside, I just stood outside and listened. It took me a few months to get up the courage to actually go inside and eventually I got to know the musician who was really friendly and very open. So I started to learn, I didn’t plan to learn but I started doing it anyway without really asking myself why.  

When did you start learning to play the harmonica?

I started learning the harmonica about four years ago. I have a friend who plays the harmonica and when I saw him playing it I thought it was amazing! I also wanted to do something different and the harmonica brings something new into an act. A lot of people sing and play the guitar so it’s great to find something unique.

Do you remember the first song you learnt to play on the guitar?

Yes I remember! It was a song by Marcel Dadi, a French artist who plays country music. It’s a song called Le Derviche Tourneur which is actually a lesson on how to play the guitar. My dad gave me a book on Marcel Dadi’s guitar lessons but it was really hard to learn, there’s no singing, just a melody. I tried to learn using this method and very slowly I started to get it but soon after I gave up because it was just too complicated!

Do you have a favourite song of all time?

It’s impossible to answer this question. I’m the kind of person who, if I like a song, I’ll listen to it over and over again whereas some people prefer to listen to the whole album. If I find one song that I like I’ll automatically listen to it something like 18 times and after I’ll stop, find another song and do the same thing. It’s a bit stupid because in the end you stop liking the song.

How do you keep your audience happy when you play in bars?

Well, in the pub you can’t just play for yourself, you have to adapt to your audience. You still have to play what you like to play but you’re there to entertain others. You also can’t lie to your audience, if you are not enjoying yourself they will pick up on it and in turn, they won’t enjoy themselves either! I like playing fast and slow songs depending on the atmosphere in the bar, the most important thing is being able to read and react to your audience.

Do you have a favourite album?

There are so many albums I like but my favourite, even if it’s a sad album, has to be L’homme à tête de chou by Serge Gainsbourg. It’s the best of the best.

How do you choose new songs to cover for your gigs?

I think one of the most important things is to play the music that you like to hear. However as a musician you have to be able to determine if the music you like will work in a live performance. I don’t think it’s a good idea to only play the music that you think people want to hear. As an artist you can take a popular song and change it so that you enjoy performing it too. I usually hear songs in a bar or on an album and if I really like them, I learn them. Anyway when you learn a new song you learn it in your own way, so you adapt it for both yourself and your audience.

When you perform you always sing in English, was it difficult for you at the beginning?

Yea it was really hard because first you have to learn all the words which takes a lot of time and then you have to know how and when to sing the words. Then on top of that you have to try and hide your accent! When it’s a cover you can try to copy the original but it’s not easy and it depends on which emotions are included in the song.

Would you say you learnt how to speak English through music?

Yes definitely. I only studied English at school for three, maybe four years and I wasn’t very good at it. In the bars I learnt by speaking and singing with native speakers. I remember that at the beginning I couldn’t understand the Australians at all, I managed to pretend I understood and eventually it became easier and easier to understand.

Photo by Patrick Lamoine @ The Mazet
Photo by Patrick Lamoine @ The Mazet

When you gig you perform covers but have you written any of your own songs?

I’m actually in the process of making my first LP, halleluiah! There are songs in French and English, mostly folk songs which is my style and it’s going pretty well at the moment! I hope it will be released around April this year.

Do you prefer to sing in French or English?

I enjoy singing in both languages. They are both really different, English is much more melodic than French so it’s like another instrument that you add in. French is less melodic and therefore much harder. But the question is difficult, for me it’s the same as asking if I prefer music or the theatre, I wouldn’t be able to give you a response because they are so different. I’m French, I was born in France but I was educated musically by Anglophones; Irish, Scottish, Australian, English and American people. My heart is split in two; 50% French and 50% English.

If you could play with a musician (dead or alive), who would you choose?

Oh my god. There are so many to choose from but I’d have to say Chilly Gonzales, he’s brings so much to the stage. But I love so many artists it is almost impossible to choose!

So what’s the next step for you? What’s your goal for 2015?

First and foremost I want to get my album finished and released, it’s important because it will help guide me along the right musical path. It will also be an opportunity to have some gigs where I can play my own music rather than the covers that I usually perform. After that LP has been released I’d like to work on another album. Tomorrow I’m heading off to Scotland until the 30th of January and then at the end of the May I will perform in Greece.

With regards to music I’ve always had the same goal; to take pleasure in what I’m doing and to enjoy the music that I perform. I’ve been playing in bars for a long time now and the more I play in bars the less I want to so it’s important to keep striving for new opportunities. Right now I earn a living through music but the dream is to earn a living from my music.

Thank you Etienne and good luck with the new album!

If you would like to know more about Etienne you can check out his facebook page which he regularly updates!

Etienne performs regularly at:

(61 Rue Saint-André des Arts , 75006 Paris)
Every Thursday from 9pm to midnight

(8 rue de lappe, 75011 Paris)
Every other Wednesday from 8pm

(41, rue des Mathurins 75008 Paris)
Every other Saturday 9.30pm to 12.30am

And hosts the biggest open mic every week at:

(15, rue Clément 75006 Paris)
Sign up: 8.30pm Music at 9.30pm

Every Monday until the 21st of March 2015

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