Lily Maopolski: “You Just Have to Put Yourself Out There and Good Things Come.”
Text and images by Brianna Spause.
“Student loans suck.”
Written on a humble cardboard sign, the overwhelmingly relatable notion of crushing debt is her hook as Lily Maopolski, 21, performs on the corner of 13th and Walnut streets.
As herds of people pound the pavement through Center City, Maopolski greets the rush hour crowd with nothing but her warm, raspy vocals and acoustic guitar.
When Maopolski puts her talents out on display to the thousands of eyes that sweep the crowded streets, she gives a piece of herself to the city and finds a little bit of magic in human interaction in return.
Some stop and listen, others sing and dance along in stride and sometimes the stars align.
A cab driver stops in the middle of the street and leans admiringly out his window for a listen as Maopolski sings “Irreplaceable” by Beyoncé in the afternoon sun.
With a wink she sings the verse, “Baby drop them keys/ you better hurry up before your taxi leaves.” Letting out a deep chuckle, the driver pulls off down 13th Street and on with his day.
Music has the ability to freeze a moment and, as her songs echo down crowded streets, Maopolski brings her constantly shifting audience into the present.
Not everyone passing the performance on the corner pays any mind. But presented with an unexpected excuse to connect with art, street performance allows people to stop and exist, even if only for a moment.
A year ago, Maopolski didn’t even know what busking meant. Now, it encompasses her lifestyle.
She says busking has changed her life both personally and artistically, as she feels more confident when she connects with people through music.
“I put 100 percent of myself out there when I busk and I get that in return from the people passing me on the street, whether it be a smile, a quick compliment or a 15-minute conversation,” Maopolski says. “Playing guitar and singing in the street alone in the city can be a vulnerable thing but I’ve received nothing but love.”
It’s been a whirlwind year for the young artist who plays cover songs on the streets of Philadelphia several times a week. Maopolski leaves her originals at home. She says people don’t pay attention if they don’t know the tune.
Maopolski started busking in earnest after quitting her job at Café Crema, a little cannoli shop next door to Geno’s Steaks, where she had been reserved to busking on her lunch break.
“I was making more money in 15 minutes than in a seven-hour shift,” Maopolski says.
Quickly, her passion turned into a non-traditional way to keep the lights on and those pesky student loans at bay.
“But it’s not even about the money,” Maopolski says as she starts packing up her guitar after about an hour playing in Center City.
She pushes aside today’s haul to carefully make room – some singles, an overripe banana, two mixtapes and a business card for the Ritz Carlton Hotel with scrawled handwriting that reads, “We do live music in the lobby.”
“I just want to perform, all the time,” Maopolski says. “There’s no rules to busking, which is the best part. Sometimes I’ll get that pit in my stomach before I play. But then I’ll think, why am I fucking stressed? I’m just going to have fun. Who cares?”
The freedom of the streets is appealing to Maopolski. She tried out the house show scene for a while with her indie rock band, Space Boner. But that was short-lived and more just about people coming together to jam.
When busking, Maopolski can show up where she wants, when she wants and without any expectations. She says it just jives better with her lifestyle.
Sophiya Sydoryak brought Maopolski out for her first busking experience. With Sydoryak on the hula hoop and Maopolski on the guitar, the pair made a dynamic busking duo.
Maopolski was hooked, and began going solo. Sydoryak says Maopolski’s demeanor and laid-back attitude is what draws people in.
“She just busks because she wants to share art with the world,” Sydoryak says. “There’s something simple and untouched about that. I find that if you share your passion aimlessly, just because this is what you love to do, success finds you.”
And for Maopolski, that seems to be a trend.
She was once belting the chorus to Radiohead’s “Creep” outside of Café Crema and caught the attention of an American Idol producer.
“He was getting a cheesesteak from Geno’s because he’s a fucking tourist,” Maopolski says, noting that the producer said he liked her style.
He invited her to film a brief appearance for the opening credits of Idol’s final season. The next day, Maopolski was riding her skateboard and playing the guitar for a professional film crew.
Without ever auditioning for the show, Maopolski was featured performing for more than 10 million people who watched the season 15 premiere.
Then there was the time the Pope was in town and, while busking, she landed herself a part-time gig selling merchandise and recording parody videos like “Cray Cray for Tay Tay (Girl Craze)” with The Swiftees.
“They think I’m funny and energetic,” Maopolski says. “If my dumb videos go viral, I can get some attention in the media and further my career in doing so.”
It was fitting for the girl voted class clown in high school.
Whether it’s on film or on the streets, Maopolski’s energy is contagious. Especially when she’s busking. Her sense of openness is key, Sydoryak says.
“Lily is light-hearted and never judgemental. That really shines through in her personality,” she says. “People are drawn to her.”
By sunset, Maopolski has made her way to Rittenhouse Square for a second session. Upon arrival, she finds her typical spot has already been taken by two young kids playing the cello.
Out of respect for the kids, Lily plays quietly. A thin, middle-aged man hops off his bike and onto the wall next to Lily for a listen, handing her a dollar folded into a paper airplane after listening intently to her rendition of Christina Perry’s “Jar of Hearts.”
Maopolski says donations could be as small as a smile or as large as the time in Old City, when a mysterious guy stopped his car, gave her a vintage guitar and drove away.
“People are so cool. That’s what you learn out here,” Maopolski says. “You don’t see it every day. You just have to put yourself out there and good things come.”
Those small interactions add up to a massive stage when Maopolski performs on the streets of Philadelphia. That’s what really matters to her.
With no ticket sales, no tours and no rules, Maopolski says busking is special. No matter the street or the stage, it feels like where she belongs.
“It’s a little piece of magic I found,” she says.