Yann Tiersen: ‘It’s the beginning of a new chapter’

Hunkered down on the tiny island of Ushant, 18 miles from the coast of Brittany, composer and musician Yann Tiersen has spent lockdown contemplating infinity.

Yann Tiersen. Picture: Richard Dumas

His reflections, translated through music, form the basis of his new album, Kerber.

Speaking via Zoom from his studio, the 51-year-old, best known for his soundtrack to the film Amelie, explains: “During lockdown I got into sky-watching a bit, and in front of the house was Orion and the nebulae, so it was this contrast of a nursery of stars, something really far in distance and in time, and being on a small island like Ushant, it was a good reminder.”

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As someone who views music as “something really simple”, the seven compositions on the album evoke a quiet sense of wonder about his own locale. “On this album I juxtapose tracks with names of places, I like to kind of build a map of the island or the places I go,” he says.

Each track is named after a location within a “really small” vicinity of “300 metres or maybe a little bit more”. “It’s the villages near where I live,” he says. “On Ushant, a village is like two houses.”

Tiersen’s reflective phase began five years ago after brush with mortality when he and his wife were cycling along the ‘Lost Coast’ of California. He explains: “We took a took a track and it was a really long ride, like 12 hours without seeing any human beings, and in the middle of it we realised a mountain lion was following us. There was six hours to go and we were in the middle of nowhere, so we were thinking ‘We will end like this, eaten by a mountain lion’.”

Fortunately after a while the lion disappeared, but such proximity to death made Tiersen ponder long and hard. “After that I changed my perception and the way I was seeing things in general,” he says. “I started to be less anthropocentric and to realise there’s stuff around, living beings, plants, trees, all that, and it just blew my mind. I was so close to a horrible death and I thought that’s where it pays to know where you are and how things work in the area you visit, so I’m just obsessed with that now, and that’s why I choose to name songs after places.”

Kerber is Tiersen’s most electronic album in a solo career spanning 28 years, but there have been periodic reinventions along the way. He sees it as all part of an evolutionary cycle. “I started composing doing electronic music,” he says. “I was doing a lot of samples, that’s how I rediscovered acoustic instruments. I played violin and piano when I was young and at 13 I swore that never again would I play piano or violin, I was so fed up with it. Then I switched to electronic.

“When I was a teenager, I was in bands and I had a really noisy period, I tended to focus on guitars. Then I went back to sampling, then I discovered artistic instruments then I started to make my own albums.

“I went back to noisy guitar stuff on Dust Lane (in 2010) then back to electronics.”

Having recontextualised his past on his 2019 piano album Portrait, that revisited songs from throughout his career, he sees Kerber as the start of something new. “Portrait was like to end a chapter, and OK, I’m done with that,” he says. “I really wanted to recap those old songs but in a completely analogue way, so that’s what we did, there were no computers involved. We were mastering from tape to vinyl, we recorded on 24 tracks and then that was done. Now it’s the beginning of a new chapter.”

The melodies on Kerber were initially played on piano then sampled and played on other instruments such as modular synthesisers and ondes martenot. He found the process a fun way of spending lockdown “in a really geeky way”. “(Initially) I did my piano tracks and I thought, ‘Oh, no way’, I thought it was boring, I did one piano album and I couldn’t do two. So I thought, OK, that’s fine, I will carry on doing those tracks on the piano and it will be like texture, a bank of sounds, just to dig into my modular set-up and create a synthesis, and then it was interesting again, and I was happy.”

The album is accompanied by a film, capturing the bleak beauty of the island where Tiersen lives. “The director came and did these really beautiful 35mm shots outdoors and he just got it completely – the mood and the darkness as well,” he says. “Then for the live performance we did a festival just before so we were kind of warm. It was really a great experience. There was crane in the studio but I never saw the crane, so it was, ‘woah’.”

Kerber is out now. Yann Tiersen plays at Manchester Bridgewater Hall on February 15, 2022. www.yanntiersen.com