Yann Tiersen: Where the Heart Is

Music Features Yann Tiersen
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Yann Tiersen: Where the Heart Is

Even though 15 years after the fact he’s still closely associated with scoring Amélie, Yann Tiersen admits he doesn’t have much of an affinity for film soundtracks. Music, he reasons, has an emotional cadence of its own—one that can be difficult to tap into during collaborations. (“Doing music for a specific scene is really hard,” he cracks. “You have to do a soundtrack and the character is crying and I don’t know.”) In fact, the only score he’s ever written from the ground up was Good Bye, Lenin! That choice, he explains, was because the film was about having an ill parent. It was a headspace he unfortunately knew too much about.

Now at 46, the French multi-instrumentalist continues to select his projects with equal care. He’s experimented with ornate orchestration. He’s created walls of sounds reminiscent of a violin-led My Bloody Valentine. Now on his ninth album, he’s taken to crafting intimate piano solos, inspired by field recordings taken from around his home on the island of EUSA, which also gives the album its name.

“It makes it exciting, trying new things,” he says. “I’m always like that. It’s funny because one year ago if someone had told me ‘Okay, your next release will be a piano album,’ I would have laughed. ‘You’re completely crazy! It’s not possible!’”

Tiersen admits the project is suffused with sentimentality. Born in Brest, a city located in Northern Brittany, Eusa became a regular vacation spot for his family. Tiersen’s father passed away when the musician was 20, which led him to cherish his island memories even more. Finally, he came to Eusa to record his first album, The Lighthouse, and, by his own account “Never left after that.”

“I love this place,” Tiersen explains. “It’s a small community. I love the people here. Lots of friends. Before I was living part-time elsewhere. Now I live full-time here. It’s good to know everybody. Every single relationship, with the postman, with everybody. I enjoy that way of living a lot. Especially, seeing the older men on commercial ships and stuff like that. On ferries as well. They were away for a long time. When I go on tour and come back, I have sort of this same life. It’s good to be understood.”

EUSA is an understated song-cycle. Eschewing layers and dramatics, Tiersen simply plays—his light touch creating an undeniable sense of intimacy across the album’s 18 tracks, many featuring the sound of wind, birds and island life. However, the deceptively simple setup proved to be tricky to obtain.

“The goal was to play along with the field recordings,” Tiersen explains. “It actually didn’t work. I had to change the field recordings that were real. I had to change them to make them more real. To make them reflect the location and the place. It felt impossible with the real material. So I changed them and added some drones to match the sentimentality of the place. If I hadn’t done that, it would have just been piano with the sounds of the field in the background. Which would have been terrible and the opposite of what I wanted to do. It’s funny that to make it reflect reality I had to transform it.”

“Kereon,” a track full of avian-like arpeggios juxtaposed with more languorous passages, was a turning point for Tiersen. The song also features sounds recorded at the lighthouse, located just outside his front door. To hear him tell it, the act of documenting his surroundings forever tied together the idea of music and home.

“When I did the field recording, it feels strange now because I had this kind of bird that comes in the spring most of the time,” he explains. “Sometimes when I go outside now it makes me think about the album because I’m surrounded by them. It’s strange!”

He underscores that last statement with a laugh. But it doesn’t take long into a conversation with Tiersen to realize he sees life split in two, and that his emotional world is just as important as the day-to-day one he inhabits. It’s an observation the musician doesn’t deny.

“I love the idea of maps,” he says. “The map of a country or a place or whatever. But they’re nothing to do with the reality of the place. It’s quite abstract as well. It’s like music in a way. It’s a form, but it’s not a description of the landscape. It’s like the music I do. It’s juxtaposed with the place. With the music, it’s kind of a new location. It feels like something different, even though the reality is quite normal.”