Listening to Yann Tiersen’s music you get the sense that he’s always connected to some metaphysical place from which he draws inspiration; however, talking to him you realize he has a more down to earth perspective.
“I realized this is my eighth album and I liked how it worked with the infinity sign,” Tiersen about why he called his new album simply ∞. The more he talked, the more approachable his process seemed, which is strange considering how this might be his grandest album to date.
Of course, one shouldn’t be surprised by Tiersen’s transportive powers, having become a hit in France with his numerous solo albums that he’s been putting out since 2005, but achieved worldwide success and recognition for his playful, emotional, and instantly memorable score for 2001’s Amélie, which gave him legions of devout fans (and incredible creative license) from that point onward.
All of the songs in ∞ (his first proper album since 2011) seem to be recreating the overall tone of the album, they begin in a dark place and then slowly work their way towards a more optimistic place. They would be perfect songs to perform in stadiums. To celebrate the release of the album, Tiersen is about to embark in another world tour—he seems to love being on the road—and PopMatters talked to him about the places that inspired him to write the songs in ∞, as well as his unique ideas on language ...
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Your previous album Skyline had a certain anger and transgression to it, and when ∞ begins it seems you’re going to continue on the same path, but then it reveals to be a very upbeat, positive album. Can you elaborate on this?
Actually the recording of the album itself was a very chill process, I got to go to Iceland with toy instruments. For a long time I had this idea of making music with toy instruments, to find new ideas. I was going through a lot of electronic beats in my catalogue and wanted to use ideas of songs that I’d done, not as proper songs, but as basis songs for the old album. So I ended up doing remixes before the songs were even done! It was a fun process as well, part of it was not to be able to choose and to be judgmental about the ideas, which is almost more exciting.
What was the influence of Iceland in the album?
I live in a small island; I feel comfortable in islands. I chose Iceland to be away from home but to be somewhere kind of familiar. Two years ago when we ended a US tour and just after an Australian one, with lots of gigs—we were away for three months—we had a gig In iceland on the way to Europe and I really liked it! I decided to go there to start the album because it is such a beautiful place. I needed to be away from pressure, to be away from home.
But I believe in a way the songs in the album do transmit that sense of being in a “home away from home.” The album begins with what sound like songs about a foreigner visiting a strange land, yet by the end, there is a sense of complete comfort and familiarity. Was this the journey you intended listeners to follow in the album?
No, I really didn’t have any ideas especially before making any of my albums, especially for this one. I was only interested in manipulation and samples and resamples, going on through the process. I spent one month in front of my laptop messing around with the sounds, incorporating a mandolin, then went to this process again to manipulate the sounds again. I ended up with kind of a surprise each time. So I went back and did it again with strings, there was this back and forth process and then I added songs to computer modular synth to treat everything. So I didn’t know what the album would be. When I start I don’t know what I’m doing [laughs] and then at the end there is this sense of a journey or a meaning.
You have said many times that you try to stay away from language in music, so how do you end up adding lyrics to your songs? Is it easy to pick which ones will feature voices?
Music is not language, it’s something quite different but if you put words it’s a weird and strange combination and I like that.
So how do we end with songs in three different languages in this album?
I live on an island where there is not that much other trees, basically a rock. Working through the album, I realized that after manipulating the instruments there was something that felt organic and mineral. I was a bit obsessed with stones, so my girlfriend wrote this song, “Ar Maen Bihan” in the Breton language, then we translated this song into Icelandic with Amiina. I also have friends who play in bands from the Faroe Islands (including Ólavur Jákupsson), so I asked them to write songs about stones. And that is how we ended up with three languages.
Can you talk about working on “Meteorite” which has a very Serge Gainsbourg flavor to it?
I’m a big fan of Aidan Moffat [of Arab Strap]. I met him in London a couple of years ago and explained how huge a fan I was and that I would like for us to collaborate some day. So then at the end of ∞ I had this long instrumental track as the last track and asked my friend to write something about stones [laughs].
You have some fascinating ideas on how music is taught traditionally and don’t like being called a composer. Have you given thought to developing a unique method of teaching music?
No, I don’t feel that at all, it’s just not the way I work. I started making music with my band in the ‘80s, so I am more product of post punk than classical music and I have always carried on this way. I’m really DIY, have always recorded my albums myself since the beginning. It’s always been the case, I like to have fun, to do what I was doing when I was 15. Now though the music is not same, but the energy is more or less the same. I feel embarrassed when I’m asked to explain things. I like playing and recording, just being a geek ...
I read a story that said that you broke your violin when you were 13 and got an electric guitar ...
Yeah! [laughs] I was a bit stupid back then, going through a teenage crisis ... and I mean the violin is a great instrument! But I didn’t care about that then, so i took my violin and smashed it on the chair. Of course later I spent lots of money to fix it [laughs]. I was stupid ... but you know, it’s good to do stupid things sometimes.