Yann Tiersen
Photo: Courtesy of Mute Records

Yann Tiersen’s ‘Kerber’ Is a Sonic Tribute to His Home of Ushant

Yann Tiersen integrates synth elements, redefining his piano arrangements and giving each piece otherworldly layers on Kerber.

Yann Tiersen
Mute Records
27 August 2021

Like most of the world, French multi-instrumentalist Yann Tiersen spent the last year and a half in isolation. However, when describing his experience, the word isolation isn’t hyperbole. During this time, Tiersen recorded his latest record Kerber on Ushant—a small, windswept French island off the west coast of Brittany with a population of a little over 800 inhabitants.

Kerber, which marks Tiersen’s 12th studio album, doesn’t rely on the piano as heavily as many of his other records have. The album delves into electronics, incorporating synth elements and samplers that redefine his piano arrangements and gives each piece otherworldly layers. “It was going to be a piano-centric album,” Tiersen told American Songwriter. “But after a while, I felt a bit bored with that and just decided to take the piano as a sample bank, to focus on texture and moods. Even if the piano is present on the album, it’s really an excuse for the rest.”

The result is best heard in headphones. The quirky sound effects framing each piece are subtle and reminiscent of the electronic eeriness present in Radiohead’s OK Computer and the space sounds that Jason Lytle is known for.

The electronic elements that he disperses throughout Kerber aren’t new to Tiersen. While he learned the piano and violin as a child and has used both instruments in his music, he experimented with punk rock, synthesizers, guitars, and samplers in his later years. In his 20s, he began to return to his classical roots and, in the summer of 1993, recorded 40 tracks that would make up most of his first two albums La Valse Des Monstres and Rue Des Cascades.

Several of the tracks of those first two albums would wind up on the soundtrack for Jean-Pierre Jeanet’s 2001 film, Amelie, and bring Tiersen’s name to a broader audience. Hearing himself on screen wasn’t a pleasure, however. Tiersen told the Independent in 2019 that Amelie “had more of a negative impact instead of positive. The first time I saw the movie was in the cinema, and it felt really personal and weird. If I was asked to do it again, now I would say no.”

Since then, Tiersen has used electronics in his work and has recently recorded everything in his studio named “Eskal”. Built in an abandoned discotheque on Ushant and opening directly onto the Celtic Sea, Eskal is ideal for musical contemplation. You can almost hear the landscape in the music as many of the pieces, while minimalist, are expansive. There is a sense of openness infused in the album that is occasionally propelled by synthesizers and drum machines. The effect is reminiscent of traveling across the windswept coast of Ushant.

The connection to Ushant has long been in Tiersen’s blood. He was born in Brittany and visited the island with friends and family throughout his life, often renting houses to record there before he bought a place on the island 12 years ago. The seven songs that make up the album refer to locations on Ushant, and the title track is named after a chapel in the small village where Tiersen lives.

Ushant has served as inspiration for Tiersen’s music before. The title of his 2016 solo piano album EUSA means “Ushant” in the Breton language and included field recordings of the island’s natural sounds. Tiersen’s videos often feature Usant’s rocky coastline. Tiersen’s latest video for “Ker Yegu” is no different, but this time includes footage of Ushant’s inhabitants and houses, in addition to the barren, windswept landscape.

On 26 August, Tiersen released his first feature film: Yann Tiersen: Kerber—The Film, directed by Kit Monteith. The film, like the album, is an ode to Ushant and uses footage of the island and Eskal to accompany the music, which is a mixture of selections from Kerber as well as his back catalogue. The film serves as the perfect visual accompaniment to the album, reinforcing the apparent love Tiersen has for his home.  

RATING 8 / 10