Yann Tiersen
Photo: Courtesy of Mute Records

The Near-Death Inspiration Behind Yann Tiersen’s Life-Affirming New Work

“It’s really simple,” Yann Tiersen explains. “There is no inspiration out of [the location], there is no deeper meaning than to just juxtapose music and places.”

Yann Tiersen
27 August 2021

In 2016, French composer Yann Tiersen released the album EUSA, a collection of neo-classical solo piano works dedicated to his home, the island of Ushant. Three years later, he followed it up with an even stronger work titled All, which cleverly built from local field recordings that fed into the compositions.

Now, Tiersen has outdone himself yet again with Kerber, a subtle tribute to a chapel on Ushant and its various surrounding landmarks. After nearly ten years into his recording career, why is Tiersen so concerned with his music’s relationship to location? It all started with a bike trip in America five years ago.

“We had been cycling from Oregan on a long, long ride through the forest,” the pianist and violinist told me over the phone one mid-September day (Zoom was giving him difficulties at the time). “After six hours, we realized that a mountain lion was following us. We were really, really scared, so the next six hours to get out of there were a complete nightmare. But a mountain lion is a wild animal, and he was following us for one reason: it was food. So that was a really scary experiment, and it shifted my vision of the world. I almost died, or I could have been in a horrendous situation.

“I felt that everything was alive, and I now have a more holistic view of the world,” he continues. “Before, my music was linked to time because I had trauma when I was young. My father died when I was seven. I was trying to keep a deep connection between time and music, [music] as a small snapshot of time. After this mountain lion thing, it shifts to trying to be connected to place and focuses more on the geographical and its connection with nature. It’s really simple; there is no inspiration out of [the location]. There is no deeper meaning than to juxtapose music and places to create something that exists together.” 

Unlike EUSA and AllKerber finds Tiersen immersing himself into electronic music deeper than before. The piano is still present, but its overall importance to his compositional hierarchy just traveled down the totem pole to the point where he treats it more like putty. “The samples, especially on this album, I use the piano in the sample bank. I kept them on a record, but live, I reshape them or resequence them.”

Tiersen then pauses to consider the wider angle. “I like to talk in analogies: between the mountain lion adventure and the humans, us, the thing that could have destroyed us was nature. On this album, it’s the same. The piano is the center, but the piano’s got no importance at all. The piano makes room for the electronics, for the surroundings to shine and show their force. The piano is a subject, but not an important subject. The surroundings are much more important. I spent two weeks recording the piano, and I spent four months working on the electronics.”

Legendary producer Gareth Jones, who has aided Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Nick Cave during their ascent to stardom, was there to keep Tiersen from weaving too tangled a web. “Gareth Jones and I started working together on my album Infinity a while ago [2014],” Tiersen recalls. “He’s almost a member of my family. He understands what I want to do. He gets it. He’s very respectful and opens up some paths sometimes, and he gives excellent suggestions. We understand each other pretty well, and he’s an incredible mixer. He mixed Infinity, which was a mess of tracks! I love that album, but it would have over 100 tracks, so it was really a nightmare to mix it and make it coherent. I’m not doing that anymore; it’s just a few tracks on this album.”

Then he adds with a laugh, “it’s getting more and more sober, track-wise!”

Kerber came at a time when Yann Tiersen had just performed a justifiable bit of revisionism. Thanks to the inclusion of many of his early pieces in the hit film Amélie including “La Dispute”, Tiersen felt that the people who were hearing his music for the first time were hearing it in the wrong setting. So in 2019, he released Portrait, a double album where the composer revisited 25 of his old compositions.

“There was a big misunderstanding because my music was being used for a movie, and it just completely put the music out of context,” he explained to me. The more one reads about Yann Tiersen, the more important the art of context is to him, be it film or any other form of representation.

He went to a worst-case scenario to make his point. “When you lose someone or something traumatic has happened in your life, sometimes you start whistling a happy tune just for comfort. But it’s really bitter, and it’s not a happy tune at all. And my music was that. My music wasn’t nice. The nicer the melody, the more bitter it was. Some people started looking at my music on the ground level as a nice thing. So it’s almost an insult to my grief and an insult to what I am. So I just needed to re-record all of that and to put it out and see my music not taken for what it is not. Then I could turn the page, and this new album [Kerber] can be a new direction of what I’m doing now.”

This new direction appears to suit the musician very well. Although his wife came down with COVID, a bit of “bad luck”, as he calls it, he was able to use the global downtime to work on the album’s rich samples.”I just focused on the studio, and I walked a lot. I worked a lot on programming, went deep into resampling the piano and the sequencing. Boring, tedious stuff, but exciting for me! I had a chance to do that with [the] lockdown.”

Yann Tiersen’s live performances are expected to occur in safe spaces, though that’s a moot point in some countries. “I know it’s not like this in the US, but in France and Germany, you can’t go [into a show] if you’re not vaccinated,” he told me rather matter-of-factly.

“I think it’s like showing solidarity,” he concludes. “Sure, the vaccine might not be perfect, but the main point is to protect others. I think it’s important and not an attempt to take freedom. It’s thinking of others and being good citizens. If you don’t get vaccinated, which is your choice, okay, then you have to wait for the pandemic to end before going to bars and venues. I think it’s right to ask people to be vaccinated. I respect every point of view, but I think it’s more fair to do that.”