HomeInterviewsComposersInterview with French multi-instrumentalist and composer Yann Tiersen

Interview with French multi-instrumentalist and composer Yann Tiersen

Yann Tiersen’s twelfth studio album, Kerber is very much a new chapter in the Breton artist’s work. One that begins with his most overtly electronic material to date. True to Tiersen’s nuanced and subtle approach, this isn’t a U-turn-like thumping piece of dance music but instead a beautifully textured, highly immersive and thoughtfully constructed electronic world to step inside of.
Yann sat down with us to talk about his musical background, inspirations and writing process for the new album.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Yann. Firstly, how did you start out making your own music? What was your relationship with music at an early age?

I started piano lessons when I was really, really young—four or something like that. Then at thirteen I left everything to play guitar in a band. It just started with ‘guitar noise’ but I learnt how to record, how to use a 4-track, then an 8-track, then built a small studio. I actually went back to acoustic instruments through making electronic music—using samplers and stuff like that. So I was using acoustic instruments and writing music. I’m not very skilful on some of the instruments, I just use them as a sound source. I like using them like this and because of my past—being at music school when I was really young—I had the chance to be able to read and write music.

Do you listen to or play any other music in your spare time?

Yeah, I listen to a lot of music. It depends, sometimes when I’m working I don’t listen to others’ music too much so I’m not influenced or because I’m immersed in the work but yeah, I listen to a lot of music. I don’t play anybody’s music, I mean, sometimes I’ll do a cover or a remix but yeah, I don’t tend to play others’ music.

Many of your albums are recorded at and often inspired by the island of Ushant, where you live. Could you tell us a little about the island and its community?

Yeah, it’s a small island in the south of the Celtic Sea, west of Brittany. There are 800 people living here, more or less. It’s quite rough, we have big storms in the winter. I love it, I’ve got lots of friends here. I love the community, the simplicity and the consciousness of the environment that we all have. Living on an island, I think, is relaxing in a way—to have this access to common sense and to be able to understand each other. It makes everything simple.
On an everyday basis, we take our son to school, then we go to the studio. It’s great now I’ve built my studio here so that’s ideal. I’ve always had my studio at home so I was either working in my home or living in my studio but here I have it in two separate places. It’s really close, I can ride my bike there every morning and I love it. It’s really simple but it helps working and focusing.

As with EUSA, each track on Kerber maps out the immediate landscape on the island. How did the locals react to the album?

Oh, good, good, especially neighbours in the area where I live because the tracks are named after places near my home so yeah, they were happy with it.

That’s good—it would be awkward if they didn’t like it.

Yeah! [Laughs]

So did all your inspiration for the album stem from the nature surrounding you, or did you develop any other inspirations during the writing process, especially working with more electronic elements?

The idea behind mapping the place where I live came from an experience we had five years ago. We were cycling through California on a really long ride, on a remote track. After six hours we realised that we were being followed by a mountain lion. We had around six hours left to go and of course he was following us and looking for us to say hello! [Laughs] So we were really scared and thought it was ‘the end’—it shifted my point of view and my way of seeing the world. I realised it’s important to consider other living beings and understand my surroundings better.
To me, music is not a language and I like to keep it simple. I just decided to juxtapose pieces of music that don’t have anything to do with the place, but they do because it’s where I’ve been to. I name music after places and it creates something new. The music is linked to the place and then people can focus on the place. It’s just a small contribution to this need to reconnect to nature or to our environment and ecosystem.

Did your approach to writing the piano parts differ working on Kerber compared to EUSA?

EUSA was my first ever solo piano album, so I was quite genuine about it and happy with it as a new thing. As for Kerber, it is completely different because I was planning to focus on the electronics more than the piano. I originally wanted this album to be centred around the piano, however after a while I was a bit stuck and it was hard for me to work. I thought, OK, I will see it differently and the piano will be the base to shape the electronics around. It’s a bit like me in California—I could have died because the surroundings were stronger than me and actually, that’s the same on the album. The piano is there, it’s a small thing, and the electronics are stronger than the piano.

Did you go back and change any of the piano parts after creating the electronic soundscapes on Kerber?

No, actually I didn’t. I just wrote it and even the music was written and I just recorded the piano and it was like the base to something else. Sometimes I would cut the piano down but it was written and ‘in the books’ already.

The electronic textures and melodic content from the piano lines are beautifully balanced in this album. How do you strike the right balance in the composition process and know when to hold back or push the electronics further?

Uh, I don’t know. [Laughs] When you’re doing it, actually it’s really more of a studio production thing and it’s just instinctive.

Releasing the sheet music before the record is an approach you’ve taken before with EUSA. What do you hope people will get out of the experience of playing the music themselves at home?

I think as we are being immersed more and more in virtuality, I love the idea of going back to something really simple. Just pieces of paper that people can play it in their homes. I love the idea that the music also exists physically in the ‘real world’.

It also means that people can put their own personal touches on the on the music. Do you enjoy listening to other people’s interpretations of your pieces?

Yeah! Although, that’s a tricky one because, to be honest, I don’t see myself too much as a composer, especially on this album, actually. It’s hard to say—of course, it’s free for everybody to do whatever they want with an interpretation. With Kerber, I recorded it and it’s not intended to be played in concert halls because it’s linked to the electronics, in my view, on the album. But I like that everybody can play it at home and can record it, add their own treatments and stuff.

I see you have plans to get back out on tour very soon—how will your set differ from previous tours? Will it be a challenge to replicate the tracks from Kerber in a live setting?

Yeah, but it’s a good challenge, I’ve been working a lot on that recently. I had a gig at the Fort de Bertheaume in early July and that was a big set-up. There’s a piano on stage, the electric piano as well, I’m looping stuff, I go through the modular synth, all of that. Then some gigs will be fully electronic, no piano, I just sample stuff and both are quite enjoyable, I hope! [Laughs] I don’t think I have ever rehearsed so much and had so much work to do for a gig but I’m happy to have the two versions. I can even change the version depending on the audience or the mood of the evening.

Finally, what’s coming up next for you?

In the near future I’m focusing on gigs, so I will carry on working on Kerber. I’ll be developing these ‘new versions’ to have a really flexible gig where we have 1-2 or even 3 different versions of the songs, then I can change and switch from one another. So it’s a lot of work but then we will tour and, yeah, that’s the near future.



Kerber Sheet Music for Piano Solo

Named after a chapel in a small village on the island of Ushant, Kerber marks a new chapter in Yann Tiersen’s career. A chapter still true to the composer’s nuanced and subtle approach but one that sets out with his most overtly electronic material to date. Beautifully textured, highly immersive and thoughtfully constructed, Tiersen creates an electronic world, providing an environment in which the piano source exists.
The album is out now on vinyl!
If you want to revisit EUSA on vinyl or play the sheet music, click here.

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