Yann Tiersen uses music as a process of exploration
You don’t need to know a lot about Yann Tiersen to enjoy his music—which is handy, because studying his lyrics won’t reveal too much about the man. Based on the songs on his new album, Skyline, the Breton musician “loves the woods after the rain” and “the shore after a storm”. That’s about as revealing as the kind of personal ad that trumpets a fondness for puppies, dining out, and long walks.
Close attention to Tiersen’s compositions, however, might be more enlightening. Skyline’s songs sometimes start out gently before being buffeted by hurricane-strength gusts of distortion. In their sonic expansiveness, they seem to suggest open vistas and endless space. And although they’re based on simple chord progressions and sing-along melodies, unpredictable currents swirl around those core elements.
In short, they seem born of the place where Tiersen spends half his time: the island of Ushant, 15 kilometres off the westernmost part of France. Located where the open Atlantic meets the English Channel, the island is beautiful, rugged, and rather mysterious—and the same can be said of Tiersen’s sound.
The 41-year-old multi-instrumentalist doesn’t deny that there’s a link. But he’s not, he stresses, the sonic equivalent of a landscape painter.
“It’s quite strange, but I think that while you’re doing music you can’t have precise visual images in your mind,” he tells the Straight from a Pennsylvania studio, where he and his six-piece band are rehearsing for the tour that will bring them to Vancouver next week. “But as a listener, you have a lot. When I make music I try to avoid even thinking of something—doing music in front of a beautiful landscape is kind of impossible, or stupid. You can be influenced by the land, by a kind of vibe, but not by images or visual things. I don’t think it’s right. As a listener, even me, when I’m listening to music I can think about a lot of stuff, including visual landscapes. But not while I’m making music!”
Tiersen prefers to use music as a process of exploration: he might start with a minimal guitar part, a few chords on the accordion, a violin melody, or even a rhythm pecked out on an old typewriter. Once he gets that recorded, he goes on to add layers of overdubbed sound, often swathed in dub-style echo or expansive reverb—another link to his native turf.
“I have a theory that urban music is quite dry,” he postulates. “They don’t use a lot of reverb. It’s not big-landscape music, like Icelandic music, where they use a lot of reverb because it makes sense in that environment. So maybe there’s something there that’s related to the sea, and to the island where I start my albums.
“I like to be alone when I’m in the studio, because I don’t know where I’m going,” he adds. In contrast, the process of bringing Tiersen’s intimate yet expansive music to the stage is very much a partnership with his bandmates.
“We have lots of analogue synths, and we all sing, so it’s quite close to the album,” he says. “It’s not the same, because of course I don’t want to just replay the album. But we do pay a lot of attention to sound in general, to textures and layers, and it’s good to be able to do that on-stage, together.”
Yann Tiersen plays the Commodore Ballroom on Wednesday (May 9).