Yann Tiersen | Sees Trees, Sees Seas, Sees Lions

by Elizabeth Pagano

Five years ago, French musician Yann Tiersen was cycling on a trail just north of Rockport, California with his wife when they were met with a decision. “We had two choices: to go back, or use a track that crossed through the wilderness. We chose the second option,” Tiersen says.

With miles of forest on their right and the Pacific Ocean on their left, they forged on. And then, halfway through the 12-mile journey, Tiersen’s wife picked up on a noise coming from the trees. Seconds later, a mountain lion emerged from the forest and stood directly in their path. They froze, terrified. The mountain lion fled, but it stalked them for the remainder of their ride. It took hours for Tiersen and his wife to make it back to safety. “After six hours, I proposed to my wife, because we weren’t sure that something terrible could have happened,” Tiersen laughs.

Returning to that same trail, he set out to record a violin track for his tenth and most recent album, ALL, which dropped this spring. “It’s a really important place for me. It changed my life, in a way,” he says.

For Tiersen, one of the most important things—in music and in life—is a respect for place, for the environments in which he finds himself and in which he creates. “We were ignorant of who was living there and who was eating who. And because of that, we were in danger and could have been killed by a peaceful mountain lion that was just looking for food. I think if you don’t know your environment, if you don’t have a connection with it, then you’re in danger.”

He recorded the bulk of ALL at “The Eskal,” an old discotheque he’s converted into a world-class studio on the island of Ushant, just off the coast of France, where he’s resided since 1996. Ushant is at the core of the new album, which is rich with soundscapes that evoke the beauty and particular pulse of the place. “It’s more and more that the island is a part of me than that I’m a part of the island,” Tiersen says. “I think when you live in a natural place almost untouched by humans, it’s easier to have a connection with it. You’re closer to the forces of nature.”

Tracks like “Koad” and “Erc’h” exemplify this connection. Tiersen describes the latter as being the essence of the album— setting the tone for the entire composition. Erc’h, meaning “snow” in the nearly extinct Breton language native to the Brittany region of France, takes on many forms, easing the listener in with the gentle sound of chirping birds on Ushant, recorded as a rare flock of lapwings took flight at dusk.

The song methodically transforms into a lushly layered collection of strings, piano, field recordings and voice. A portion of the lyrics, which translate to, “Spring returns winter, like castles cast in sand crumbling, so the seconds slow, vanishing in a whirlwind,” illustrate Tiersen’s loving attention to the rhythms of nature. “I always needed to be connected to nature to start something, and I didn’t know why,” Tiersen says. “When I have the basic idea—when I start something— then I can work no matter where. But for the first part, for the beginning, I really need to be in a natural environment and somehow connected to it.”

Growing up in France, Tiersen was entranced by music. He spent hours rifling through his father’s record collection, exploring a diverse array of future influences. After playing the piano and violin for much of his life, at 15, he parted with his more classical past and formed a few rock bands. Inspired by the likes of Joy Division, he became obsessed with the art of noise, and in a bit of teenage angst he rebelled against the classic instruments he had practiced as a child. “I used to play the violin when I was really young, and piano, but when I was a teenager I didn’t want to hear anything about the violin,” Tiersen tells me. He went so far as to smash his violin. His rock band years passed, and with that, the idea of working alone emerged. Tiersen began experimenting with sampling each note of a piano, connecting each piece of sound together to create a finished track.

Soon after, his first album came along, La Valse des Monstres, which would lead to Amélie, the 2001 French film, which had a soundtrack comprised of many of his songs. The soundtrack earned Tiersen wide recognition, picking up a BAFTA nomination and a few awards for best music, topping countless charts along the way.

Tiersen continued to pursue his solo career in the following years, increasingly intertwining noise with nature. Ten albums later, ALL is the epitome of this idea: backgrounds sprinkled with the sounds of Earth and paired with a diverse array of musical instruments, each of which are played by Tiersen himself. “The goal is just to share a bit of the huge forces and elements that are surrounding me; the place where I live,” he says.

Written with his wife for their son, “Pell” is meant to explain the meaning of the island, focusing on how even though it may seem isolated, it offers an even greater connection to the surrounding world. The serene piano is paired with recordings straight from Tiersen’s surroundings and accompanied by gentle lyrics: The colour of the sea, the stones of our house, our universe, as long as you live.

Both “Tempelhof” and “Koad,” two seeming opposites, have been trending on Apple Music since the album’s release. “Tempelhof” taps into the urban—it’s an entirely instrumental piece featuring field recordings from the now-decommissioned airport of the same name in Berlin—while “Koad” carries listeners back to nature with a flowing arrangement of
soft vocals and a drizzle-like collection of piano notes and complementing strings. The ending echoes back to that of “Tempelhof”, connecting the urban aura to that of nature.

Listening to the album, you get an almost narrative sense of flow and progression, an intricately evolving atmosphere. This is crucial to Tiersen, and on his tour, he plays the entire record through from start to finish. Currently touring in Europe, he will be making stops in New York, Washington, Chicago and California in May, taking his audiences with him on a journey that leads from the remote wind-swept island
of Ushant to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park in California. If they listen, they’ll hear in the urgent strings, footsteps, and a child’s laughter all that resulted from an encounter with one of nature’s fiercest predators, a moment in which fear and beauty are present in equal measure.

Photographed by: Guilhem De Castelbajac