Composer Yann Tiersen Continues To Expand His World Of Song On New LP, Kerber

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Famed French composer, Yann Tiersen, remembers seeing a mountain lion. He was out in nature about five years ago in Northern California when the animal began following him and his cycling party. Tiersen and his group were hours into a long ride and far from formal help. He remembers seeing cubs, too, thinking that the mother and babies were probably very hungry, even starving. It was dangerous. Around that time, a cougar attacked several hikers in Washington State, killing one. While the mountain lion never pounced, for Tiersen, the experience was formative. At that moment, a strong sense of what an ecosystem really is crystallized in his mind. Life is not human-centric, of course. So, Tiersen thought, his music — including his new release, Kerber, out Friday (Aug. 27) —should be something of an ecosystem, too. 

“I think the world is in a state of emergency,” Tiersen says. “It’s really important to somehow focus on the connections within the ecosystem, the nature and all of that. I just realized how important it was to know where you were. Living beings are there.”

Tiersen is compelled by many styles of music. More recently, he’s found himself drawn to dance music. It almost has a physiological effect on the composer, propelling him to new thoughts and movements before he even realizes it. But in his music-making, Tiersen often creates soundscapes that read like maps. There is a sense of spaciousness imbued in the work, like your ear becomes an eye, traveling from the lapping lake to a 1,000-year-old oak tree on land to the creaking boathouse to the small town’s single restaurant and back to the water again. All is in view. Helping this tactic are the song titles on Tiersen’s newest LP, each of them named after locations in the picturesque region of Brittany, France, where he lives.

“To have the music tracks,” he says, “and juxtapose them with the names of places, it creates something else. It makes people pay attention to those places.”

Often, when Tiersen writes songs, he’s concerned with what’s below the surface. Therefore, to implant the idea of curiosity about space, regions, other locales is one major ambition. In this way, the songs can be like little sonic Trojan Horses. If they can open eyes to the expansive, precarious world, then all the better.

“Life is fragile,” Tiersen says. “We tend to forget that. We have a human-centric perception of the world. The encounter [with the mountain lion] changed that for me.”

The musician’s new seven-song record is stunning. It’s bright, spritely at times but also heavy and pensive. In a way, it’s like an “inkblot test.” There are no lyrics, no formal ideas expressed. Yet, listening to it, one gets a strong sense of loss, even ideas of forgiveness and redemption—if that’s your sort of thing. Tiersen, who wrote and recorded the album during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, said he did so differently than with past albums. Tiersen, who is known for his elegant, tasteful piano playing, used the instrument differently this time. In the same way that he realized life isn’t people-centric, he went about making music that wasn’t as piano-centric this go-round. So, he used the instrument more like condiments than the main, adding more electronically produced sounds around it.

“It was going to be a piano-centric album,” Tiersen says. “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.”

To get the sounds he wanted, the 51-year-old Tiersen, whose work has been featured in television and movie soundtracks, from Amelie to HBO’s Mare of Easttown, chopped up and reshaped a great many piano sounds and put them through a great many modulators, programs, and doo-hickeys, utilizing Ableton Live and other tools. In so doing, Tiersen found himself impacted by the topography and landscape of the French countryside. There is great restraint in the music, too, offering a sense of organic drama and minimalism.

“I’m sure the space and the place where you live,” he says, “ influence the music you make in a natural way.” He adds, “I prefer not to show too much.”

For Tiersen, who lost his father at a young age, music can be a way of recalibrating the world, reorganizing it in a way that can help one cope with how difficult it can be. Sometimes the composer has even thought of the songs he makes as little snapshots, Polaroid pictures of his life. Today, though, that’s morphed into more geographical note-taking. Ever since he was young, Tiersen loved music. He’s gone from formal violin training to obsessing over punk rock. As friends drifted in and out and away from the art form, he stuck with it, even through serious doubt. Now, though, Tiersen has established himself as one of the world’s premiere composers. Thanks largely to his acceptance of the creative journey, which will, for him, next include gigs in Europe and a U.S. tour.

“Music is something that’s quite magical,” Tiersen says. “Not in the romantic sense, but in that, I think literally it has to do with magic and shamanism. It’s a primal thing. Music can make you completely high, out of your mind. It’s exciting, dangerous, and great.”

Photo by Richard Dumas

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