The award-winning composer talks to Alex Moore about being Breton, not French, and the cultural manifestations on his latest album
”Don’t go charging in with questions about Amélie“, I’m warned as we await the arrival of Breton composer and multi-instrumentalist Yann Tiersen. He’s responsible for eight studio albums, countless collaborations and a handful of film scores but it’s the aforementioned soundtrack that brought him to international acclaim, and one that has done its best to eclipse his opus thereafter. I had no intention of mentioning the unmentionable, I’d been revising my rudimentary French in preparation for a friendly ‘Bonjour, ça va?’ – I shouldn’t have bothered. I put Tiersen’s sullen rejection of my ropey salutation down to a late night (he played a sold out show at London’s ICA the night before), though in actual fact, I soon discover, it was more out of sheer contempt for the language, not in itself, but in belonging to France.
No surprise then that Tiersen’s latest album ∞ (Infinity) is devoid of his first language, rather opting for Faroese, Icelandic, English and Breton. Nor was any of the album written in France (not mainland France anyway). Tiersen began writing the album in Reykjavík, recording the sounds of toy instruments and little bells, not in any context, “just like painting something, but you don’t know what it is, you just use the paint; or like doing a remix for a song that will never exist. I had 14 ideas when I came back from Iceland and one of the rules was to use all the ideas, good or bad.”
“I think Brittany is more part of the world. We have Celtic culture, we’re closer to England than we are France. We are conscious that the world exists”
Ideas in the bank, Tiersen rode his bike – he’s recently swapped smoking for cycling; too French presumably – to Cornwall, where he set up studio in a camper van and started experimenting with his recordings. “The exciting part of the album was being in front of Ableton and messing around with plugins, or being at home with the modular setup and trying filters and stuff. The boring part was recording live instruments.” This may sound at odds with being such an accomplished musician, but a somewhat paradoxical Tiersen insists, “There is something about virtuosity I deeply hate.”
From Cornwall, it was back home to Ushant, a small weather beaten island in the Celtic Sea, one that, on the map, looks as though it’s trying to escape from France – presumably with Tiersen at the helm. “I feel more comfortable in this environment, an island, even Cornwall. I will not go to the Bahamas and record an album, it is not possible.” On home turf, he went back to basics; guitars, mandolins, strings and bass parts, (convincing himself he wasn’t a virtuoso, though proving otherwise) before revisiting the manipulation process. “The album doesn’t sound that electronic at all, maybe because it’s back and forth between acoustic and electronic.”
“People born outside of cities, in big landscapes use more reverb than the urban bands”
It doesn’t sound as contemporary as it might either: the album echoes with ‘Gwerz’ – a traditional Breton style of dramatic, sad songs. Meanwhile, Tiersen has a charming theory; “people born outside of cities, in big landscapes use more reverb than the urban bands. It’s logical because then you have space and it feels natural to use. Scottish bands for instance.”
So what is it that makes Tiersen so decidedly Breton-not-French? “Ah everything!” he scoffs, “I think it’s sorry to say but it’s a strange country, I’m a bit ashamed of it. I think in general French people are really quite arrogant, for instance we watch the Eurovision and at the end when every country gives the points, stupidly they’re the only ones who . I think Brittany is more part of the world. We have Celtic culture, we’re closer to England than we are France. We are conscious that the world exists, French people think the world is a big map of France. People in Brittany at least try to speak other languages.”
Perhaps by employing four languages over nine songs (not including the Scottish vernacular of Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat on track ‘Meteorite’), Tierson feels he is making up for France’s indifference to language. Maybe, but I get the impression that the Breton owes France no favours.
Photography James Rawlings
Yann Tiersen’s album ∞ (Infinity) is out today. Click to visit the artist’s homepage