“I did write two waltzes” for the film, explains the 40year-old musician, whose French accent is delicious yet can be difficult to decipher. “It was fun, because it was like pastiches of that album. But I did not do a soundtrack.”
It’s hard to believe. Tiersen’s music seems custom-tailored for Amélie’s antics, the instrumentation as quirky as the title character. Songs feature everything from mandolin and violin to typewriter, saucepans and a bicycle wheel.
An accordion also wheezes along and feels—to American ears, anyway—as innately Parisian as croissants and cigarettes. But Tiersen is from Brittany, a region in the northwest of France with a strong Celtic history.
“It’s really far from French culture,” Tiersen explains. “Culture-wise, it’s more like Wales or Scotland. The accordion was like a joke for me. I come from the punk-rock scene. When I used the accordion, it was new and quite fun. It was also a cheap way to use a wind instrument.”
Tiersen, who’s currently touring in support of his sixth album, Dust Lane, played the violin as a kid. Later, he obsessed over ’80s post-punk, playing guitar and sampling old records. It wasn’t until he picked up his violin again—as well as the mandolin, harpsichord and accordion, along with unusual instruments like the toy piano—that he developed his signature style. His early, mostly instrumental music was textured but minimalist, heavily tinged by classical and folk.
And then, three years after La Phare (“The Lighthouse”), there was Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, as the movie was known in its original French.
“I had more attention [after Amélie],” Tiersen says. “But sometimes bad attention. … Amélie was opening doors for people to hear my music and maybe my earlier stuff, but it was a misunderstanding for people to focus on the movie.”
Besides, he adds cheekily: “It was good, but it’s not the best movie on Earth.” (Sacrebleu!) The problem, it seems, was that suddenly Tiersen had a reputation as a soundtrack guy. According to his discography, he did write for two films, 2003’s Good Bye Lenin! and Tabarly,but he seems put off by the idea of scoring cinema.
“I’m really uncomfortable when someone speaks to me about soundtracks,” he says. “For me, music is a way to express feeling. It’s physical. It’s instinctive. It’s impossible to make a soundtrack.”
In other words: Music should be personal. Tiersen’s latest effort, last year’s Dust Lane, embodies this more than any of his previous work. The album is dedicated to his mother and a good friend, both of whom passed away while he was recording. Though there are threads of melancholy strung between the swells and scatterings of gorgeous pop sound, it was not an exercise in grief.
“Nooooo,” he says. “It was a way to feel more alive. It was uplifting.”
He recorded most of Dust Lane on Ouessant, an itty-bitty island west of Brittany where he lives much of the time. Tiersen swears it’s not lonely or hermit-like.
“I feel more isolated in Paris,” he laughs. “There are only 700 people on the island, but there are eight bars, so it’s quite fun.”
On the new album, Tiersen brings in electric guitar, bass and vintage synths that create an ’80s vibe at times. “I was finally able to reference that,” he explains. “I couldn’t before, maybe because so much terrible synth music came out in the ’90s.
Dust Lane, however, doesn’t allude to memories—of family, friends or old-school music.
“I always like noises and work on texture on my albums— lots of layers, especially on this one. Dust is a good metaphor for that, because it’s like a lot of particles. It’s not the same thing looking at it from far away as up close.”
Even the vocals seem different closer up. At first listen, the album’s closer—and most popular single—“Fuck Me,” gives the impression of desperation and longing for human contact. (“We’re all falling into a deep oblivion.”) But no, Tiersen says.
“It was just a love song for my girlfriend.”
Though he’s touring with a full band, Tiersen wrote all the music on his own and played all the instruments except the drums on Dust Lane.
“I like beginning a song with a tiny idea, without knowing where I’m going, and go searching sometimes and get lost,” he says. “I just concentrate on the song and try new ways that are more convenient. When the song is done, it’s great to start again and find new approaches and new ways to give birth to a song again with a band.”
Yann Tiersen performs with Breathe Owl Breathe at Belly Up tavern on Thursday, March 10. yanntiersen.com