Yann Tiersen Gives Classical Music A Post-Punk Twist


Yann Tiersen Gives Classical Music A Post-Punk Twist


Photography: Christopher Espinosa Fernandez

Yann Tiersen is the ultimate rebel. A classical musician, Tiersen hates the Amélie soundtrack, the composition for which he is most famous, and refuses the title of composer, instead, referring to himself as classic post-punk. His most recent release, Eusa, is Tiersen’s first full piano album, an ode to the island where he lives, in Brittany. Using field recordings, he creates a sort of musical map, each song representing feelings related to different parts of the region. Eusa combines Tiersen’s baroque style with the reverb-drenched emotion of Abbey Road, to create a profound piano track, particularly fascinating for a musician who never listens to classical music. Tiersen is the classical world’s enfant terrible, a punk whose outsider spirit brings a layer of innovation and feeling, that elevates his music from even the best. With Eusa, he continues to transcend genre, while also redefining it.

Why did you choose to do an album inspired by the island?

The idea was to make a musical map of the island. To do, for each location, one piece of piano music—not inspired by the location but to make a field recording, and while listening to those field recordings, to try to find ideas to create into those piano tracks. Because I live on this island and it’s where I spend almost all of my time, when you live on a small piece of land, you end up discovering that it’s not really small at all—it’s as big as the world itself.

Why do you refuse to refer to yourself as a composer?

I don’t like to pretend to be something that I’m not. I’ve always had a really instinctive and simple relationship to music, and the roots of where my music comes from is a really electronic, ‘80s, post-punk area—it’s simple and it’s the reason I’m making the music I do now. Maybe it’s not so obvious to everyone, but I’ve never spent that much time listening to classical music or anything like that. My music and what I do with my music is completely different from the music I listen to.

What were you able to do with Eusa, that you haven’t been able to do with previous albums?

It was really new for me to do a piano album, because I stopped doing piano tracks after my first album in the ‘90s. I was so bored with the piano for a long time—for almost over 10 years. But because I had this really long break, now I’m able to enjoy it again—it would’ve been impossible to do in the past.

Infinity was also inspired by an island, Iceland. What is it about these particular landscapes that inspire you?

It’s not the landscapes, it’s just when you live on an island, you feel a bit protected, but completely free. The more obvious and natural way to travel around the world is by sea, so I never feel like I’m ‘stuck on an island’—I’ve always been attracted to the sea. It’s my natural environment. But for Infinity, we did a long tour in the US, for two months, and before that, in Australia. We were away from Europe for 4 months and on the way back, we had a break for five days in Iceland. For whatever reason, I had this feeling like I was home.

How did you get into classical music after being so into electronic and post-punk as a teenager?

When I was a teenager, I was playing with a lot of synths, and I think the roots of the way I write music is really linked to those machines. At the time, as a teenager, I was so fed up with classical music and really into electronic and really noisy stuff. So I tried to use some classical instruments to do some of the stuff I was doing with the synths, but after a while I realized instead of using samples, I could do them myself. That’s when I started using more artistic instruments. But for awhile, it didn’t occur to me to use classical instruments because it wasn’t in the electronic music I was listening to.

Which instrument do you usually write on?

I used to play piano when I was younger, and I like to try to use instruments I’m not totally comfortable with. That’s why I turned to guitar in the first place. But for the last 10 years, I used guitar, and that’s why I was comfortable going back to piano because it’s new again, and I’m not that good at it. I think when you get really comfortable with an instrument, or really good at the technical side of instruments, it’s not really creative. The goal of an instrument is to make sounds and noises, but if you get too much technical knowledge or skill, it’s too easy, and it’s not really anything different anymore.

Do you approach songwriting differently when working on a soundtrack for a film, versus one of your albums?

I think music is not a language, but it can be illustrative—to me, it’s really abstractive and more about emotion and feeling, nerves, whatever. It’s almost impossible for me to compose music as a language. Most of the tracks for Amélie were tracks I wrote about the island, and they just happened to place them in the background of the film. Either directors use my music, or I will say that I will do music for scenes, but I just write and hope that it will fit with the movie. What’s really important is the desire to work with someone—if the director loves my music then it works, even if I’m not specifically composing the music for the movie.

I’ve heard you don’t like listening to the Amélie soundtrack. Why?

My music is really linked to where I live. The place I live is the place I love the most in the world, and Paris is the place I hate the most in the world. So having my music written here, where I love, and become a symbol of Paris, is really, really painful, and really hard for me. The music is completely me, but now it’s inextricably linked to this place I really hate, and that’s not me at all.

How did your process change with Eusa?

The only thing I ever do for every album is that I never want to have too precise of an idea of what I want it to be, and I always try to be open to any accident or any surprises that happen during recording or during the writing of the album. There always has to be an element of improvisation for me.