Yann Tiersen: not only about Amelie

Article published on April 6, 2007
Article published on April 6, 2007

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The 36-year-old French composer of the Amelie and Good Bye Lenin! soundtracks is currently touring the world with his latest experimental and evocative album, On Tour

Tickets had sold out well in advance of Yann Tiersen’s expected concert in Barcelona. Catalonians were looking forward to enjoying the unique music of a composer most famously associated with the soundtracks of two of the most successful European films in recent years: French delight Amélie (Jean Pierre Jeunet, 2001), and German classic Good Bye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003). But with his latest offering On Tour, the French musician introduces an explosive and energetic album recorded live during the first tour of previous album Les Retrouvailles('Reunion'). What led Tiersen to break free from the image he held as composer of evocative melodies?

The concert is over, and the audience are filing towards the exits. But the night's not over for us; we move down the staircase that leads to the backstage area of Barcelona’s renowned concert hall Razzmatazz, where the best-known rock bands have passed before us, amongst them innumerable legends of sex, drugs, rock and roll. What we find, however, is rather more mundane: a group of people are sitting, eating around a table and winding down from the concert with a beer or a glass of wine.

Moving to a small room leading off the dining room, we are offered beers before Tiersen arrives, gin and tonic in hand. After short formal introductions the interview begins - 'why the change of style?' 'I opted for the energy of the electric guitar in order to rediscover a freshness in my work,' answers a singer who at 36, already has a decade of career behind him. Tiersen tries to relativise the change. What initially 'triggered my passion for music was rock,' he explains. At the start of the eighties, English rock band Joy Division and Australian musician Nick Cave became a point of reference for the young Tiersen, who played with several rock bands in Rennes, the capital of Brittany in northwestern France, duly abandoning his studies at the conservatory.

In the laboratory of Dr. Tiersen

'Towards the end of my adolescence, I discovered that acoustic instruments allowed me to experiment with new ideas,' he adds. He picked up the piano and the violin during his childhood. Returning to the conservatory, he widened his interests to all types of musical tools and machines: the harpsichord, the 'Ondes Martenot' (an electronic instrument), the mandolin and the toy-piano amongst others - instruments which have become his artistic stamp over time. 'For me, the most important part of the creative process is the process of trial and error, of not knowing where I am headed,' he explains passionately. So how does he compose? He quickly runs through an example of his creative recording process. 'With my last album Les Retrouvailles, I began with a small base, a fifteen minute drum solo. I worked with it so much that when I finished the song three days later, I never would have been able to imagine that the finished article would sound as it did.'

The relative weight of Amélie

In line with his innovative spirit, the French artist goes on to make a surprising confession. 'I don’t consider my profession to be making film soundtracks. I like to work without a fixed direction. This is totally contradictory to the process of creating a soundtrack, because the image in itself already is a point of destination.' He describes his work as the composer of soundtracks as 'episodic' and it comes down to his work on Good Bye Lenin!. So, what role has Amélie, the film that brought him fame throughout Europe, had in his life as an artist? He describes it as a 'great opportunity' that he 'willingly' accepted, but admits it was not a great deal of work. He 'only wrote three new songs', whilst the rest of the soundtrack was selected from his previous albums.

Playing down my previous statements, he affirms his love for cinema as a form of artistic expression. Yet apart from the 'seventh art', Tiersen’s path shines with collaborations with the likes of French singer Dominique A, American singer Shannon Wright and English actress-singer Jane Birkin amongst others. Far from wishing to work with artists who he admires, Tiersen prefers to work with people 'who follow a different path' for the 'sheer pleasure of arriving at a common goal.' He also admits to a certain predilection for female voices.

'I will vote - there’s no choice in the matter'

Where will Tiersen be for the French presidential elections, which are just around the corner on April 22? 'Continuing the world tour in South America.' There's a hint of a smile in his answer, but his most militant side soon comes out. 'I will vote, there’s no choice in the matter. Even though the left have a very central program, the alternative is worse.'

Tiersen has always clearly expressed his political beliefs. During the second round of the French presidential elections in 2002, when the nation was faced with Le Pen possibly becoming president (he beat the Socialists in the first round with 15% of the vote, squaring up to Jacques Chirac in the second round who got through with 17%), Tiersen collaborated with French female rapper Diam's. 'Working with Diam’s was a clear political statement that I needed to make, even though rap is not necessarily my favourite medium,' he explains. They collaborated in protest on the chart hit 'My France' (Ma France à Moi), a song inspired by the French suburbs or ‘banlieues’.

Tiersen is firm about what 'his' France is. 'I see France as closed to itself - but we are in the middle of 21st century Europe.' Using the differences he sees between the French people and foreigners as an example he describes France as needing an 'urgent awakening. They think too much. We should be more direct, learn how to react.'