Yann Tiersen (born 23 June 1970) is a French musician and composer. His musical career is split between studio albums, collaborations and film soundtracks. His music involves a large variety of instruments; primarily the guitar, synthesizer or violin together with instruments like the melodica, xylophone, toy piano, harpsichord, accordion and typewriter.
Tiersen is often mistaken for a composer of soundtracks, himself saying "I'm not a composer and I really don't have a classical background", but his real focus is on touring and studio albums which just happen to often be suitable for film. His most famous soundtrack for the film Amélie was primarily made up of tracks taken from his first three studio albums.
Biography and career:
The early years: 1970-1992:
Yann Tiersen was born in Brest in the Finistère département in Brittany in northwestern France, in 1970, into a French family of Belgian and Norwegian origins. He started learning piano at the age of four, violin at the age of six, and received classical training at several musical academies, including those in Rennes, Nantes, and Boulogne. In the early 1980s when he was a teenager, he was influenced by the punk subculture, and bands like The Stooges and Joy Division. In 1983, at the age of 13, he broke his violin, bought an electric guitar, and formed a rock band. Tiersen was then living in Rennes, home to the three-day music festival Rencontres Trans Musicales, held annually in December, which gave him the opportunity to see acts like Nirvana, Einstürzende Neubauten, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Cramps, Television, and Suicide. A few years later, when his band broke up, Tiersen bought a cheap mixing desk, an 8-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, and started recording music solo with a synthesizer, a sampler, and a drum machine.
Debut and national acclaim: 1993-2000:
Let's live in an enormous world of sound we can use randomly, with no rules at all. Let's play with sound, forget all knowledge and instrumental skills, and just use instinct -- the same way punk did.
Before releasing film scores under his own name, Tiersen recorded background music for a number of plays and short films. In the summer of 1993, Tiersen stayed in his apartment, recording music alone with an electric guitar, a violin, and an accordion, guided by his vision of "a musical anarchy". By the end of that summer, Tiersen had recorded over forty tracks, which would form most of his first two albums. Tiersen's debut album, La Valse des monstres, limited to 1,000 copies only, was released in June 1995 by independent record label Sine Terra Firma, and then it was reissued by Nancy-based record label Ici d'ailleurs in 1998 as the second album of its catalogue. The 17-track album was inspired by and written for the theatrical adaptations of Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic Freaks, and Yukio Mishima's 1955 version of Noh play The Damask Drum. One year later, in April 1996, he released Rue des cascades, a collection of short pieces recorded with toy piano, harpsichord, violin, accordion, and mandolin. The title track, sung by French soloist singer Claire Pichet, was used the following year for the Palme d'Or nominated French drama film The Dreamlife of Angels, and several tracks received greater exposure five years later when they were featured on the soundtrack to Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Amélie. Tiersen played almost all the instruments both in the studio and in concert, and this gave him a theatrical appeal as a one-man show, which allowed him to perform, among others, at the 1996 edition of the Avignon Festival, the oldest extant festival in France and one of the world's greatest.
I was amazed how the rays of lights from the lighthouse revealed some hidden details of the land, how we can rediscover something we have everyday, just in front of us, by a light pointing on it.
Tiersen rose to domestic fame upon the release of his third studio album, Le Phare (English: The Light House) in 1998. The album was recorded in a self-imposed seclusion on the isle of Ushant (Breton: Enez Eusa, French: Ouessant) at the south-western end of the English Channel which marks the north-westernmost point of territorial France, where Tiersen spent two months living in a rented house. At night, he watched the Phare du Creach (English: Kreac'h or Créac'h lighthouse), one of the most powerful lighthouses in the world, and was fascinated by the stunning scenery repeated every night. Le Phare, which featured Claire Pichet, French singer and songwriter Dominique A, and French drummer and percussionist Sacha Toorop, sold over 160,000 copies, confirming Tiersen's status as one of the most innovative artists of his generation and commencing a run of successful albums. Three songs from this album, "La Dispute", "La Noyee", and "Sur le fil" were used later for the soundtrack of Amélie, while "L'Homme aux bras ballants", written and composed by Dominique A, was also the soundtrack to Laurent Gorgiard's 1997 short animation film of the same title. Its single, "Monochrome", sung by Dominique A, was a radio hit and propelled the album. Le Phare was his first album to chart climbing to number 50 in the French Albums Chart.
In that period Tiersen provided a new arrangement and played strings, vibraphone, bell, mandolin, electric guitar, and bass guitar for the song "À ton étoile" by French rock band Noir Désir on their 1998 remix album One Trip/One Noise, recorded background music for the award-winning and multi-nominated film The Dreamlife of Angels (French: La Vie rêvée des anges), for André Téchiné's Alice et Martin, released in 1998, and Christine Carrière's Qui plume la lune?, released in 1999, and also recorded Bästard ~ Yann Tiersen, a 3-track extended play released in 1998 in collaboration with French electronic rock band Bästard, and his first live album, Black Session: Yann Tiersen. The live album was recorded on 2 December 1998 as the opening act of the Rencontres Trans Musicales in the Salle Serreau at the Théâtre National de Bretagne in Rennes, for the C'est Lenoir show broadcast on the French public radio station France Inter. The album, which features Northern Irish singer, songwriter, and frontman of the chamber pop group The Divine Comedy Neil Hannon, singer and songwriter Bertrand Cantat of Noir Désir, singer and illustrator Françoiz Breut, anglophone French rock band The Married Monk (Christian Quermalet, Philippe Lebruman, Etienne Jaumet, Nicolas Courret), French folk rock group Têtes Raides (Christian Olivier, Grègoire Simon, Pascal Olivier, Anne-Gaëlle Bisquay, Serge Bégout, Jean-Luc Millot, and Edith Bégou), the string quartet Quatuor à cordes, guitarist and composer Olivier Mellano, and author Mathieu Boogaerts, as well as his usual collaborators and friends, Claire Pichet and Dominique A, was recorded by France International, mastered by Radio France, and released in CD format one year later on 2 November 1999.
In 1999, Tiersen with The Married Monk, Claire Pichet, and Olivier Mellano, released his first collaboration album, Tout est calme. The 26 minutes, 10 tracks mini album peaked at number 45 on the French Albums Chart. The album produced one single, "Les Grandes marées", and Tiersen also featured on The Divine Comedy's single "Gin Soaked Boy" released on that same year, on three tracks for Françoiz Breut's second studio album Vingt à Trente Mille Jours (English: Twenty to Thirty Thousand Days), and on Têtes Raides' Gratte-poil, both released in 2000.
Amélie and global recognition: 2001-2009:
The hard part was making a selection, because all his tracks worked with the film's images!
Tiersen remained relatively unknown outside France until the release of his score for the acclaimed film Amélie (Original French title: Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, English: The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain) in 2001. French film director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had something else in mind for the film score, but one day one of his production assistants put on a CD of Tiersen, and the director found it absolutely superb. Jeunet bought all of Tiersen's albums, and then contacted him to see if the Breton composer was interested in writing the film score for Amélie. In two weeks, Tiersen composed nineteen pieces for the film and also allowed the production to take anything they wanted from his other records.Amélie received great critical acclaim and was a box-office success. The film went on to win the Best Film award at the European Film Awards, four César Awards, including Best Film and Best Director, two BAFTA Awards, including Best Original Screenplay, and was nominated for five Academy Awards. The soundtrack was a mixture of both new and previously released material, and Tiersen was also the recipient of the César Award for Best Music Written for a Film, and of the World Soundtrack Academy award. The soundtrack album charted in many countries, including the number one position on the French Albums Chart.
While he was writing the film score for Amélie Tiersen was also preparing his fifth studio album L'Absente. The album was characterized by several contributions including 35-member Ensemble Orchestral Synaxis conducted by Guillaume Bourgogne, viola player Bertrand Lambert, violinists Yann Bisquay and Sophie Naboulay, Natacha Régnier, and saxophonist Grégoire Simon, and long-time collaborators Dominique A, Christine Ott, Lisa Germano, Neil Hannon, Têtes Raides, Christian Quermalet, Marc Sens, and Sacha Toorop. The album, which was released on 5 June 2001 through EMI France, was preceded by two promotional singles for "A quai" and "Bagatelle" respectively. Tiersen provided strings and vibraphone to two tracks, "Roma Amor" and "Holidays", featured on R/O/C/K/Y, third studio album by The Married Monk.
At this time he was married to Belgian actress Natacha Régnier, co-star of The Dreamlife of Angels. Régnier became a singer and Tiersen wrote three songs for her including his arrangement of Georges Brassens' "Le Parapluie", a song featured on the tribute album Les Oiseaux de passage, released in 2001. That same year they went on tour in France and abroad. They have a daughter, Lise, born in 2002, but they have since been divorced. In this period, Tiersen also took his music out around the world, playing shows with a full orchestra and an amplified string quartet. From 15 to 17 February 2002, Tiersen with many of the collaborators who participated in the recording sessions for L'Absente plus Claire Pichet, violinists Nicholas Stevens and Renaud Lhoest, bassist Jean-François Assy, viola player Olivier Tilkin, and uilleann pipes, bagpipes, and low whistle player Ronan Le Bars, performed live at the Cité de la Musique (English: City of Music) in Paris. Part of these three concerts went on to form Tiersen's second live album C'était ici (English: It Was Here), which was released through EMI France on 30 September 2002.
Tiersen's skills as a composer of film scores were much in demand, and the soundtrack for Amélie was soon followed by the film score for Good Bye, Lenin!, a 2003 German tragicomedy film directed by Wolfgang Becker. The film was both a commercial and a critical success and won several awards including the César Award for Best Film from the European Union, Best Film at the European Film Awards, the German Film Awards for Outstanding Film, Best European Film at the Goya Awards, Best Foreign Language Film for the London Film Critics' Circle, and it was also listed in the Empire magazine 2010's list of "The 100 Best Films of World Cinema" Tiersen was the recipient of the German Film Awards for Outstanding Music. On 15 November 2003, Tiersen with Stuart A. Staples, the lead singer of indie band Tindersticks, actress and singer Jane Birkin, singer and vocalist for Cocteau Twins Elizabeth Fraser, singer and songwriter Christophe Miossec, and Dominique A released 3 titres inédits au profit de la FIDH (English: 3 New Tracks for the Benefit of FIDH), a 3-track CD that was part of the On Aime, On Aide benefit collection for raising funds for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
Tiersen's list of collaborators continues to grow album after album and in October 2004 released Yann Tiersen & Shannon Wright, a collaboration album with American singer-songwriter Shannon Wright, and, in the same year, he is featured on The Divine Comedy's album Absent Friends. In 2005, Tiersen released his fifth studio album Les Retrouvailles. The album features several collaborators including the Orchestre National de Paris, singers Elizabeth Fraser, Jane Birkin, Stuart A. Staples, Dominique A, and Miossec, strings players Jean-François Assy, Frederic Dessus, Guillaume Fontanarosa, Bertrand Causse, Anne Causse Biragnet, Armelle Legoff, Frédéric Haffner, flute player Elliott, drummer Ludovic Morillon, and ondes Martenot player Christine Ott.Les Retrouvailles also includes a DVD short film entitled La Traversée, directed by Aurélie du Boys, which documents the making of the album in Ushant, and incorporates an animated video for the non-album track, "Le Train", and also live versions of a handful of songs. The album produced a single, "Kala", sung by Elizabeth Fraser, and Tiersen also played piano on Staples' solo debut album, Lucky Dog Recordings 03-04. The subsequent world tour of 2006 replaced the multi-instrumental ensemble with electric guitars and an ondes Martenot, and produced his third live album, On Tour, which was released together with a DVD, directed by Aurélie du Boys, about the tour, in November 2006. In 2006, he also released two singles, "La Mancha" and "La Rade", and he was featured on The Endless Rise of the Sun, third studio album by electronic group Smooth, Raides à la ville extended play by Katel, and 13m² by David Delabrosse.
The year 2008 saw his return after a five years absence as a composer of film scores when he provided the background music for Tabarly, a Pierre Marcel's documentary film about the French sailor, two-time champion of the Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race, and father of French yachting Éric Tabarly. The documentary was released on June 2008, exactly ten years after Tabarly's death. Éric Tabarly was lost on the night of 12-13 June 1998 at Irish Sea when he was struck by a gaff of his Pen Duick during heavy swell and knocked overboard from his yacht near Wales while on his way to the Fife Regatta in Scotland. His body was recovered five weeks later off the coast of Ireland by a French fishing trawler. The documentary, narrated by Tabarly himself, traces his sporting career until his last meal in Ushant. Before the end of the decade, Tiersen also contributed to Christine Ott's debut solo album Solitude Nomade, and to Miossec's seventh studio album Finistériens.
Dust Lane and Skyline: 2010-present:
The name Dust Lane partly came from the image of the dirt road going into Gaza.
October 2010 saw the release of Tiersen's sixth studio album titled Dust Lane. The album was two years in the making and was largely recorded in Ushant, France. Further parts were recorded in the Philippines. The album is preoccupied with mortality; during the recording sessions Tiersen lost his mother and a close friend. The recordings started out as simple song based tracks with Tiersen playing acoustic guitar, mandolin and bouzouki. New layers were added to the recordings creating a more complex sound. Then an array of vintage synthesisers and electric guitars were added to create further textures. The album was released by Mute Records in Europe and ANTI- Records in the US. The record was promoted in a tour beginning in October 2010, starting in New York. Dust Lane was preceded by the release of the vinyl EP PALESTINE and by the single for "Ashes". In 2010, Tiersen also contributed to the tribute album to cross-genre, experimental music group Coil The Dark Age of Love by This Immortal Coil, a one-off tribute formation, and to Li(f)e, the fourth solo studio album by hip-hop artist Sage Francis.
October 2011 saw the European release of his seventh studio album, Skyline. The nine-track album, a follow on from his Dust Lane, was once again recorded at Tiersen's home on the island of Ushant in the south-western end of the English Channel, with further parts recorded in Paris, San Francisco, Berlin, and Nashville. It was subsequently mixed by producer Ken Thomas in Leeds, and mastered by Ray Staff in London. The album produced the singles for "Monuments" and "I'm Gonna Live Anyhow". On 18 February 2012, Tiersen with Lionel Laquerriere, and Thomas Poli, presented his side project, Elektronische Staubband, at La Route du Rock music festival in Saint-Malo. It was about an hour of krautrock, electronic, and experimental music involving a dozen of synthesizers and analog keyboards with the first three pieces of the set list taken from Dust Lane and the remaining five from Skyline. Tiersen was also chosen by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel to perform at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival on March 2012 in Minehead, England.Skyline was released in North America via ANTI- Records on 17 April 2012, and it was followed by the Skyline Tour with dates in the United States, Canada, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, France, Slovak Republic, Austria, Finland, and the United Kingdom.
Styles and instruments:
There is no frontier between classical music and popular music, you are free to work with whatever you want. For me it's natural to use lots of different instruments and textures and sounds and noises because life is like that.
I didn't know French musette music at all. Even people like Jacques Brel -- I discovered Brel through Scott Walker. My parents listened to Brel, of course, but when you're a teenager you're not interested. So it was only when I heard Scott Walker's versions that I thought "this is fucking good", you know. The only French singer I listened to was Serge Gainsbourg.
Tiersen's music is influenced by the classical training he received when he was a child and by the American and British punk subculture, and by the music he used to listen to as a teenager. His musical style is deceptively simple to recognize but difficult to catalogue. It varies greatly from one album to the next and with the passage of time. His melancholy music and compositional techniques combine elements of Classical and folk music with pop and rock. His delicate but deeply emotional style has been linked to Frédéric Chopin and the great masters of Romantic music, and to Erik Satie, the colourful figure of the early 20th century Parisian avant-garde whose work was a precursor to later artistic movements such as minimalism, repetitive music, and the Theatre of the Absurd. Tiersen is also compared to one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century, the American minimalism, classical-contemporary classical, and ambient music composer Philip Glass, and to British composer of minimalist music, pianist, librettist and musicologist, Michael Nyman, known for the many film scores he wrote during his lengthy career and in regard to him Tiersen is often called the Gallic Michael Nyman.
I couldn't play a brass instrument -- I tried but I was really bad -- I couldn't play the flute, and the accordion was a keyboard so it was easy.
Tiersen started playing piano and violin at a young age. In 1983, when he was thirteen years old, he broke his violin and bought an electric guitar. Tiersen only returned to his childhood instrument years later after searching for string sounds to sample. In his albums, Tiersen composes and arranges music incorporating several instruments including keyboards such as piano, electric piano, Fender Rhodes, organ, harpsichord, Bontempi and toy piano, Korg and Moog synthesizers, Mellotron, accordion and melodica, strings as violin, viola, violone and cello, different types of electric, acoustic and bass guitars, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, bouzouki and oud, brasses, like horns, and woodwind instruments such as saxophone, clarinet, bassoon, pipe, oboe and flute, percussions like drums, vibraphone, marimba, tubular bells, tom, cymbal, glockenspiel and tam-tam, and also the sounds produced by Leslie speaker, music box, carillons, typewriters, cooking vessels, chairs, a car or a bicycle wheel. Tiersen plays all of these instruments both in the studio and in concert.
Tiersen's ability to compose music that can be easily used for film scores was evident from the beginning. All tracks from his debut album, La Valse des monstres, were conceived for stage adaptations and plays. The title track of his second album, Rue des cascades, was used for The Dreamlife of Angels by Erick Zonca, and several tracks from both albums plus three songs from Le Phare are featured on the soundtrack to Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Amélie. Another track form Le Phare, "L'Homme aux bras ballants", is the soundtrack to a short animation film by Laurent Gorgiard. Tiersen's pieces are also featured on Alice et Martin by André Téchiné, and Qui plume la lune? by Christine Carrière.
Following the box-office success of Amélie, Tiersen's skills as a composer of film scores were much in demand, and this led him to compose the music for Good Bye, Lenin! by Wolfgang Becker. But while the soundtrack for Amélie consisted mainly of pieces that Tiersen has been previously released on his first two albums, the soundtrack for Good Bye, Lenin! was conceived from scratch, except for "Comptine d'un autre été: L'après-midi", which is also featured on Amélie's soundtrack.
After several years in which he was no longer involved with creating soundtracks, in 2008 he returned to making background music for the moving documentary for his friend about the French sailor, Éric Tabarly.
Tiersen has always composed his music alone and in solitude, starting from simple melodies to which he added subsequent layers. His first album, La Valse des monstres, is almost entirely performed by him alone playing all the instruments, with the exception of "Quimper 94" and "Le Banquet" with drums and charleston provided by Laurent Heudes. His second album, Rue des cascades, saw the participation of French soloist singer Claire Pichet, who provided vocals on two tracks on the album, "Rue des cascades" and "Naomi", and François-Xavier Schweyer, who played cello on "C'était ici" and "La Fenêtre".Le Phare saw his first collaboration with French singer and songwriter Dominique A. Claire Pichet and drummer Sacha Toorop are also featured on this album, but both albums can be considered as a one-man works.
It is at this point in his career, around the end of the nineties, that his collaborations begin to grow. In 1997, he collaborated with French rock band Noir Désir, the following year Tiersen and Dominique A released the single for "Monochrome", and, in collaboration with French electronic rock band Bästard, the EP Bästard ~ Yann Tiersen, while 1999 saw the releases of Tout est calme, a collaboration mini album by Yann Tiersen, The Married Monk, Claire Pichet, and Olivier Mellano, and of his first live album, Black Session: Yann Tiersen. The live album, recorded on December 1998, features Tiersen with Claire Pichet, Dominique A, The Divine Comedy's singer and songwriter Neil Hannon, Noir Désir's singer and songwriter Bertrand Cantat, singer and illustrator Françoiz Breut, anglophone French rock band The Married Monk, French folk rock group Têtes Raides, the string quartet Quatuor à cordes, guitarist and composer Olivier Mellano, and author Mathieu Boogaerts. The soundtrack for Amélie saw for the first time the introduction of a full orchestra, the 35-member Ensemble Orchestral Synaxis, and of an ondes Martenot played by Christine Ott. Both will participate in the recording sessions for his next album, L'Absente, which also includes American singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Lisa Germano, Belgian actress and singer Natacha Régnier, Neil Hannon, and Têtes Raides, among others.
Tiersen's list of collaborators continues to grow. His second live album, C'était ici, recorded during three concerts performed on February 2002 at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, features more than 50 musicians.Yann Tiersen & Shannon Wright, a collaboration album with American singer and songwriter Shannon Wright, was released in October 2004, and his 2005 album, Les Retrouvailles, features vocals from Stuart Staples of Tindersticks, English actress and singer Jane Birkin, Breton singer and songwriter Miossec, Elizabeth Fraser, the vocalist for the pioneer alternative rock group Cocteau Twins Cocteau Twins, and the Orchestre National de Paris. The subsequent world tour produced his third live album On Tour, which replaced the multi-instrumental ensemble of Les Retrouvailles with a more rock-oriented sound. The soundtrack to Tabarly saw Tiersen return to minimalism, in fact most of the compositions featured on the album are for solo piano. But his two subsequent albums return to have a rock-oriented sound, with the only difference that Skyline has a higher number of contributors than Dust Lane.
Tiersen has contributed, either in part or in full, to the realization of several records among which stand out "Gin Soaked Boy" and Absent Friends by The Divine Comedy,Vingt à Trente Mille Jours by Françoiz Breut,Lucky Dog Recordings 03-04 by Stuart A. Staples, and Li(f)e by Sage Francis, as well as records by Noir Désir, Têtes Raides, The Married Monk, French electronic trio Smooth, Katel, David Delabrosse, Christine Ott, or Miossec. In 2011, Tiersen, with Lionel Laquerriere and Thomas Poli, has also started Elektronische Staubband, a side project on electronic music. This new project is expected to lead to the release of a new album in 2013.
In 2011, Tiersen collaborated with the Yellow Bird Project (YBP) to design a t-shirt, which is currently being sold to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The main reason he chose to support MSF, is for their work as one of the three charities helping refugees in Libya at the time. A live video session was also filmed in the MSF London offices to promote the T-shirt and raise awareness for the cause.