“Oh, I was nervous; it’s always more important, more pressure, to play at home,” says Yann Tiersen, a few days after doing just that, in an unforgettable fashion.
Such nerves are particularly acute when said gig takes place on an achingly exposed beach on a blustery day, with the cameras rolling and the locals wrapped tight in wintry clothes – you really need to make sure the music grabs their attention.
“The day before and day after it was blue sky,” smiles the main protagonist, “but that would have been too clichéd, it’s not how it is there really. Usually it changes every minute, and that’s important. I love the contrasts.”
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While Tiersen was on Ushant to play a secret gig, he took some time out and headed over to the island’s working lighthouse where he sat for an hour and listened through to his new album in full, on vinyl – all four sides of it. He set up a camera in the lighthouse and filmed the whole album playback, so the video is essentially an opportunity to hear the album with its maker.
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Tiersen – probably still best known for his big-selling score to the much-loved movie Amélie, but anything but a baton-wielding composer type – clearly pushed the boat out for this ambitious shore-based show. The audience were residents of his home island, Ushant, which is the ‘north-westernmost point of metropolitan France’ according to Wikipedia, and “a really wild place,” Tiersen says. “Really good and edgy.”
This remote bit of Brittany is also where Tiersen records most of his distinctively atmospheric compositions, in a home studio stuffed with old analogue synths and obscure vinyl. But his new album, ‘Infinity’, also owes much to another elemental island retreat, Iceland, and particularly its rugged terrain.
Tiersen’s band stopped off there on the way back from lengthy tours of Australia and the US a few years back, “and I had this strong feeling that, ‘Oh yes, I’m already home.’ So that’s why I chose the place, and the principle of the album: to record acoustic stuff, but always transforming it.”
One obvious collaborator was the all-girl Icelandic quartet amiina – probably still best known as Sigur Rós’ gifted string section – who helped link the two islands with one elaborately-conceived track. ‘Steinn’ – Icelandic for ‘stone’ – is a song originally sung in Breton, translated into English, then translated into Icelandic by amiina.
“Breton and Icelandic are really old languages, and they’re still alive,” says Tiersen. “In Brittany we have a very beautiful language, very close to Welsh, but the French did everything possible to extinguish it. So it’s a good symbol to have those still-alive languages all together.”
Stones are an unlikely recurring theme of the record, in fact. Also tackling that seemingly unpromising topic is Tiersen’s regular live collaborator Ólavur Jákupsson, who contributes a track in Faroese, and the splendidly gruff Arab Strapper Aidan Moffat, who performs the final song, ‘Meteorite’. How did Moffat respond to the album’s curious theme? “It’s Aidan, so he came back with something about sex, as always.”
Built on stones it may be, but the record is far from dry. Rather, it resonates with sonic wit and invention. Tiersen and amiina have a shared love of toy instruments, and early in the Ushant concert he ushers in the track ‘Slippery Stones’ by playing a pleasingly tiny piano, although on record those sounds were manipulated back at the home studio. “One of the rules was to explore and use every idea, good or bad,” he says. “The electronic treatment could make everything interesting.”
Thinking about it, that stark-but-jaunty concert film is somewhat reminiscent of Heima, the splendid documentary that followed Sigur Rós on a unique homeland tour a few years back, and references to Jonsi and co do tend to crop up in conversation with Tiersen. While clearly uncompromising talents, they plough furrows across similar fields.
The latter act’s cinematic, largely instrumental stuff is hardly overtly commercial, but he too has amassed a huge international audience (“on the last tour, we did over 300 concerts,” he says, “in all the countries”), and there’s clearly something to be said for the creative freedom encouraged by residing away from the mainland. It’s not just the remoteness that permeates one’s work, but the wonder of what lies beyond the waves.
“When you live on an island,” agrees Ushant’s favourite son, “you have no choice but to be open to the world.”
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Words: Si Hawkins
Photo: Katherine Rose
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‘Infinity’ is out now on Mute. Find Yann Tiersen online here.