French maverick Yann Tiersen has more than one string to his bow, as Jane Cornwell discovers
CLIMB the narrow stone stairway to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral and there, behind the famous gargoyle sentinels, is the skyline of a million tourist brochures. Way off in the distance is the Eiffel Tower and to the right, the Basilica Sacre-coeur. There are the crooked rooftops of Montmartre, with their blue-grey tiles and rows of chimney pots, their attic windows hinting, Amelie- style, of liaisons romantic and dangereuses.
Gaze further east and the view gets less familiar, more anonymous. Somewhere out there in the 19th arrondissement, in a splitlevel apartment a 10-minute walk from Botzaris, a Metro stop on the Line 7bis loop, lives composer and musician Yann Tiersen. Who right now is probably ensconced in his basement studio, weaving magic from an arsenal of instruments: guitar, synthesiser and violin; melodica, xylophone, toy piano and ondes martenot; and found instruments such as the typewriter.
Ask anyone outside France — or any tourist on Notre Dame — if they have heard of Tiersen and the response is invariably the same. ‘‘ He’s the guy who did the soundtrack to Amelie,’’ they will say, referencing JeanPierre Jeunet’s 2001 Montmartre-set comedy about a Parisian waitress with a vivid imagination and a busybody streak.
If you listen hard, you might just hear Tiersen, 42, groaning in his bunker. Amelie remains one of the highest-grossing nonEnglish language films made, having pulled in close to $US175 million ($166m). The feel-good flick made an international star out of actress Audrey Tautou and an international tourist trap out of Montmartre, which was already a Euro Disney of overpriced crepes and pushy sketch artists.
Tiersen’s accordion and piano-driven soundtrack still pumps out in Montmartre’s cobblestone streets, cashing in on the film and reinforcing the idea that all of Tiersen’s work is as quintessentially French and everso-slightly cliched.
‘‘ I don’t like the French folklore of Amelie,’’ Tiersen will say later, once we’ve chatted for a while and it feels safe to raise the subject. ‘‘ I’m not ashamed or anything; I still think it is a good movie. But it is not my type of movie.’’ Anyway, the soundtrack was largely a collection of songs from his earlier work: ‘‘ I only did two new tracks: the Amelie waltz and another whose title I don’t remember. It was like a pastiche of stuff I wasn’t doing any more.’’
Most of the stuff — the playfully giddy melodies and spare, wistful musings; the instrumental flourishes on banjo, vibraphone and (on the final track) bicycle wheel — wasn’t written about Paris at all. The music on Amelie was largely inspired by Ouessant, a tiny windswept island off the Atlantic coast of Brittany, at the northernmost point of France and the southwest end of the English Channel. With a population of 850 and a culture that has more in common with Wales and Scotland, it’s a place Tiersen has called home for a decade.
Tiersen’s Breton roots partly explain his
‘ ambivalence over the Amelie phenomenon. The only child of language-teacher parents, Tiersen grew up in Rennes, the capital of the Brittany region, sharing this former Celtic duchy’s disdain for the rest of France. ‘‘ France is a small country,’’ Tiersen has said. ‘‘ It used to be an international country many years ago. But French people still think France is so important. Even when I’m abroad the French people I meet can be so arrogant.’’
Tiersen spends most of his time on Ouessant, where he has a cottage, five sheep and a collection of vintage synthesisers. Every two weeks or so he takes the ferry to the mainland and drives across to Paris, where his two children — Elliot, 13 and Lise, nine — live with their respective mothers. That is, when he’s not touring the world with his live act, which he’ll be bringing to the Byron Bay Bluesfest and the rest of Australia in April as part of an international tour to promote his current studio album, Skyline. Amelie obsessives be warned: while Tiersen’s concerts may include a few of those whimsical piano, accordion and string instrumentals — albeit with a singular twist — the man has long since moved on. As his acclaimed tour of Australia in 2006 testified, electric and acoustic guitars now feature heavily in his work, as do crashing synthesisers, swirling loops and occasional English-language vocals. Think Kraftwerk in space, Joy Division in a paint shop or Michael Nyman with a ring through his nose.
Better still, don’t think at all: ‘‘ I don’t like labels,’’ Tiersen has also said. ‘‘ I don’t make f . . king minimalist music. I am not a composer. I just put sounds together and have fun.’’
Ask anyone inside France about Tiersen — especially anyone between the ages of, say, 20 and 45 — and they’ll tell you about an avant-garde performer whose CV spans seven albums and a further two scores (2003’s Goodbye Lenin! and the 2008 sailing documentary Tabarlay), along with numerous collaborations with singers such as Jane Birkin and Elizabeth Fraser of 1980s atmospheric darlings the Cocteau Twins.
They’ll tell you, too, about a classically trained anti-composer with a punk aesthetic and penchant for krautrock, the experimental German rock movement of the 70s. About an artist working at the indie end of mainstream music, performing one-man shows that see him switching from toy piano to percussion to xylophone in concerts that often feel like one long piece. About an artist currently touring the world with a six-piece band (‘‘You get lonely touring by yourself’’) and making music that in the words of one British critic, ‘‘ combines billowing wonder with a mild sense of melancholy’’.
Unsurprisingly, Skyline makes for perfect travelling music. I’ve had the album on my ipod the whole way from London to Paris; even down in the Metro, and on the walk up the hill from Botzaris, the compositions lend themselves to motion. I duly walk straight past Tiersen’s apartment, with its featureless shopfront facade. After the doorbell buzzes several times a pair of bovver boots comes galumphing downstairs.
Tiersen shakes hands with ring-clad fingers. ‘‘ Come on up. Don’t mind Voltaire.’’ The canine face at the top of the stairwell crinkles its eyes; a feathery tail thumps against a wall. Tiersen’s 15-year-old golden retriever is his regular companion in Ouessant and Paris: ‘‘ He used to come on the tour bus,’’ says Tiersen in accented English, as his dog retrieves a trainer from a pile of shoes and pads around the apartment — around a white harpsichord, a wall of vinyl records and a stack of 80s synths — with it hanging from his mouth. ‘‘ He got too bored,’’ he says. ‘‘ And he started shedding hair everywhere, which was a nightmare.’’
Tiersen makes coffee, lights the first of several industrial-strength cigarettes. Skyline, then, I say, mindful of his manager’s insistence that Amelie must figure later in the conversation. Why the title? Why release another record so soon after 2010’s Dust
Yann Tiersen . . .
I just put sounds together and have fun’