French mav­er­ick Yann Tiersen has more than one string to his bow, as Jane Corn­well dis­cov­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

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’

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