Yann Tiersen interview: ‘The Amelie soundtrack had a negative impact on me’

French multi-instrumentalist and composer Yann Tiersen hates Paris with surprising intensity for a man who gave it a soundtrack. Despite him releasing 10 studio albums, including the revered Dust Lane and Les Retrouvailles, it is the music for Amélie with which he is most famously associated – that accordion-drenched, cobbles-of-Montmartre backdrop for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical romance of 2001. 

For all the worldwide acclaim for his César-winning, Bafta-nominated score, which has garnered a cult status beyond the film, Tiersen is saddened by how inexorably he’s tied to it. “It had more of a negative impact instead of positive,” the 48-year-old admits. “The first time I saw the movie was in the cinema – I didn’t want to go to the premiere – and I remember it felt really personal, and weird. If I was asked to do it again, now I would say no.” 

For years afterwards, Tiersen’s wandering cues were hard to avoid in adverts seeking to convey a certain Gallic je ne sais quoi. “The Parisian folklore and the ‘Frenchness’ of the movie was really far from my music,” he says. “There has always been a context where it’s naïve, but also dark and linked to death. Even something like the accordion for me felt more Celtic, and nothing to do with that film. For a while after I didn’t play the accordion at all, because I thought it was disgusting.” 

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There was also a fight over Jeunet’s changes to the track names, he says, which were “nothing to do with the music”.  

“I did soundtracks by mistake or by chance, and after Amélie I just did two [Good Bye, Lenin and Tabarly]. For me, composing music isn’t too serious, it’s really organic and instinctive, and it doesn’t fit with soundtracks when you’re working with a director who says things like ‘I’d like the music to be orange’ and other stupid things like that. It makes me crazy.” 

Tiersen loves films, he clarifies, but for him, music is something “more instinctive and sacred, magical and primitive, that came before language and is connected to the earth, a lot like dance”. 

“Soundtracks feel like a business. And there’s too much money in the film world,” he shrugs. “I went to LA, and I love it there, I like the city, but I met some industry people and I don’t want to be involved in any of that. I heard someone say, ‘Oh we have a low budget for this movie, just $80m.’ It’s another world.” 

By his own admission, Tiersen sounds aggressive when interviewed in his native tongue. But in English, he comes across today as kind and ebullient, words pouring out of him as he discusses his new album, All. In terms of its sound, the record is a far cry from the Amélie soundtrack: sparse pianos and snatches of distortion mix with sombre vocals and richly textured guitars and synths. This new direction, which began with the 2016 album EUSA, has an unlikely backstory: a “life-changing” incident that took place in 2014. 

Tiersen and his wife were cycling along Usal Road – the notorious 10-mile track connecting the Lost Beach to the main highway in California – when he realised they were being followed. 

“I sensed the mountain lion,” he says. The big cat was stalking them as they trekked the narrow, winding road through dense forest. Someone drove past, but the pair couldn’t persuade the driver to give them a lift. So they continued cycling for another six hours, wondering the whole time if the mountain lion had stopped chasing them, or if it was still there. 

“It changed how I approach music,” Tiersen says of the experience. “Afterwards, I realised the only reason we were scared, and thought we were close to death, was because we weren’t aware of our surroundings. That forest is their territory, and we were ignorant and stupid not to realise it.” 

All was produced in Tiersen’s brand new studio built in an abandoned discotheque on Ushant, a small island between Brittany and Cornwall. Its new windows and viewing deck provide stunning views of the Celtic sea. He named it The Eskal. 

“It’s a luxury,” he admits. “Making albums in a studio is a process that is really creative. It changes the album, and the music in general. We are losing that, I think, because there’s no money in the music industry, and because it’s not convenient and it’s so easy to use a laptop. For practical reasons, we skip the traditional methods. So, I wanted to make something that was completely different, and apart from the world. If you’re working in an analogue way, there is no coming back.” 

All is one of Tiersen’s best albums to date. The sound of children laughing and bicycle spokes spinning on “Tempelhof” – named after the former Nazi airbase, now Germany’s largest refugee centre – taps into the same vein of bittersweet nostalgia that runs through most of his work. On “Erch’h” he samples bird song from the trees and fields behind Schumacher College in Devon, where Tiersen and his son also took courses in ecology. The way he approaches structure has developed, so while he still finds pleasure in minimalism, often a song goes down an unexpected path. 

“The music feels more random sometimes,” Tiersen agrees. “My first records, the songs were mostly two minutes, but now the songs are longer, and I’m more flexible.” 

Relearning the Breton language, which has stronger links to Welsh or Cornish than French, brought Tiersen closer to his own world, among the dramatic landscapes of Ushant and the sea that surrounds it. 

“Having something in Brittany language is ‘to be with’ something, which is a beautiful way to phrase it. You don’t say ‘I have my keys’, you say ‘the keys are with me’. There is no ownership. All that heritage is so beautiful and important, and it used to be so coherent as well, there were similarities all across the world. I think we can still learn a lot from those languages and words.” 

Tiersen hopes that his album will encourage listeners to reconnect with nature and break away from the world of social media, which he refers to as “an imaginary world… but not in a good way”. 

“Social media means people live in a small cycle, watching the same news feed,” he says. “They ended up voting for something stupid [Brexit and Trump] because there was no regulation… And on YouTube you have people saying the Earth is flat?! It’s crazy,” he says, with an exasperated laugh. “It feels like the world is going backwards.”

‘All’, the new album from Yann Tiersen, is out now

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