Yann Tiersen Takes Us Into the Retrospective Reimaginings of ‘Portrait’

French composer and multi-instrumentalist Yann Tiersen has been releasing music that defies categorization for over two decades. While he remains best known for the use of his music in Juan-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film “Amélie,” the film is hardly a suitable representation. For one, the soundtrack is primarily a collection of recordings from Tiersen’s first three studio albums, rather than a score written specifically for a film. In fact, Tiersen is averse to the very concept of writing with an image in mind – which is ironic, as his music seems to lend itself to the screen so readily that it was adopted for two other films, 2003’s “GoodBye Lenin!” and 2008’s “Tabarly.” There is something about the primal immediacy of his composition, his ability to be at once evocative and elemental, which has managed to strike a chord time and time again. 

Tiersen has taken inspiration from the likes of punk rock, industrial music, and minimal techno, which have all served to shape and define his distinctive sound. Since the beginning, his pieces revealed a certain disregard for convention, balanced by a certain informed richness, a subversive instinct measured by a fresh accessibility. Playing everything from toy piano to banjo, harpsichord to melodica, himself both on record and on stage, Tiersen has released ten immersive and eclectic studio albums, toured extensively throughout the years, and documented his novel, theatrical performances in three live records. Considering the impulse and ingenuity at the heart of Tiersen’s music, it should come as no surprise that he has kept his renditions fresh throughout the years, putting new spins on sounds, and recasting old tunes in new contexts. 

For his latest release, “Portrait,” Tiersen has taken this a step further, revisiting songs from throughout his catalogue, and reimagining them in new analogue recordings, collaborating with Blonde Redhead, Gruff Rhys, Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) and more. Tiersen met with Entertainment Voice to discuss his experiences, inspirations, and music in general. 

Your new album “Portrait” features new analogue recordings of twenty-two songs from throughout your catalogue, as well as three new songs. What led you to take a retrospective look at your career at this particular point?

Many reasons. First, when we were rehearsing, touring my last album “All,” being on stage, my wife and me, I thought we were touching something quite interesting. I had the feeling to reach back the essence of the songs we were playing. Even before touring, I just thought it would be good to record that. So that’s the starting point. Then, I built a studio here on Ushant, where I live, and it’s kind of my dream come true. I built an analogue studio with a big lab room, which is quite beautiful sounding. And I was thinking it could be great to record those songs analogue, which I always wanted to do, but it was too expensive – studio time. But now I have my own studio. 

And first reason, my music has been used in movies, especially in “Amélie,” and actually, this Parisian folklore – even the movie is almost the opposite of what my music was about, so it’s been really hard for me. It’s been really good in a way because I had success and everything, but then it was kind of misleading the audience. My music is kind of a wild beast instead of a Parisian dandy, so I was happy to rerecord everything, and put everything in context with new material and old material. It’s a really good feeling to have everybody home, in a way. 

The new album finds you collaborating with a host of colorful characters, including Stephen O’Malley, best known for his work with drone metal outfit Sunn O))). While you both share similarities in your focus on atmospherics and your resistance to being pigeonholed, your genres could hardly be more different. Do you listen to metal or drone music of any type? Tell us about how you two ended up working together, and what the dynamic was like. 

Yeah, I’m a massive fan of Sunn. Stephen was visiting my studio, and I asked him to do a collaboration. We were liking each other’s music. Last year, when I was recording “All,” there is this track “Prap,” which is a slow piano track, and when I was doing it, I was deeply thinking about drone and really heavy guitars, and I had Sunn in mind. It was a really great collaboration and connection.  

You’ve also been compared to famous figures associated with minimalism everyone from Erik Satie to Philip Glass. What’s your opinion on minimalism, in general? 

I’ve been listening to Steve Reich since I was a teenager, and it’s been a big discovery, and I really love his work. In terms of influence, I don’t know about minimalism. I love minimal things. I love minimal techno. I love drones, and I love repetition. But my main influence, I guess, was, strangely – it’s not strange to me actually, and I think it can be obvious – I came to acoustic instruments and more soft instruments through industrial music, in a sense – samplers and sampling. Because I started music playing in a punk band in the mid ‘80s, ‘90s, and I’s been really blown away by Throbbing Gristle, really spending time to sample and do more experimental stuff. I started to sample melody. It’s kind of abstract and weird. I started to, instead of sampling, just perform them, playing pianos and toy instruments and acoustic instruments, but it wasn’t first degree, and it was a kind of bittersweet, and sort of dark joke (laughs) or something. 

You mentioned minimal techno. Any recent artists that particularly interest you?

I really love Kompakt label, some of their stuff. There’s a girl that has a project called Anadol, from Berlin. It’s really, really, really good. It’s more kind of weird, glitchy, electronic. She’s from Turkey. That’s what I’ve been listening to at the moment. 

The other musicians who take part generally come from the indie sphere. There’s John Grant, Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, and Blonde Redhead. What did each of these artists impart to their particular collaborative effort that informed the final result? Take us briefly into the processes by which the pieces came together. 

Gruff Rhys: I had this song “Monochrome” that I wrote a long time ago for my third album. It was sung by a French singer at that time, and I thought it was not really good pronunciation and flow, and I always wanted to rerecord it. And Gruff Rhys is from Wales. I thought he was the perfect fit to sing this song in English, and I really wanted to meet him as well, because of his involvement in Welsh culture. 

Blonde Redhead: I wrote this song, and I had this melody and lyrics. I did a demo with me and my wife, and I really wanted a female singer singing it, and she mentioned Blonde Redhead, and I was like, “Oh yeah, of course” because I’ve been listening to them since the beginning, and so we asked them, and within one week, we had these really beautiful vocals.

And, John Grant: In London, I asked Stephan Harding, a scientist teaching in Schumacher College, which is a University in Devon, which is about new academics and ecology. He did a lecture, and read an excerpt of “Thinking Like a Mountain,” and I loved this text, and since then, I just wanted to put music on it, and find someone to read it. 

How would you say the new recordings differ from the originals overall, in your approach and in the final results?

Some of them are different with the interpretation, when it’s solo pianos and stuff, but for the rest, they’re completely new, completely different I don’t like to play them live as they are in the records, and that was the point of this recording, of course. When the songs are on vinyl, they’re dead to me because I don’t listen to my records, of course. So each time I try to play them again, it’s like rediscovering and starting from scratch, and it’s always completely new, and sometimes it can be really far from the original. 

Ever since your music was used to score the 2001 film “Amelie,” you’ve become all the rage when it comes to soundtrack work. What do you think it is about your music, in particular, that lends itself to the screen?

I just did three soundtracks in maybe twenty-five years. People are free to use my music, but I think music is not a language. It’s something abstract, and I think there is nothing more stupid than to try to compose or put music on an image. I think the opposite is fine. The other way is fine. Choosing music for films is okay. That’s the director’s decision, but I would not compose music for a specific scene or something, because I think it’s completely counterproductive. 

You released a studio album “All” just earlier this year, making this an especially productive period for you. How do the few brand new works on “Portrait” compare stylistically to your other recent compositions, and do they hint at anything about directions to come?

Actually, I will spend a year to record some new stuff, and I have other projects as well, side projects and electronic bands, and we will record an album this year. I will record some album with my wife, a piano album, I guess, for next year – many projects. And then I will start touring. We’ve been touring all the past year. We will start the tour next September or something like that, and I think we’ll go touring in the US within one year, like November or December.

Portrait” is available Dec. 6 on Apple Music.