Living the Island Life

‘Amelie’ composer Yann Tiersen crafts beautiful melodies in an isolated enclave

May 24, 2012
Composer Yann Tiersen, front, creates and records his music in seclusion at his island home, but tours with a full backing band.

Paris, San Francisco, New York, London, Berlin — French composer Yann Tiersen traveled the world to record with various producers and musicians for his latest album, “Skyline.” But none of those places could compete with Ushant, an island off the coast of West Brittany in the Celtic Sea.

“It’s one hour, 30 minutes from the mainland, quite isolated,” Tiersen says. “There are about 800 people there, and eight pubs. I’ve lived there for a while so I know everybody on the island.”

Tiersen is perhaps most well-known in the U.S. for scoring Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film “Amelie.” But the musician has released more than 10 albums of ambitious, mostly instrumental rock compositions over the past 20 years — many, like the new disc, written on the island.

Tiersen says he finds inspiration in the solitude of living on Ushant. “I try to think of nothing,” he says. “I just pick up an instrument, usually a guitar, and see what happens. That’s why I like to work alone in my own studio, because it can be very messy.”

The island’s insularity also offers some structure to balance the chaos of creativity. “If I can’t find an idea, I can just go to the pub and drink a bit, then I go back home and get back to work,” he says.

“Skyline” reflects the benefits of such an encouraging environment. It stands among Tiersen’s best work: Songs such as “Another Shore” and “Vanishing Point” are so loud and majestic that they could fill a cathedral. At the same time, Tiersen is so attuned to the details of his complex arrangements that “Skyline” makes an incredible headphone album.

Now off the island and on the road, Tiersen prefers to perform with company. He tours with five other stage musicians, everyone trading off between drums, bass, guitar and synths. “There are no leaders,” he explains. “Everyone’s involved, and we find new ways to play the songs.”

Inside Track: Tiersen knows inspiration can strike at the oddest moment. Take “Vanishing Point,” the climactic closing track from his new album, “Skyline,” which he says rose out of boredom. “I was with Ken Thomas mixing the album and had been listening to a single kick drum for hours,” he says. “I was bored and started to play with my laptop. I took samples of every song on the album and played with loops, and that became ‘Vanishing Point.’”

 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Sat., 8 p.m., $25; 202-265-0930. (U Street)
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Marc Silver | May 24, 2012