An initial listen to Dust Lane — Yann Tiersen's first official stateside release — can elicit a broad range of strong emotional responses, but generally just one glaring question: How did it take so long for this guy to get a record out in North America?
"Ha, good question," says Tiersen, the 40-year-old French composer and multi-instrumentalist. "I think it was mostly just internal label stuff over the years — EMI France not having much interest in releasing my albums with another company. I don't know. I'm just glad it's finally happened. It's been great."
While it is technically his U.S. debut, Dust Lane is hardly Yann Tiersen's first foray into America's collective earbuds. Ten years ago, he became an overnight sensation — albeit somewhat anonymously — for his musical contributions to a little French film called Amélie. Every bit as whimsical and enchanting as Audrey Tautou's performance, Tiersen's accordion-driven score (mainly derived from material off his first three solo albums) became an international hit in its own right — going platinum in Canada and denting the U.S. charts. From there, all logic would have pointed to Tiersen's subsequent solo work earning similar, swift passage across the pond. But instead, he finds himself only now reconnecting with many fans who still know him best as "the soundtrack guy."
"The Amélie thing was so huge that it makes some misunderstandings with the people sometimes," Tiersen says. "They think that I make these soundtracks-to-order or something. [Laughs.] But I'm not that. I've done three soundtracks in 15 years, which really isn't a lot compared to many other artists."
And it's certainly no insult to his soundtrack work to say Tiersen is better defined by his six proper studio albums and three live albums, each of which reveal new, unexpected facets of the man's creative arsenal — from his roots as a classically trained violinist to his contrasting passion for the raw minimalism of post-punk.
"It's been a slow evolution from the beginning until now," he says. "When I made my first solo album, it was in reaction to what I'd been doing with my earlier bands—these noisier guitar bands. Samplers had come along, so I started out sampling a lot of acoustic stuff. But after a while, I thought to myself, 'Instead of sampling from records, why not just play these parts yourself?' And that was kind of a liberation for me — returning to acoustic instruments — because it wasn't really my culture during the '80s and '90s. Now, it felt new to me again."
The sophisticated folk tunes of Amélie capture those early stages of Tiersen's acoustic experiments well, but with Dust Lane, it's clear that he's at ease casting a much wider net. For every pluck of the mandolin or bouzouki, there is a callback from a synthesizer or distorted guitar. For every sweet cinematic theme song ("Ashes"), there's a visceral post-rock anthem ("Palestine"). And despite the loss of both his mother and a close friend during the making of the album, there is a prevailing positivity, as well.
"When you experience a big loss, the best thing you can do is just enjoy life more and more," Tiersen explains.
Much like his American counterpart Andrew Bird, Yann Tiersen's appeal has little to do with his considerable training and technical ability, and a lot to do with how he's used his talents to embrace music in all its seemingly less sophisticated forms.
"For me, music is a question of sounds," he says. "And musical instruments are really just a way to make sounds. The truth is you can make beautiful sounds with anything. Sometimes you just have two vocals, in harmony — nothing else — and it's great! And so I don't really care much for technical music. I'm happy to have a classical background, but nothing can replace pure inspiration."
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