The inimitable Yann Tiersen will be passing through DC tomorrow night (5.24) for a show at Lincoln Theatre, and will also be stopping by NYC’s Beacon Theatre next Tuesday (5.28) in support of his latest record, All; an exploration of deep ecology, the album features a variety of field recordings, lyrics in endangered Breton and Faroese, as well as instrumentation all performed by Tiersen.
He and I recently spoke over the phone about how he arrived at these eleven moving tracks, which include a haunting chorus of coyotes on “Aon”, as well as strings on “Usal Road” which were recorded at the same place where Tiersen was stalked for hours by a hungry mountain lion several years back. We also talked about how language influenced All lyrically, and about the bigger-picture lessons we can learn from endangered tongues. Read up on our full conversation below, and be sure to grab tickets to the performances, as well as a copy of the record to tide you over until showtime.
BYT: With this new record, was there one track in particular that set everything into motion? Or was there a larger concept at play that then influenced all of the tracks collectively?
YT: I think the idea was just to have field recordings, especially with the violin you hear in “Usal Road” which was recorded in the original location of where, four years ago in California, we were chased by a mountain lion; it was a very intense experience, hoping we were not eaten by this very beautiful but angry animal, and it shifted and changed my perception towards my environment. I just realized that the most important thing in life is just knowing the ecosystem that you’re part of. If you don’t know it, it can lead to death. So that was the starting point, and it’s what my music is about; trying to understand and be connected to a place, and to share that with the audience.
BYT: Well, first of all, I’m very glad you didn’t get eaten by the mountain lion. What was the feeling you had going back to the original location to do the field recording, then?
YT: The reason I went back to the place we’d seen the mountain lion was because it was such an important event in my life, and it really did change everything. Going there, I recorded this violin track in the middle of the forest, and the difference is that now I understand where we were. On the other tracks there are field recordings, like from the island where I live, and Schumacher College in Devon, England, which is a really nice and beautiful place. It’s kind of the future of the world, like people studying new economics and ecology, and it’s just such a beautiful place to be, to meet people from all over the world that are involved and are trying to change the world in a good way.
BYT: Language also plays a big role in this record; you feature Breton and Faroese, specifically. I know you’re from Brittany, but have you always spoken Breton?
YT: Breton is really close to Welsh; it’s a Celtic language, and there’s been lots of persecution – it was forbidden in Brittany, and the French were really strict about it, tried to kill the culture and the language. In the sixties and seventies, even, the children were banned from learning Breton, but from the seventies to now, people fought to keep the language alive, and so I wanted to focus on it and relearn, and to arrange these songs in the Breton language. It’s a really important language; Celtic languages are really old and beautiful, but I think languages are really important in general, because they have the secret of the world where they’re born. To understand the world and the place where you live, even, language is very important. We also have these mainstream languages to communicate with each other, like I can speak English with you, and I can speak French with French people, but these native languages are really important to know ourselves and what we are. Especially with Breton and other Celtic languages, because there are no Latin roots, and it’s really different to French. It’s as different to French as French is different to Japanese. So it’s really important to preserve that and to carry on speaking and reading and writing in these native languages.
BYT: I also read another interview where you were just discussing the nuances of the language, like how in Breton you’d say “The keys are with me,” instead of “I have the keys,” and I thought that was really, really interesting, since it implies a totally different understanding of property and ownership. Has using Breton in your songwriting shifted the way that you approach lyrics, or even just your day to day life?
YT: I think it changed a lot. I’m from Brittany, so Breton is my language, but no one was really learning it, so I was speaking the Breton language translated into French. (Which is not so far away, but it’s hard, and I was really frustrated.) When I did relearn it, and I discovered all of these things, the way I saw the world is meant for the Breton language. It’s impossible to translate everything into French. So it’s funny, because using Breton makes me more calm and more in peace with the world. That’s what’s magical about language, and that’s why it’s so important. Now that we have this knowledge, and now that we can communicate with each other, we really have to focus on that and see the importance of languages in the same way we see the importance of endangered species and diversity in ecosystems. And yeah, in Breton, and in other Celtic languages, the notion of property is not really present. So we don’t have the verb “to have”, so most of the time we say we are “with” something instead of we “have” something. That says a lot. The notion of success, as well, is not really present, either. It’s more like you’re in harmony with things. I think that’s quite deep, and it’s a peaceful way of seeing the world, you know, more connected to nature. We’ve been lost in this sort of old concept of what the future should look like; we’re living in a cliche of what the eighties or nineties mind believed the future should be, but it’s not what the future needs to be. It’s the future of the past, if that makes sense. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s quite weird.
BYT: Absolutely. It’s bizarre. I also think it’s interesting that a lot of the places where more localized native languages have been suppressed throughout history (including here in the US with Native American languages) previously had a very harmonious view of how people ought to interact with the natural world. I think some of it coincides with the introduction of Christianity and monotheism and ideas about hierarchy and separation, and language got caught up in that as well.
YT: Yeah, you know, Christianity as well was born in a specific place. It was born in the desert in a place where you had to struggle with the environment because it was quite hard. I guess you could look at it from that point of view, like maybe it doesn’t always fit in with the environment. But I think now, not necessarily factoring ideology or anything into it, we should consider the people who originally lived in places and their worldview, because they probably knew a bit more about it. We can learn a lot from them, take this knowledge and relearn how to live in peace with the place where we are.
BYT: I agree! And to be able to foster a local sense of community is so important as well, which you’re currently doing where you live! Tell me about creating the community center from a previously abandoned space; how’s that been going?
YT: Yeah, it was the old disco on the island, which was really important because everybody would meet there, couple up and everything. It had been abandoned for a while when I had the opportunity to buy the building. My original plan was to create a recording studio, but it’s so central and essential to the community that it was unthinkable to close it off. So we do workshops and classes there, all of that. My wife teaches Breton language classes there. And it’s funny, because where I live is actually a really good example of the importance of language, because everything is in Breton, but because it’s an island where people were working on commercial ships and traveling the world, they forgot the language quite fast, and so now people are relearning it. There is this strange thing about realizing the precision with which things all over the island have been named in Breton; people had forgotten the language, but these places were there all the time.
BYT: Right, these things that are right under your nose that are so easily overlooked unless you know what you’re looking for! Alright, before we wrap up, I do want to ask you about the live setup and what will be the focus during these live shows.
YT: So we’re four altogether, and we’ll be playing the album in order with the same recordings, but we’ll also play a lot of old stuff and new stuff. It’s funny, because some of the songs we’ll be playing haven’t been played in ten years or more on stage. We’re really happy to be playing new stuff, but excited to play some of the older stuff as well.
Featured photo by Christopher Fernandez