For most of those who know his music, French songwriter Yann Tiersen will forever be associated with whimsical tunes played with a jaunty joie de vivre on an accordion. But ask Devin Gallagher, percussionist for the band Typhoon, who toured with Tiersen and his band in 2010, and you'll learn just how much has changed.
"It was a lot louder than I think any of us were expecting," Gallagher says. "Very post-rock; a lot of guitars and a lot of loud drums. At every show there would be at least one old couple that stood up and left. Like, 'This isn't the music from AmÃ©lie.ââ
No, it most certainly isn't the music from the fanciful Jean-Pierre Jeunet film that helped launched its star Audrey Tautou and the 41-year-old musician into the international spotlight in 2001. There's still a sense of capriciousness to his album-oriented work, but Tiersen has also added darker and weirder colors to his musical canvas.
His 2010 album, Dust Lane, is clouded over with dour sentiments like "Chapter 19," a track that uses the tones of accordion and bouzouki—both of which played such a huge role in the bouncy sound of Amélie and his earlier work—to provide a small sliver of hope amid the pounding drums and desperate lyrics ("To live outside the pale/ Is to wither and die"). It says something about his mental state at the time (his mother passed away during the recording sessions) that Tiersen ends the album with a lucid bit of folk that balances the black-and-white of existentialism: "I know you know we are falling into a deep oblivion," he sings alongside the songâs titular imploring of âFuck Me.â
With that experience behind him, when he went to record his most recent album, Skyline, the intention was to musically lighten things up a bit. "It's probably brighter when compared to the older albums," Tiersen said, calling from a tour stop in Cleveland. "Not the lyrics so much, but the music needed to have more space and needed to be more open.â
To accomplish this, Tiersen brought back the crackling sound of live drums (an element mostly missing on Dust Lane), allowed the chime of guitars to lead the melodic charge for many of the songs, and did ridiculous things like scream and bark his way through the space-jazz instrumental âExit 25 Block 20.â
"When I recorded that, I just wasn't that happy with it," Tiersen recalls, laughing. "It seemed too gentle, too quiet. So I just started shouting into the microphone, and the song transformed from there.â
That kind of experimentation is key to Tiersen's recent success as an artist. Rather than going into the studio with a plan of attack already mapped out, he throws dozens of ideas on tape, playing all of the instruments himself and chiseling these fragments into song shape. The results can be as epic and silly as "Exit 25" or take the form of the closing track, "Vanishing Point," which he built entirely out of samples of the other eight songs on Skyline.
That trial-and-error approach works great for his studio albums, but has kept him from doing a lot more work for film soundtracks.
"It was nice with Amélie because they just used songs from my first three albums," he says. "But for other films like Goodbye Lenin! or Tabarly, the French documentary I did, it is more about the length of the songs and trying to provide meaning for the person watching it. That can be really boring and bad and doesn't speak to the way I work."
For Tiersen, meaning is overrated. "I think music is something really abstract, and there's no real meaning to it," he says. "I much prefer just seeing what happens and seeing what direction I want to go in that day.â
SEE IT: Yann Tiersen plays Wonder Ballroom on Thursday, May 10, with Piano Chat. 8 pm. $18 advance, $20 day of show. All ages.