Interview: Musicians Émilie and Yann Tiersen

The recording artists on the power of location, touring and collaboration

It’s been a productive year for recording artists Émilie and Yann Tiersen. This summer Yann, a world-renowned composer and musician, released 11 5 18 2 5 18, an experimental album suffused with mood and magic. On the mystical ninth track, “13 1 18 25 (6 5 1 20. 17 21 9 14 17 21 9 19),” Yann’s wife, Émilie, contributes vocals—though that’s far from her only creative output this year. Recording under the moniker QUINQUIS, Émilie also released an album, entitled SEIM, this summer and it’s a compelling web of electronic ideas and ethereal vocals. Yann and Émilie live and work on Ouessant (or Ushant in Breton), a remote island off the coast of Brittany, France that informs their music. Right now, however, they’re touring the world together and took time to speak with COOL HUNTING about collaboration, busy schedules and the power that location plays in their work.

Though they’re on the road together, they carry their home with them through their sound. “Years ago, I did a first album on Ushant,” Yann says of the role the verdant, wind-swept island plays on his work. “I love this place. It’s very easy to work there—to find ideas, both good or bad. Later on, I did another album there. Then I found this house and I just stayed.”

“At first, I didn’t realize the power of the location of where I am from,” Émilie adds. “I never really moved away from Brittany but I did not see this as part of me. I did not see the Breton culture as being so much a part of my work. Then I went on tour with Yann. I was in so many cities and I realized I just wanted to go back to my land. In this consideration, Brittany is very important to me and my work.”

It’s not just Ouessant that informs their music, however, it’s also experiences from around the world, including a shared encounter in the US. “We were crossing California by bicycle, on a track near Shelter Cove on the Lost Coast. We had a really long ride—maybe eight hours—and right in the middle, Émilie heard some noises and then I was face to face with a mountain lion. In that moment, I understood the important of knowing your environment and the ecosystem.” Yann took inspiration from this and began to incorporate field recordings into his work. Location became an even more central theme to his creation.

“We were really naive,” Émilie adds. “When we went on that trip, we were kind of not realistic about the place we had on Earth. We were too self-centered, but at that moment we realized we were part of something bigger.”

Though their work intertwines and they appreciate mutual feedback, their processes as creators are unique. “I am slow with work,” Émilie says. In fact, she seeks out a state of mind where she feels receptive. “I try to be available in every single aspect. I try to see what happens and stick to my music for a while and experiment with sounds. Step by step, something arrives. People in my creations are very important. I love when people tell me their stories. There’s a big part of them in what I am doing.”

Oftentimes, Yann is reacting. “I started doing music with samplers in the ’90s,” he explains. “Because I was spending lots of time with machines, I decided to move to acoustic instruments because they were new to me. They were my post-electronic era. Now, I am rediscovering my interest in processing sounds.” Lockdown and having a home studio provided him an opportunity to slow down his recording process, as well.

As for their influence on the other, Émilie admits she is shy. “I take more time before seeking Yann’s opinion on what I am doing,” she says. “But I really feel the influence of his work, especially the work I have participated in, like when Yann asked me to record vocals or to perform with him on stage. These have been strong opportunities to move forward in my own work.” In contrast, Yann says that when he is working on something, Émilie is always the first to hear it. He heeds her advice, though not always immediately.

Yann says that he’s doubtful about inspiration—that an act of inspiration, for him, is often the base of something that is reworked time and time again. But he’s certain of what brings him joy: “Being at sea and cycling,” he explains. “You [he says to Émilie]. The community on Ushant.” She adds, the “opening the door in the morning and looking at the sea and the sunrise. The smell of Ushant.”

For Émilie, the making of SEIM was a three-year-long process. “I had just become a mother,” she says. “We were on tour. I began working on my computer. Every day was a new idea. I made a rule that I couldn’t listen to what I did the previous day. I had to face a blank page again each day. It began with these tiny ideas that were made while our son was taking his nap.” She began to develop each further, then Yann provided feedback.

“I destroyed everything to go back to the root of every track and to find a strong acoustic base,” she says. “When I recorded that [acoustic essence], I sent it to Gareth Jones for synths, track by track. He brought it back to electronic.” As for lyrics, which are all in Breton, they pertain to people Émilie met during those three years—they are stories and tales from Breton culture. Altogether, it’s an exquisite, engrossing release.

Erstwhile, Yann’s enchanting 11 5 18 2 5 18 was meant to be a piano album. “But I got bored with that,” he says. “I decided the piano would be the base for something else. I started to mangle the sound. When I played live, I did an electronic music festival in Brest, near where we live, I didn’t want to play the piano and have someone do the electronics, so I had to rethink the album. In Berlin, for Superbooth, I thought, ‘I can do something special here.’ This was really the start of 11. I deconstructed all the tracks that I wanted to play and started to resample everything note by note and changed the melody. It became a new album.”

“It was an amazing experience to do this Berlin gig—it was raining a lot, the conditions were a bit like Ushant—so I switched to that system for the entire tour and the album was born and reworked for two months,” he adds. “I reshaped everything and recut the album.”

Touring has played a vital role in their music—and their sense of collaboration. “I love touring. I always have,” Yann says. “During lockdown, however, I realized we needed to invent new ways of touring. More sustainable. I’d like slow touring—perhaps cycling from one gig to another. Maybe with a community aspect where you meet people. It’s an old industry that needs to become less of an industry.”

Émilie, on the other hand, is newer to the experience—and addressing the sensations of being an opening act. “I know people did not come for me,” she says, “but I am happy when they leave with me.” Yann adds that he wishes “we would be permitted to swap places. Having people discover my music with no expectation and for what it is, I miss that. I really love festivals because people often don’t know what to expect.”

Listening to both albums, it becomes evident that they are meticulously constructed, sonic experiences. Both also seem to be arguments for the idea that a complete album is a listening experience best served from start to finish—a work of art bound by a concept as much as a sound. “I love albums—and I love vinyl—and that albums represent a period of time where I am working on specific ideas. But it’s tricky because I am making longer and longer tracks,” Yann says. “I don’t mind a track being on a playlist [rather than an album being listened to from start to finish] because I have nine or 10 minutes so people have time to become immersed.”

“I think an album is an album,” Émilie says. “It’s cool to be able to release a track with a radio edit that will please everybody—but the length of an album is putting people into a state of mind. It’s sharing a moment. My music is so strange that I kind of like when people try to spend a bit of time with it. In re-listening to it, you will discover even more.”

Images courtesy of Yann and Émilie Tiersen