Dust Lane is the sixth studio album by Yann Tiersen. Two years in the making, it was largely recorded on Tiersen's current home of Ouessant, a small island off the coast of West Britanny, with further parts recorded on an island in the south Philippines and last touches and final mix at The Chairworks Studio in Castelford with producer Ken Thomas (Sigur Ros, M83, Dave Gahan).
Dust Lane is, inescapably, an album preoccupied with mortality. During its recording, Tiersen lost his mother and a close friend, and the music within embodies what it is to be bereaved. It is also an album about life not as something lost, but something to be lived. "Not a sad thing, but a colourful thing - an experience sometimes painful, but also joyful," says Tiersen.
As such, it suits that Dust Lane is the product of serendipity, of experimentation as a means of discovery, and the happy accident that breathes life into a new idea. What began as a simple, song-based album, sketched out by Tiersen alone on acoustic guitar, mandolin, bouzouki and toy drums gradually took on new layers and added complexities. "I took some distance and decided to deconstruct most of the songs as I was quite tired with the traditional structure of chorus, bridge, etc," he says.
Dust Lane is ambitious new territory for Tiersen. An array of vintage synths add billowing, analogue textures, electric guitars and bass bring layers of fuzz and distortion. Songs slip from their moorings, take off on new and unexpected currents. "My plan was also to play with contrast between electric and quite dense parts and more sober and minimal quiet parts including piano and strings," he adds. So, voices join together in chorus, arcing violins and crashing drums build towards mighty fanfares - but then, clouds part, squall recedes to silence, and mournful piano and strings guide you home.
Yann Tiersen has been honing his musical aesthetic since he could stand on two legs. Born in 1970 in Brest, Brittany, on the western edge of continental Europe, he started learning piano at the age of four, taking up violin at the age of six and receiving classical training at musical academies in Rennes, Nantes and Boulogne. Then, at the age of 13, he chose to alter his destiny, breaking his violin into pieces, buying a guitar and forming a rock band.
Rennes was the perfect city for a young musical upstart. Tiersen got a musical education from the city's annual Transmusicales festival, seeing acts like Nirvana, EinstÃ¼rzende Neubaten, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, The Cramps, Television and Suicide. When his band broke up a few years later, instead of hunting for some new musicians, he bought a cheap mixing desk, an eight-track reel, and started recording music solo with a synth, sampler and drum machine, poring over the grooves of old records on the hunt for loops and orchestral strings to plunder.
As it turned out, though, the key to his new approach lay in his own past. "One day I thought, instead of spending days on research and listening to tons of records to find the nearest sound of what I have in mind, why don't I fix this fucking violin and use it?" Through the summer of 1993, Tiersen stayed in his apartment, recording music alone with guitar, violin and accordion, guided not by the classical canon, but by intuition and his vision of "a musical anarchy".
"Let's live in an enormous world of sound we can use randomly, with no rules at all," says Tiersen, of his vision. "Let's play with sound, forget all knowledge and instrumental skills, and just use instinct - the same way punk did."
By the end of the summer of 1993, Tiersen had recorded over 40 tracks, which would form the bulk of his first two albums. 1995's La Valse Des Monstres, inspired by Tod Browning's Freaks and Yukio Mishima's The Damask Drum was the second album to be released on Nancy-based label Ici, d'ailleurs. It would be followed six months later by Rue Des Cascades, a collection of short pieces recorded with toy piano, harpsichord, violin, accordion and mandolin. Six years later, the record would find a much larger audience when several tracks, along with a couple of Tiersen originals, would be used on the soundtrack to Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Amelie (2001).
Tiersen's commercial breakthrough would come earlier, though, and off his own back. 1998's Le Phare (The Light House) was recorded in self-imposed seclusion on the isle of Ouessant, where Tiersen spent two months living in a rented house. At night, he watched the Creach'h, the most powerful lighthouse in Europe, as it illuminated the surrounding scenery. "I was amazed how the rays of lights from the lighthouse revealed some hidden details of the land, how we can rediscover something we have everyday, just in front of us, by a light pointing on it," says Tiersen.
Le Phare went on to sell over 160,000 copies, confirming Tiersen's status as one of the most pioneering and original artists of his generation and commencing a run of successful albums like 2001's L'Absente (featuring orchestral group Synaxis, Lisa Germano and the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon) and 2005's Les Retrouvailles (with guests Stuart Staples of Tindersticks, Jane Birkin and Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins). In this period, Tiersen also took his music out around the world, playing shows with a full orchestra and an amplified string quartet - a set-up captured on 2002's electrifying live album C'etait ici. And following the box-office success of Amelie, Tiersen's skills as a soundtracker were much in demand, leading to scores for the likes of Wolfgang Becker's tragicomedy Good Bye Lenin! (2003) and Tabarly (2008), a documentary about the French sailor Ã‰ric Tabarly, who ate his final meal on Ouessant Island before he meeting a watery end in the Irish sea.
Perhaps the most surprising development on Dust Lane is the presence of vintage synthesiser sounds. "I was a teenager during the late '80s and '90s and was a huge fan of analogue synth," says Tiersen. "I have always tried to incorporate vintage electronic sounds that I liked in my music but for the exception of the [early electronic keyboard] Ondes Martenot, it never happened. I have several synths that I love so much at home. I started to spend my days in front of the beautiful knobs of my Prophet 5 and my Moog, and oh, miracle! It suddenly seemed natural to add their texture to Dust Lane, I really love the space they bring to the album."
Dust Lane features an extended cast. Joining on drums is Dave Collingwood, who Tiersen discovered while Collingwood's band Gravenhurst were on tour in Paris. Another Bristolian, Matt Elliott - formerly of Third Eye Foundation, now a solo artist in his own right - contributes lugubrious vocals, notably on 'Chapter 19', the lyrics of which are based on an excerpt from Sexus, the first part of Henry Miller's The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Breton singer Gaelle Kerrien duets with Tiersen on 'Fuck Me', a gentle closer where two lovers do the only sensible thing in the face of oblivion. "Fuck me, fuck me... make me come again," they chorus, sweetly, over dancing banjo and mellotron.
Elsewhere, on songs like 'Amy' and 'Ashes', Tiersen, Elliott, Kerrien and the band Syd Matters join up in warm chorus. Perhaps the album's most stirring group efforts is 'Palestine', where voices spell out the title, over and over, atop a tide of sawing violin and racing drums. Implicitly, such a move is political, but in the context of Dust Lane, it feels personal too. "I ended my last tour in Gaza City, and realized that even in the most unfair situation there is hope," says Tiersen. "It is when surrounded by mess and dust that everything comes to life again."
And if there is a truth that lies at the heart of Dust Lane, that is it. Life may be fleeting, and death is the only inevitability; but hope springs eternal.