The National's Bryce Dessner now calls France his home

The Connexion caught up with the US rock star ahead of his concert in Paris on June 5, discussing his life and experiences in France, and his career to date

Bryce Dessner during a performance by The National
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US guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner moved to France 10 years ago to be with his French partner, now wife – and says his adopted home is “a wonderful place to live for music”.

Dessner, who plays in US rock group The National, hailed by The Telegraph last year as the “world’s most influential band”, is married to Pauline de Lassus Saint-Geniès, a French singer-songwriter better known by her stage name Mina Tindle. 

They have a seven-year-old son and live in the Pays Basque. 

Despite his US roots, he says he sometimes goes weeks without speaking English, and is particularly enamoured of France’s music heritage.

Wonderful place

“France has great music. The classical musicians, in particular, are exceptional here,” he said. “Where New York might have one main orchestra, Paris has five, and that is a big difference. It is quite a wonderful place to live for music.

“French music has an incredible tradition, with composers such as Ravel, Debussy or, further back, with French medieval music like Pérotin, and the French popular music of the 20th century.”

France was one of the first countries where his Cincinnati rock band The National became famous, before even the US or the UK, with France Inter and Libération quick to champion their music. 

The National have gone on to carve a major following and regularly work alongside some of the biggest names in the music world, including Taylor Swift. She features on their song The Alcott and has said it is her favourite group.

“There are a lot of really beautiful small clubs in Paris that were always fun to play, and it is a very healthy environment for developing artists,” said Dessner. 

“I have always had an incredible experience playing to French audiences. In France, things are more about le métier and the work. There is a deeper sense of process and artists command a lot of respect in French culture, outside of just being successful or not.” 

Way of life

He also appreciates the French way of life: “People stick together, spend time together and make time for each other. Work is not always the main priority, sometimes it is enjoying things, and I really appreciate that.” 

He moved to France so his wife could be closer to her family. “Her grandmother has since passed away and her grandfather is 97, but she is extremely close to both him and her mum, so she had to stay in France to take care of them. I had already lost my grandparents so it was a good time to consider moving.” 

The pair met at Beaufort music festival in the US in 2003, when he was touring. They were friends for around 10 years before she asked him to work on an album with her and they have been a couple ever since. 

Pays Basque

They settled on the Pays Basque for their home after Dessner visited the area to work with the Labèque sisters, Katia and Marielle, an internationally acclaimed piano duo, in their studio there. 

He met the sisters at a concert they shared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and subsequently composed a double piano concerto for them, which has become one of his most performed pieces of music. 

“I have travelled a lot and the Pays Basque is really one of the most beautiful places I have ever been,” he said. “Really old nature, old forests, the temperate climate, the ocean and the beaches – it is just exceptionally beautiful and very green, and has wonderful people – and the Basque culture is incredibly interesting.” 

Dessner and his family originally planned to spend only summers there, but after the pandemic they made a permanent move.

Language and culture

He has found the experience of learning about the Basque culture and language, alongside his son, fascinating. “The Basque history is quite important to us, just out of respect for the place we are living in,” he said. 

Although he considers himself a francophile, Dessner does not think of himself as ‘French’ and has only a carte de séjour, despite being eligible for a French passport.

“In some ways, I can be more ‘French’ than a French person, but my roots are American. My parents, my brother and my band are all in the US.

“I think it would be dishonest to say that I am fully French, not that I would not love to be,” he said. 

Returning to the US can sometimes feel difficult, he added, citing the excessive air-conditioning and giant SUVs, as well as “a striking income gap”. “Some of those things can be a bit jarring but I am going straight to New York City from the countryside, which makes it a big change.”

Long-term plans

Although they have not ruled out a temporary move to New York or London at some point to help their son learn English, the couple’s long-term future is in France. 

“We have no plans to move but I do not know if we are done with Paris,” Dessner said. “It is the most beautiful city in the world – so dynamic and diverse, with wonderful food.”

In addition to playing with The National, Dessner is increasingly known for his independent work as a composer and will release an album of instrumental pieces he has written for various musicians this summer.

He is also the founder of several music festivals and an independent record label. Of the variety of his work, he said: “It’s just a balancing act, sometimes it is easy and sometimes it gets a bit tense. To me, it is all music I really care about, and I love having this diverse experience.” 

In the Pays Basque, he has written three major concertos, as well as some big orchestral pieces.

A foray into film scores recently included his first French movie, L’Abbé Pierre – Une vie de combats, about the founder of the Emmaus movement.

Read more: One of France’s main music festivals at risk of closure

Who is Bryce Dessner?

Bryce Dessner grew up in Ohio and West Virginia, where he had a classical music education before going on to study at Yale and in Paris. 

As well as being a member of The National, he has composed music for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, Edinburgh International Festival and New York City Ballet, among many others. 

He has also worked on the scores of films such as The Revenant, The Two Popes and She Came to Me. 

In The National, Bryce writes the music with his twin Aaron, before lead singer Matt Berninger adds lyrics. 

“What is great about Matt is that he does not do the expected. He does not have a huge vocal range but his lyrics and turn of phrase are always surprising, and I think that is why we have been successful,” Dessner said.

“We have played at every imaginable venue in England and France pretty much. We still enjoy it. It’s always wonderful to be with the audience.”