Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner on Her Soundtrack for Sable, Indie Games, and Yoko ShimomuraPhoto by Tonje Thilesen Games Features Japanese Breakfast
It’s no secret that Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast is one of our favorite songwriters here at Paste, and she’s had a busy year keeping us fed with a variety of projects, from her gut-wrenching debut book Crying in H Mart to her acclaimed opus Jubilee. Her latest project, the soundtrack for the much anticipated Moebius-inspired exploration game Sable, has been a long time in the making, and it strays even farther from expectations than her other work that’s come out this year. Zauner has been connected to the project since 2018. We’ve been treated to a few glimpses of the game’s aural universe thanks to Zauner’s performance of the game’s theme, “Glider,” back at the Summer Game Fest this year, showcasing the glistening New Age-inspired sounds prevalent across the score, which includes inflections of dark ambience, synth-pop, and children’s movies.
We sat down for a conversation with Zauner on her inspiration behind the soundtrack and what it was like collaborating with the developers at Shedworks on the emotional and expressive world of Sable.
Paste: After listening to the soundtrack front to back, I’m interested in the inspiration behind it. It’s still pretty novel to see indie artists do a soundtrack for a videogame. It’s fascinating to see those two worlds converge, and I think listening to it, you infer a lot of influences from other games. Were there any other videogame soundtracks you were listening to when you were writing the soundtrack, or albums beyond that?
Michelle Zauner: I was definitely inspired by Breath of the Wild, just because it’s an open world game. It felt really important to create these sprawling pieces that have a lot of space and silence. I grew up playing a lot of the Final Fantasy games, particularly the Final Fantasy IX soundtrack was a big inspiration. I also love the Chrono Cross soundtrack. I think that, similarly to Breath of the Wild, I wanted to create day and night variations on the same theme. That was a fun thing to get to do. Chrono Cross has these world variations to the same theme, so I looked to that for a lot of inspiration too.
Paste: When I was playing the demo, I felt the influence of Breath of the Wild in the way the music fades from the foreground to the background. It’s never really too loud. Sometimes it’s just ambient noise. But when you really listen to it, you notice how intricate the compositions are.
MZ: Thank you.
Paste: What track was your favorite to work on? Were any of them difficult?
MZ: I really love what I came up with for the two main themes, “Glider” and “Better the Mask.” It was such a different experience for me because my work as Japanese Breakfast is so rooted in hyper-specific personal detail, unpacking my life and my emotions. It was fun to write themes that were not about me, but were about these broad themes that anyone could relate to and still make them compelling. I was listening to a lot of themes of Studio Ghibli movies and even Alan Menken’s work with Disney and paid attention to how you create these meaningful themes that speak to this universal theme of coming of age.
I had a difficult time with [scoring] the Badlands. I had a real image of what I wanted but I don’t really write in this country-western style. [laughs]
Paste: The game has several different biomes you travel through. Diversifying those sounds and communicating the differences while remaining consistent as a soundtrack must have been challenging.
MZ: Yeah, but it was also really fun! More so than my work with Japanese Breakfast, I got to play around with instrumentation. The dunes incorporated nylon strings and classical guitar, certain other areas had more of a focus on woodwinds, atomic spacey areas had more industrial tones, the monumental areas had more vocal pads, flutes, stuff like that. [laughs] I loved seeing these areas and think about instrumentation.
Paste: I’m sure it’s interesting to sit and think “what does snow sound like?”
MZ: [laughs] Totally.
Paste: What was performing “Glider” at Summer Game Fest like?
MZ: I was nervous about it, I don’t typically perform without a band as just a singer. I was definitely reluctant to do that for some time, it’s really important for me for people to know that I’m not just a singer, I don’t identify as a singer. I do it out of necessity as being a composer. [laughs] I was hesitant to perform that way because I wanted players to know I composed the entire soundtrack and I wasn’t just some random singer. But I really loved the way it turned out, Geoff Keighley and his team were such fantastic people to work with. It was fantastic to do something on that scale.
Paste: Speaking of the project itself, I know you’ve been attached to Sable since 2018. That’s not too long after your second album dropped. I assume you must have been writing the soundtrack around the same time as Jubilee. What was it like to balance those two moods?
MZ: I’ve been working on the soundtrack for a long time. It was really just different pockets of time that I would tinker away at this huge mass of music. I think, though, they technically fed into each other. I spent a lot of time in lockdown finishing the soundtrack, which is when the real magic started to happen for me actually. I put in a lot of time practicing piano during lockdown. I wish I was a better piano player because of it. [laughs] I went from being a terrible piano player to being capable of playing a few notes.
I composed a lot more on piano for both Jubilee and the soundtrack. That lent a lot to both projects. I was also using a lot of the same plug-ins. I learned so much about production through the soundtrack that I was able to apply and repurpose for Jubilee. I used Albion ONE Spitfire to compose string and horns, and learning how to do that for the soundtrack helped me arrange that sort of thing for Jubilee.
Paste: For that reason, would you say the soundtrack and Jubilee are companions?
MZ: I definitely don’t think they’re related or companions at all. [laughs] I think they helped me with design, but they’re very different projects. I was just happy to be a creative cog [on Sable] in a way that I’ve never been in my own work. I’ve always been the creative director. I was really excited to have this new role where I contributed to someone else’s vision for the first time. That was really inspiring to me, to see [Gregorios Kythreotis and Daniel Fineberg] put their trust in me for their vision.
Paste: Did you have a lot of direction for the soundtrack, or was it more collaborative?
MZ: They put a lot of trust in me. It was mostly me asking, “What do you want? Do you have any particular inspirations?” They would send me their insight into the world and biomes that maybe wasn’t clear from the surface level. If I pushed them, they’d send me some reference tracks of things they liked. I remember they sent me the Nine Inch Nails Ghosts EP as an idea for the Hakoa section, which is this black desert, mine area. That really sparse, dark, almost crystalline piano [was an inspiration]. I think Daniel and I both really like Yo La Tengo, a lot of their instrumental tracks were really inspiring for me. I always joke that I’m waiting for Yo La Tengo’s shaker sample library. There’s a lot of shaker on this soundtrack so I was constantly listening to them as reference for how they incorporate shakers. [laughs]
Other than that they were really hands-off. I was lucky they were really into everything I delivered.
Paste: I can hear a lot of the twinkling sounds of Yo La Tengo in the soundtrack, but also this theme of warmth and coldness that reminds me of them.
MZ: Thank you.
Paste: Back in 2017, you developed your own game called Japanese Breakquest. That game is definitely reminiscent of Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star, all those kinds of games. You mentioned the soundtrack was inspired by games you played when you were younger, but what’s your gaming history now? Do you consider yourself a gamer? What made you want to compose for games?
MZ I think I didn’t realize until recently how [gaming] impacted my musical upbringing. My parents didn’t listen much music growing up, so a lot of my formative music experiences came from anime and videogames if I really think about it. The first game I ever played was Secret of Mana, it’s an RPG that [allows for] two players which was so rare. I’d play it with my dad, it was a nice bonding experience to go on this journey with your parent and get into the characters, the art, the music, and feel this sense of accomplishment when you finish it. I was maybe 5 years old when I started playing it, and my dad is maybe not the best gamer. [laughs] So we spent a long time playing that game, maybe an hour here and there, so when we finished it it was very moving.
I grew up playing NES games like that, and when I was a teenager I got into the Final Fantasy series and got a PlayStation. I’ve always enjoyed videogames, and I still really enjoy them, though I don’t play them as much as I want to. [laughs] I think this project let me get more of a peek into the indie [gaming] world. Greg would recommend me indies like A Short Hike and Spiritfarer, both of which I really liked. My guilty pleasure, though, is replaying Switch remasters of games I liked as a kid and also playing simulation games. They’re not, like, cool games but I really enjoy them. [laughs]
Paste: Have you played the Legend of Mana remaster that came out recently?
MZ: Yes! I’m playing it right now! I really loved the art of that game when I was younger, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand the music instrument construction, or that you could make robots and things like that. There’s all these things that I didn’t realize you could do in that game when I was younger and stupid. [laughs] The soundtrack is really amazing, there’s such a great history of Asian women composing iconic videogame scores. [Legend of Mana composer] Yoko Shimomura did the Parasite Eve and Kingdom Hearts soundtrack, those are all games I really love and it’s so cool to see an Asian woman helm the compositions for huge games.
Paste: Shimomura is maybe who I consider the best videogame composer. I think a lot of people would agree with that. Her music is both imaginative and emotional, and the games you listed as some of your favorites have both of those elements.
Paste: At the same time with videogame music, it’s playing so often. There’s rarely a time when it’s not playing. It has to be listenable at all times, so it can’t be intrusive or distracting. Do you think that was something you had to consider when composing the soundtrack for Sable?
MZ: Absolutely. It was such a foreign thing for me. If I look back at the commentary Greg and Daniel gave me, the majority of the feedback was “MORE ambience! Can we have more ambience?” It was counterintuitive to me, someone who basically writes pop songs, to write songs that are in the background and not cloying for attention the way pop songs do. Undoing that and approaching the songs in a different way was a unique experience for me. Especially because it’s an open world game, it’s a different style than a platformer. We knew early on that, similar to Breath of the Wild, we would have to work with the sound designer Martin Cavalli to figure out how to incorporate silence. All of us love that aspect of Breath of the Wild, so we understood how important it was to be smart about that. As a composer, the more silence we incorporated the happier the players would be when the music comes back in. I never wanted the music to be irritating.
Paste: What’s the main takeaway you want players to have from the game and your soundtrack?
MZ: I just hope they enjoy it. It’s a very different contribution from me as an artist, so I want fans to see a different side of me as a composer. I’m so excited for it to finally come out, it’s been such a long time in the making. [laughs] We all worked really hard on this beautiful game.
Paste: Do you think the length of production made the soundtrack morph? Especially given you began working on it before COVID.
MZ: Yeah, if I’m going to give this pandemic anything, I got to work on making this what I feel is a very special soundtrack. It’s a rich world sonically, visually, and narratively. I did benefit from having so much time, I composed over two hours of music, more than what’s even on the soundtrack. It’s marinated over time, certainly.
Paste: Will those unreleased tracks ever see the light of day?
MZ: Yeah, maybe! Eventually, I’m not entirely sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if those were posted as bonus tracks later on for home. There’s definitely a lot of biomes that didn’t make it onto the soundtrack for time. There’s some funny things in the game that aren’t on the soundtrack. [laughs]
Sable is out on PC and Xbox today, Sept. 24, via Raw Fury. Michelle Zauner’s soundtrack also released today via Sony Music.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire