Japanese breakfast on Sable’s sprawling ambient soundtrack composition
This week marks the release of Sable, a beautiful independent title that looks like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild mixed with a comic strip by Jean “Moebius” Giraud. It is not just the art of the game that is striking, however; the whole experience is accompanied by an excellent soundtrack composed by Michelle Zauner, singer of indie rock band Japanese Breakfast.
Ahead of sand launching Thursday and releasing the official soundtrack on Friday, I had the opportunity to talk to Zauner about composing the music for the game. It sounds completely different from what you might be used to in his other work, so I wanted to know what it was like to make music and where she got her inspiration from. There was a lot to talk about, including glowworms, pop music, a huge Spotify playlist, and the Chrono Croix soundtrack.
Read on for the full conversation, which has been edited slightly for clarity.
The edge: How did you get involved in the project?
Michelle Zauner: I believe in 2017 Daniel Fineberg, one of the developers, contacted me on Twitter in DM. I had just released my second album, “Soft Sounds From Another Planet”, and to help promote it, me and this woman named Elaine Fath worked on developing an RPG mini-game called Japanese BreakQuest which contained mini-versions of all the songs on the album.
Daniel and Greg [Kythreotis], the developers of Sable, really wanted to work with a composer who was outside of the gaming world and who could offer some kind of newness to the world they were building. I think Daniel was a Japanese Breakfast fan, and seeing that I was interested in games and enjoyed them, I thought I would be a good fit. I had only seen the art GIFs at that point because that was all that was really there. And I loved it and I knew I wanted to be involved right away.
What was the actual working process on Sable? I’m curious about how you worked with the developers.
I don’t know if this is normal or not, but I think I was brought in very early. I was so excited to be a part of it. I had just finished my second album and was looking for new projects, so I started working on music very early on before I even saw much of the play. At the time, it didn’t. There was just one big Word document on what they were trying out and what the different biomes would look like.
On tour, I wrote a lot with plugins on the computer, [thinking about] what a glowworm cave would look like from one description. And then in 2019, more gaming and more storytelling started to come together. I would see kinds of videos from different areas and realize if the music I had composed earlier suited the different sections better, so I continued to write.
In 2020, I would say I spent the majority of my confinement playing the updated versions of the game. That’s when the real concentrated work started to happen; playing the updated versions every week and figuring out where we could put music so as to elevate certain sections, where to place the songs and how to integrate the music with sound designer, Martin Wallace.
Did the developers change anything based on the music you made?
Yes I think so. I wrote “Glider” early enough in the process before the narrative is really substantiated. I had maybe 10 keywords from what I knew [the developers] was going for what I was working to incorporate lyrics.
We all knew early on that we were going to have a major moment in the game where you leave the main zone and there’s that theme playing. When you leave your village, [the developers] were inspired by the Composition by José Gonzalez in Red Dead Redemption; there’s that long moment where you get a song that has a voice that paints the vibe and the feeling of what it’s like to leave your hometown.
I knew this was going to be a great time and wanted to tackle this issue soon enough. I think some of the lyrical content and some of the structure of this song helped light up part of the game.
I also wrote the ending theme before there was a cutscene at the end, and they were able to cut and edit it. And I think that by coloring some worlds, they were able to listen to the music that I had presented and hopefully be inspired by it in some way or another.
How was the composition for Sable different than for Japanese breakfast or writing your own music?
Super different in two main ways. The first is that Japanese Breakfast is basically like a pop project. There is real structure in pop music with repeated choruses, and you’re constantly trying to create an earworm and get a hook as quickly as possible. While in these ambient instrumental pieces [in Sable] where you walk through an open world, you really need it so you don’t get squeaky. Sprawling ambient loops are a whole new kind of writing that I had to explore.
Lyrically, [Sable] was very different. Much of my work in Japanese Breakfast is very personal and rooted in specific details of my life, while Sable has nothing to do with me. I had to write very broad and universal lyrics and touch on what it’s like to come of age or to be uncertain about your future. It was really fun learning that I didn’t have to dig into my own personal trauma to write compelling music; I can write these themes that can be applied to anyone and they can move in a unique way.
Do you think you will take everything you have learned while working on Sable to your next album?
Yeah, absolutely. I think “Better the mask” [which you can hear part of in this trailer] maybe the best song I’ve ever written. I am very proud of my work on this song. I became much more proficient at arranging strings and piano for the first time. I’ve grown so much as a producer on this project, as the only producer on the project, and I’ll definitely be applying a lot of these lessons for Japanese Breakfast.
Saw you have an amazing Spotify playlist with around 150 inspirational songs [note: it actually has 173 songs]. How did it form and how did you use it while writing things down?
I was pretty new to ambient music and really fell in love with it during my work on this project. I started collecting a Spotify playlist to make sure Greg, Daniel and Martin and I were discussing what the vibe was going to be like and nothing turned them off and because I finally had it. feeling of contributing to their world.
I was not the creative director of the project. I am only a contributor. I think that [the playlist] was a really wonderful way to share my inspiration and talk to Greg and Daniel about the kind of music that inspired them and that they thought of when creating these different spaces. [The playlist] was a really fun thing to throw up and use as a point of reference.
What games were you inspired by, if any?
The first video game I played as a kid that made me realize that video games were a true art form was this game called Secret of Mana for SNES. It’s an RPG game that I played with my dad. I love the soundtrack of this game.
The Breath of the wild the soundtrack was really important. I really like the Chrono Croix soundtrack, and in particular the variations of themes they have for another world. I thought about it a lot while working on the diurnal and nocturnal variations for the different biomes. [in Sable]. And I love all of them Final fantasy games, which have such amazing soundtracks.
I know Greg referred Majora’s Mask a lot because there’s this weird, haunting quality that Koji Kondo has that we wanted to bring out for the Mask Caster or certain areas of the game.
Do you think you will be working on other games in the future?
Hope this is a good addition to my CV to show my stature as a songwriter. I hope that another really fascinating project like this one day comes into my life in the future.
What type of project would you be most interested in?
I do not know. Sable was such a perfect project for me to be a part of. It was a real joy and an honor to get down to work.
It would be fun to work on some kind of platform game that is less ambient and more obnoxious with an in-your-face kind of theme. If I could do more songs like the song “Chum Lair” on the soundtrack, I think that would be a new fun area for me. And it’s very different from Sable.