Writing Music For The Game Sable Was A Unique Challenge For Japanese Breakfast : Consider This from NPR Michelle Zauner is best known as the frontwoman of indie rock band Japanese Breakfast and like most musicians, she's trying to tell a personal story through her music. But she's spent the last couple of years composing music that has nothing to do with her — for a video game soundtrack.

The Best Song Japanese Breakfast Says She's Written Is For A Video Game

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Michelle Zauner started playing video games at a pretty young age.

MICHELLE ZAUNER: I grew up playing video games since I was probably 5 years old. My dad bought me a Super Nintendo. And the two of us really loved this RPG called Secret Of Mana.


ZAUNER: And I feel like that was our major point of bonding.

CHANG: After school, she and her dad would play the game together in the family den.

ZAUNER: I think that was the first time that I realized that games could be a real art form.

CHANG: Zauner is better known as the frontwoman for the indie rock band Japanese Breakfast. And she says that, in some ways, video games were a major part of her exposure to music.

ZAUNER: My parents weren't big music fans. Like, I didn't grow up with that much music in the house, and so I think the music that was very formative for me were these video game soundtracks and anime soundtracks that I grew up listening to as a kid. And I think a lot of that kind of sound made its way into my music in one way or another.


CHANG: Soundtracks from games like Chrono Cross...


CHANG: ...Or Final Fantasy.


CHANG: The type of music Zauner is used to writing has a hook and a chorus. It's music you can sing along to.


JAPANESE BREAKFAST: (Singing) I want to be your man. I want to be your man. I want to be your savage good boy.

CHANG: But over the last few years, she's been working on composing music that's very different from that - for a video game.

ZAUNER: I really loved the idea of pushing myself as a composer and a producer to take on something like this on my own.


CHANG: Sable is the first video game Zauner has composed music for. It follows the young hero traveling across a desert planet to return to her family of nomads.

ZAUNER: It's a young person who's kind of on this precipice of adulthood that's pushed in maybe slightly before they're ready and has to figure it out on the way. The whole point of the game is just kind of figuring out what - where you belong and what you want to do.


CHANG: CONSIDER THIS - most artists are trying to tell a personal story through their music, but for a video game soundtrack, that story, it's about a fictional character's journey.

ZAUNER: It was the first time I was writing a song that had nothing to do with me.

CHANG: Coming up, we'll hear from Zauner about how her work on Sable led to her writing, as she says, maybe the most beautiful song she's ever made. From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Friday, October 1.


CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Over the last year, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast has been busy. She's released a new studio album called "Jubilee."


CHANG: And she's also published her first memoir, titled "Crying In H Mart." It's an exploration of grief, food and identity. Zauner grew up with a white American father and a Korean mother. And when her mother died of cancer in 2014, Zauner would have these moments just standing frozen in the aisles of the Korean grocery store chain H Mart.

ZAUNER: Sobbing near the dry goods, asking myself, am I even Korean anymore if there's no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?

CHANG: After releasing two big projects this year, Zauner released another, the soundtrack she composed for the video game Sable, which just dropped last week. That project took her four years.

ZAUNER: A game takes many years to come together, and you have to walk in step with the developers in a way that putting together an album is something that you kind of do as a self-contained thing.

CHANG: This isn't technically the first video game Zauner has worked on. Japanese Breakquest is a short browser game Zauner worked on based off of the 2017 album "Soft Sounds From Another Planet."


CHANG: After that project, the game developers for Sable reached out to Zauner.

ZAUNER: The developers of Sable wanted to bring on a composer that was separate from the game world, but also wanted someone that had a passion for games.

CHANG: Her challenge was to create a soundtrack that people would never get tired of hearing during hours of gameplay, music that would connect them to the main character's journey.

ZAUNER: It was really important for me to convey a sense of, like, childlike wonder.


ZAUNER: I had to write a song that was very broad and very universal that could be interpreted in many different ways. And so I actually was listening to a lot of, like, Alan Menken's Disney themes and a lot of Studio Ghibli soundtracks to just see, like, how vague you could be in lyrically, like, to convey a feeling.


ZAUNER: So I just wanted to capture the feeling of just being a young girl on her own in the world and this feeling of wonderment and that exciting quality of not knowing what's going to happen and learning how to trust yourself and your intuition.

CHANG: Zauner told a story of how this whole soundtrack came together.

ZAUNER: At the time, there was only a couple of GIFs - animated GIFs of the artwork. And I even - just from seeing those, I was pretty much in right away.


ZAUNER: The creative design is largely inspired by Studio Ghibli and "Mobius" and "Tintin," so the art style is really astounding. Gregorios Kythreotis, who is the creative director, comes from an architecture background, so a lot of the buildings are very intricate and interesting to explore. The basic premise of Sable is that you are a young girl who lives on a desert planet and has this sort of coming-of-age ceremony where you have to go out and explore this world and leave your village that you've grown up in.


ZAUNER: (Singing) Come in to me. Show us the way. I'm caught between the wind and parts of the unknown. A door...

So we knew really early on that we wanted to have this moment where a track with vocals and lyrics came in at this peak moment of the game, which is when you leave your home village and exit what you think to be, you know, a big part of the world and realize what the world is much larger than you thought.


ZAUNER: I knew that I wanted the atomic era where you explore these kind of ancient ships, and it feels like more metallic, to feel very industrial and futuristic.


ZAUNER: And then these sort of monumental spaces that feel a little bit more ancient and organic. I used a lot of voice and vocal pads and woodwinds.


ZAUNER: I was listening to a lot of Ichiko Aoba at the time, she has these really beautiful, quiet classical guitar albums that sound so homey to me.


ZAUNER: So I knew I wanted all of the villages and the camps to have this nylon string guitar.


ZAUNER: I always joke that I think Yo La Tengo has the greatest, like, library of shaker sounds known to man.


ZAUNER: I was really inspired by, like, the chill quality of all of the Yo La Tengo beats.


ZAUNER: "Better The Mask" is one of my favorite songs on the soundtrack and I think is maybe the most beautiful song I've ever written.


ZAUNER: It's a really special song for me because it's the first song that I have composed the string arrangement for in its entirety. I always felt like I had to excavate personal trauma in order to make some music that was compelling. And I think that with songs like "Glider" and especially "Better The Mask," it made me realize that I could compose music that was really moving without having to tap into that.

CHANG: That was musician Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, who created the soundtrack for the new video game Sable. She spoke with NPR's Vincent Acovino.


JAPANESE BREAKFAST: (Singing) You play a part.


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