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Japanese Breakfast on composing Sable’s sprawling ambient soundtrack

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A conversation with Michelle Zauner on making the game’s music

2021 Railbird Festival Photo by Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images

This week marks the release of Sable, a beautiful indie title that looks like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild mixed with a comic from Jean “Moebius” Giraud. It’s not just the game’s art that’s striking, though; the whole experience is accompanied by an excellent original soundtrack composed by Michelle Zauner, the frontwoman for the indie rock band Japanese Breakfast.

Ahead of Sable’s launch on Thursday and the release of the official soundtrack on Friday, I got the opportunity to talk to Zauner about composing the music for the game. It has a completely different sound than what you might be used to from her other work, so I wanted to know what it was like to make the music and where she got her inspiration. There was a lot to talk about, including glow worms, pop music, a humongous Spotify playlist, and the Chrono Cross soundtrack.

Read on for the full conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Verge: How did you get involved with the project?

Michelle Zauner: I believe in 2017, Daniel Fineberg, one of the developers, reached out to me on Twitter in a 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 a mini-RPG game called Japanese BreakQuest that had mini versions of all of the songs from the album.

Daniel and Greg [Kythreotis], the developers of Sable, really wanted to work with a composer that was outside of the gaming world and could offer a kind of something new to the world that they were building. I think Daniel was a fan of Japanese Breakfast, and, seeing that I was interested in games and enjoyed them, thought that I would be a good fit. I had only seen the GIFs of the art at that time because that was all that was really there. And I loved it and just knew I wanted to be involved right away.

What was the process of actually working on Sable? I’m curious about how you collaborated with the developers.

I don’t know if it’s normal or not, but I think that I was brought in very early. I was just so excited to be a part of it. I had just finished my second album and I was on the hunt for new projects, and so I started working on music really early on before I had even seen much of the game. At the time, there was just a large Word doc of what they were trying for and what the different biomes were going to look like.

On tour, I was writing a lot with plugins on the computer, [thinking about] what, like, a glow worm cave would look like, based on a description. And then, in 2019, more of the game and more of the narrative started coming together. I would see sort of videos of the different areas and realize whether or not the music that I had composed earlier fit better in different sections, and so I just continued to write.

In 2020, I would say I spent a majority of my lockdown playing the updated builds of the game. That’s when the real concentrated work started happening; playing the updated builds every week and finding where we could put music in ways that can uplift certain sections, where to place the songs, and how to integrate the music with the sound designer, Martin Kvale.

Did the developers change anything based on the music you created?

Yeah, I do think so. I wrote “Glider” pretty early on in the process before the narrative was really shored up. I had maybe 10 key words of what I knew [the developers] were going for that I was working off of to incorporate lyrics.

We all knew really early on that we were going to have a major moment in the game where you leave the main area and there’s this theme that plays. When you leave your village, [the developers] were inspired by the Jose Gonzalez composition in Red Dead Redemption; there being this long moment where you get a song that has vocals in it that paints the mood and the feeling of what it’s like to leave your hometown.

I knew that that was going to be a big moment, and I wanted to tackle that problem pretty early. I think some of the lyrical content and some of the structure of that song helped inform some of the game.

I also wrote the end theme before there was a cutscene at the end, and they were able to cut and edit to that. And I think that as they were coloring certain worlds, they were able to listen to music I had pitched and hopefully be inspired by that in some way.

How was composing for Sable different than for Japanese Breakfast or writing your own music?

Super different in two major ways. One is that Japanese Breakfast essentially is like a pop project. There’s a real structure in pop music with repeating choruses, and you’re constantly trying to create an earworm and get a hook out as quickly as possible. Whereas in these ambient instrumental pieces [in Sable] in which you’re traversing an open world, you really need them to not become grating. The sprawling ambient loops are a very new type of writing that I had to explore.

Lyrically, [Sable] was very different. So 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 lyrics that were very broad and universal and touch on what it’s like to come of age or be uncertain about your future. It was really fun to learn that I don’t have to excavate my own personal trauma in order to write compelling music; I can write these themes that can apply to anyone and they can be moving in a unique way.

Do you think you’ll take any of what you learned working on Sable to your next album?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that “Better the Mask” [which you can hear part of in this trailer] may be the best song I’ve ever written. I’m most proud of my work on that song. I’ve become a lot more competent at arranging strings and piano for the first time. I’ve grown so much as a producer on this project, as the sole producer on the project, and I definitely will apply a lot of those lessons for Japanese Breakfast.

I saw you had an amazing Spotify playlist with like 150 songs of inspiration [note: it actually has 173 songs]. How did that come together and how did you use it while you were writing things?

I was pretty new to ambient music and I really fell in love with it over the course of working on this project. I started collecting a Spotify playlist to make sure that Greg and Daniel and Martin and I were in conversation of what the vibe was going to be like and that nothing was off-putting to them and because I ultimately felt like I was contributing to their world.

I haven’t been the creative director on the project. I’m just a contributor. I think that [the playlist] was a really wonderful way to share my inspiration and talk to Greg and Daniel about what kind of music they were inspired by and thought of when creating these different spaces. [The playlist] was a really fun thing to toss back and forth and use as a reference point.

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 real art form was this game called Secret of Mana for SNES. It’s an RPG game that I played with my father. I love the soundtrack to that game.

The Breath of the Wild soundtrack was a really important one. I really love the Chrono Cross soundtrack, and particularly the variations of themes they have for another world. I thought about those a lot when working on the day and nighttime variations for the different biomes [in Sable]. And I like all of the Final Fantasy games, which have such incredible soundtracks.

I know that Greg referenced Majora’s Mask a lot because there’s this haunting, strange 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’d work on any more games in the future?

I hope that this is a good resume addition to showcase my breadth as a composer. Hopefully another really mesmerizing project like this will enter my life someday in the future.

What kind of project would be most interesting to you?

I don’t know. Sable was such a perfect project for me to be a part of. It was a real joy and honor to get to work on it.

It would be fun to work on some kind of platformer that was less ambient and more obnoxious with an in-your-face kind of theme. If I could do more songs like the “Chum Lair” song on the soundtrack, I think that would be a fun new area to flex for me. And it’s very different from Sable.

Correction September 25th, 11:41AM ET: Martin Kvale is sound designer on Sable, not Martin Wallace. We regret the error.