How Japanese Breakfast Crafted The Sounds Of The New Game 'Sable'

Sep 24, 2021
Originally published on September 24, 2021 3:55 pm

"I grew up playing video games, since I was probably five years old," says Michelle Zauner, better known as the brilliant songwriter behind Japanese Breakfast. She and her dad would play Super Nintendo together: "The two of us really loved this RPG [role-playing game] called Secrets of Mana. After school, at night in the den, we would play ... I think that was the first time I realized that games could be a real art form."

That love of games and the artistic talent she's now famous for came together in Zauner's latest project: composing the soundtrack for a new, open-world role-playing video game called Sable. Today on All Things Considered, Zauner explains her long history with games, the thematic inspirations behind her choices for the soundtrack (including some indirect help from Yo La Tengo) and how her work on it led to her writing "maybe the most beautiful song" she's ever put pen to paper on.

Listen to the full story in the audio player above, and hear a piece from Zauner's soundtrack below.

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Michelle Zauner, better known as the musician Japanese Breakfast, has been busy. Just this year, she's released a new studio album and published her memoir. But she's not done. Today a new video game called "Sable" launches on multiple platforms. The game follows a young girl as she leaves her village and explores the sand dunes and ruins of her planet. Zauner wrote and performed the music for Sable, a process that began in 2017.

MICHELLE 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.

FADEL: But Zauner says her inspiration for the soundtrack goes back even further.

ZAUNER: I grew up playing video games since I was probably 5 years old. My dad bought me a Super Nintendo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZAUNER: The two of us really loved this RPG called "Secret Of Mana."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZAUNER: After school, at night in the den, my dad and I would play this game. And it was, like, a real journey that you can go on together. And I think that was the first time that I realized that games could be a real art form.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZAUNER: There's a kind of seriousness to that music. That was definitely something I really wanted to try and replicate the feeling of with the "Sable" soundtrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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. The creative design was 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZAUNER: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLIDER")

JAPANESE BREAKFAST: (Singing) Come in to me, show us the way. I'm caught between the wind and parts of the unknown.

ZAUNER: 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 that the world is much larger than you thought.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAPANESE BREAKFAST SONG, "GLIDER")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAPANESE BREAKFAST SONG, "EXPLORATION (SHIPS)")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAPANESE BREAKFAST SONG, "EXPLORATION (RUINS)")

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ICHIKO AOBA'S "FUWARIN")

ZAUNER: That sounds so homey to me, so I knew I wanted all of the villages and the camps to have this nylon-string guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "GREEN ARROW")

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

(SOUNDBITE OF JAPANESE BREAKFAST SONG, "REDSEE (DAY)")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAPANESE BREAKFAST SONG, "BETTER THE MASK")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAPANESE BREAKFAST SONG, "BETTER THE MASK")

ZAUNER: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER THE MASK")

JAPANESE BREAKFAST: (Singing) But if you're bold and trying to find...

FADEL: That was musician Michelle Zauner performing as Japanese Breakfast, who created the soundtrack for the new video game "Sable." She told her story to NPR's Vincent Acovino.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER THE MASK")

JAPANESE BREAKFAST: (Singing) You play a part. And if in time you found that... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.