Music

Japanese Breakfast Thinks This Is the Best Song She’s Ever Written

Michelle Zauner on pivoting from indie rock frontwoman to video game composer.

Michelle Zauner sings into a microphone. In the background is an image from the Sable video game.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sable and FilmMagic/FilmMagic for Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival.

You probably know Michelle Zauner best as the frontwoman of the band Japanese Breakfast, or perhaps as the author of her recent bestselling memoir Crying in H Mart. But the multihyphenate has yet another role to add to her résumé: video game composer. First announced in 2017, Sable is a sprawling adventure game about the titular young hero venturing across a desert planet to return to her family of nomads. Zauner provides the musical backbone to Sable’s journey, crafting a set of themes big and small to deepen the game’s world. Coming from the world of indie rock, though, posed an interesting set of challenges for the artist—but ones that a life of playing fantasy role-playing video games like this one prepared her for.

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I talked to Zauner about what she learned from working on Sable, about her new favorite song that she’s ever written, and about a surprising inspiration for the soundtrack: the best Studio Ghibli movie of all time. (Fight me on this one, if you dare.) The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Allegra Frank: What really surprised you about this process of composing music for a game?

Michelle Zauner: This is the first project I think I’ve ever worked on successfully as a creative cog in a larger machine, and it was just really nice to get to work with someone I really trusted as a creative director and work as a collaborator to help uplift a project that was not my vision but a vision I really believed in. I got a lot of trust from Gregorios Kythreotis and Dan Fineberg, the developers, and really enjoyed the whole experience. It was also really eye-opening to see how long of a process it is. And I’m just in complete wonder that people are able to work on something like this for such a long time.

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As someone who has composed music for so long, was there anything where you were like, “I’ve never had to do something like this before”?

There were two major things. The first one is, I don’t typically write really ambient sprawling instrumental loops. A lot of these had to be these perfect loops, and that was a little bit of a struggle for me, especially as someone who’s really rooted in pop writing, because you’re constantly chasing earworms and trying to get a hook in within the first 15 seconds. But because it’s an open world, you don’t know exactly what the player is going to be doing at any given time. It was also really fun to just get to play the builds every week and come up with what I felt like I could contribute to uplift a moment that wasn’t necessarily assigned to me. They had a few ideas of what should have music and suggestions, but there were also a lot of times where I got to play and was like, “Oh, this seems like something that could feel like a bigger moment if it had a musical theme.”

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The other thing was writing lyrics was very different, because so much of my music and Japanese Breakfast is very, very personal and rooted in these hyperspecific details. And when I was writing “Glider” [the game’s main theme], the game was still in very early stages, and that was the trailer announced in 2018 and the narrative wasn’t entirely shored up yet. And so I had to be very impressionistic with the lyrics and focus on these broader universal themes that could be interpreted in many different ways. And it was really exciting to see that I didn’t have to excavate my own personal trauma in order to write something that felt moving.

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You’ve definitely had, I would say, a huge year. You had a book, you had an album, and now you have this game. Do you feel like you’ve had to tweak the way you think about things for each of those? Or is it easy to jump between the hyperpersonal and the less-personal for these interviews?

I think it just makes it more interesting. For the last six months, I’ve been talking about watching my mom die. It’s really nice to not talk about that anymore and talk about video game composers I like, or video games I’m playing. I’m kind of an empty nester right now. I feel like I’m letting go of three of these children that I’ve spent four years with. I’m ready to figure out what’s next.

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As you mentioned, people are asking you what games you’re playing. Were there any games that you were playing at the time or just in general that really inspired you while working on Sable?

I think that [The Legend of Zelda:] Breath of the Wild for all of us was a major reference point. It was the first new game that I felt totally enveloped by in this very special way that I haven’t felt in a long time. … I think also just because it’s an open-world game, and we knew very early on that we wanted to integrate a lot of silence in the same way, and wonder.

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I was also really inspired by the Chrono Cross soundtrack, which I love, especially because they have other world versions of the same theme and I used those variations to inspire the score. I really knew that I wanted daytime and nighttime variations of themes, and I wanted all of the camps to have little instrumental differences. So you knew directionally where you were on the map. I don’t know if anyone will pick up on that, but that was a very intentional thing on my part.

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This being your first game project—outside of Japanese BreakQuest, the short browser game that you worked on all those years ago now based off your album Soft Sounds From Another Planet—what was it about Sable in the first place that drew you to it? How did you decide that this was definitely the project you wanted your first game score to be?

I was approached in late 2017, back when there was only GIFs of the art style, and I was just so blown away by it. I just knew that I wanted to be a part of it. My manager was like, “This is a huge time commitment, and I don’t know if you’re going to have time to do this.” And I just knew that I had to be a part of it because I thought it was so beautiful, and meeting Daniel and Greg and understanding their work ethic and vision, I just trusted them.

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They were very keen on it being an exploration game, and I think Greg’s background in architecture is really interesting and his focus on just creating a world to explore and take in that has no combat, and it being a young girl coming of age. I think that, for me, that’s always the most interesting story, is a young person coming of age.

Also, I mean, we are all big Studio Ghibli fans, and they obviously have their main reference point in that world as [Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind]—this desert planet, and there being these large insects and stuff. But for me, it really made me think of Kiki’s Delivery Service. I couldn’t get that narrative out of my head because it’s this young girl going on a glider and meeting different people and deciding what clan she wants to join and who she wants to be when she grows up, essentially. And I feel like that’s what Kiki’s Delivery Service is about. It’s a young witch who goes to another town, and she meets all these people and decides what her trade and craft is going to be.

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I’ve definitely not heard or seen any other comparisons to Kiki’s Delivery Service for this, but I love to hear it—that’s my favorite Studio Ghibli movie. Kiki’s is considered to be a much “cuter” movie than something like Nausicaä, but it also is a heartbreaking story. I cry every time we see Kiki fall right onto her bed, when she’s like, “I am having the worst night.”

I literally was going to reference that scene, because I feel like any young woman can relate to just life beating the shit out of you and not being ready for it, and I just love that element of a coming-of-age story where it’s a young person that’s sort of on the precipice of adulthood and something outside of their control kind of pushes them in before they’re ready. And I feel like that’s very much this story, and I’ve related to Kiki so much as a young adult just finding out how much a frying pan costs—just how exhausting adulthood is.

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I often think about how Shigeru Miyamoto from Nintendo got really into gardening and that’s why he created Pikmin. Was there anything like that that you also found a lot of inspiration from in your life, outside of other video games?

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I had built a new studio upstate in the Adirondacks and was staying there a lot and spent most of my time writing in there. I think it was probably October 2020 to March 2021, and it was just so fucking cold there, and so much of my life was just being surrounded with space heaters and building fires, keeping the fire going inside. [I was inspired by] that kind of carnal, primal living, and composing these songs in those conditions.

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We also had a retreat in Norway for a couple of weeks in 2018 or 2019, and then I also happened to go to Sweden for a couple of days. And around that time, I listened to this Ichiko Aoba record, who’s this really beautiful, Japanese musician who does a lot of quiet, acoustic, nylon-string ballads. And I remember just walking around Stockholm alone, listening to that album, and being so impacted by it. I think that made me really want to write a lot more on classical guitar for certain areas.

Were you working on this and the new album, Jubilee, concurrently?

It’s been four years. There were more concentrated months when I first got on. I was so excited to write a bunch of music and this was before the game was even really a thing. It was largely just a Word doc and GIFs and the Unity [game development] program I could not see. I was just so excited to write music based on just the descriptions that I wrote a batch of songs in 2017. I think I was just so impatient to get started. I just had a wealth of music by the time we were done with it. And then 2018, 2019, I’d start getting, like, videos and I would start scoring to those.

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And then it wasn’t until 2020 that I started actually getting builds and getting to play the game and realizing what fit and what didn’t fit. And then I kind of put it on pause when I started working on Jubilee in probably November, December 2019. But I will say that I learned so much about production and composition with this project. This is the first album of this quality that I’ve produced and arranged in its entirety by myself. And I was able to bring a lot of what I learned from [Sable] into Jubilee. I never had arranged strings or horns before this project, so getting the confidence of just learning how to do that through this soundtrack, I was able to bring some of that into Jubilee.

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For Sable, you created a song called “Glider,” which serves as the theme song. Did you get to create any other vocal tracks?

The main menu has vocals and lyrics, and then there is an ending theme called “Better the Mask.” That is honestly, I think, my favorite song I’ve ever written as an artist. And I hope that song gets as much affection as “Glider” has because I’m really, really proud of that song.

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Have you gotten to play the full game already?

I need to get my Twitch shit together. I really would love to stream the game at some point when I’m off tour, because I have played the game for hundreds of hours, front to back, in varying stages of development, but not in its entirely polished, finished state.

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