In her own words, Michelle Zauner, aka indie-pop artist Japanese Breakfast, didn’t grow up in a household of high culture. She wasn’t shown fine art, foreign directors, or classic literature by her parents in Oregon during the 1990s. What Zauner had was video games, first on a Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and then on a PlayStation. She remembers playing a cooperative JRPG, 1993’s Secret of Mana, at age 5 with her father. Because she was so young, not quite in command of her hands, it took literally years to complete. “When we finished that game, it felt like we had really gone through something together,” she says over the phone from San Francisco, the afternoon before a Japanese Breakfast show. “It was a real journey.”
While composing the soundtrack to open-world adventure Sable, Zauner frequently returned to Hiroki Kikuta’s Secret of Mana soundtrack. “The main menu music is so special,” she continues. “I thought a lot about that game, how its brief introductory animation and music made me feel—and I just really wanted to provide that for Sable.”
That Zauner should mine her own childhood for inspiration makes perfect sense. Sable is a coming-of-age story set in a vast, mythical desert filled with ruinous spaceships, crumbling monuments, and ancient temples. Its titular character, the young Sable, is about to undergo the Gliding, a rite of passage on her way to adulthood. She is small and courageous but the world is big and scary. Zauner’s soundtrack of wistful pop tracks, gorgeous ambient numbers, and goofy character-driven ditties deftly convey this interior and exterior journey.
Zauner joined the project in 2017 after a Twitter DM from Daniel Fineberg, the game’s technical director. He was aware of Zauner’s affection for video games because promotion for her second album, Machinist, involved a 30-minute SNES-inspired RPG called Japanese BreakQuest. Fineberg and creative director Gregorios Kytheotis also wanted an artist who sat outside the established pool of video game composers, someone who knew video games but could mold existing tropes and conventions into something new. Zauner had seen the game’s early GIFs on Twitter, one depicting a hoverbike gliding silently through lilac-colored dunes. “The art was so striking,” she recalls. “I felt like our taste was aligned from the beginning.”
With only a rough sense of the game’s vibe based on these images, plus a handful of area descriptions in a Google Doc, Zauner immediately set to work. At first, she composed in the back of her tour van on a laptop and OP-1 synthesizer. Then in 2018 and 2019, longer recorded video clips started arriving, helping clarify whether she was on the right track. A year later, playable builds of the game were sent, which is when the real work started. The bulk of the soundtrack was recorded during lockdown at her studio in Adirondacks, upstate New York, but “Cartographer’s Theme,” a jaunty number that recalls the quirky character themes of Zelda games, was cut on a week-long retreat in a cabin belonging to sound designer Martin Kvale’s parents. “That was the one thing I managed to get done there,” laughs Zauner.
She describes the compositional process as a “real learning experience.” While her songs for Japanese Breakfast are rooted in standard pop structures, Sable meant Zauner had to compose mood-setting instrumental pieces. In order to maintain a seamless atmosphere, these tracks needed to be written in such a way that they could be repeated ad infinitum to accommodate how long a player might spend in any one area. This wasn't how Zauner originally wrote them, so she had to go back and tweak the MIDI files in order to make them into “perfect ambient loops.” The composer credits sound designer Kvale with helping her achieve this, but also for making them feel part of the game’s rocks and ruinous architecture.
Zauner says: “If you go into a building, there’s a high pass filter, or if you go into a cave, reverb is added. That’s what Martin is responsible for. He’s iterating all of the music so the world just feels really immersive. Hearing him do that was such a unique experience.”
The soundtrack feels embedded into the landscape, and not just because of Kvale’s sound design. Zauner conceived of instrumentation as representing different directional points. “Beetle’s Nest” repeats across various critter-infested locations, but if you’re near Hakoa, the theme begins to incorporate what Zauner calls “creepy, crystallized piano sounds'' of that region. “I tried to think of creative ways to indicate where you were in the world,” she says, “and then learning how to repeat themes and create feelings based on that.”
As a whole, the score is gently reminiscent of Japanese environmental music from the 1980s and ’90s, beatless synthesizer music that was often intended to be heard in specific physical locations. The “Sable Inspo” playlist Zauner compiled is filled with prominent practitioners of the style including Haruomi Hosono. The clanging bells and metallic chimes of his track, “Mercuric Dance,” echo into “Exploration (Ships),” a song the player hears in Midden’s grand, atomic ruins. But the music is emotional as well as functional. Zauner mentions Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship” and Yo La Tengo’s “Green Arrow,” the first instrumentals that moved her as much as songs with lyrics. On “Sansee (Day),” you can hear this big-hearted approach to ambient composition; it fills the negative space between Sable’s undulating dunes and towering rock formations.
Despite Zauner flexing newfound musical muscles on the instrumental works, it’s the vocal track “Better the Mask” that she’s especially fond of—a somber counterpoint to “Glider” that reiterates the game’s key themes. “I really hope that song gets its due,” says Zauner. “I’ve certainly been a young girl that had to come of age, but I was also thinking a lot about my good friends who have struggled to come of age, even in their thirties, and so much of my advice to them has been to just try it. Something happens every day, no matter if you pause, no matter if you wait. You just have to move forward, and I think that’s what so much of the game is about.”
In a way, “Better the Mask” also represents a transition, albeit of the musical kind for Zauner; it was the first time she composed for piano with strings. “You know, I never went to music school, and it’s always seen as this very proper, serious thing to compose a string arrangement,” she says. “That always felt outside of my reach, and this was the first time I really felt confident enough to have a go as an arranger and composer.”
This might be because Sable is a rare project for Zauner, one where she isn’t the focus of attention. With Japanese Breakfast and her best-selling memoir Crying In H Mart, Zauner excavated her personal life for public consumption, writing in candid style about nearly every aspect of her existence including, most poignantly, the passing of her mother. On “Paprika,” she reckoned with the intensity of creating such art. “I opened the floodgates,” sang Zauner. “And found no water, no current, no river, no rush.” Has composing the soundtrack to Sable been a liberating experience, unburdened from the expectations that usually accompany her work?
“Yes. And honestly, doing interviews like this are so freeing because, for the first time, I feel like I can be approached on the technical side of composition in a way that I don’t get to talk about very often, even though it’s a huge part of my work,” says Zauner. “For the past six years, I’ve talked about my mom’s death, and how so much of my music is about grief and loss. This is the first project I’ve worked on that has nothing to do with me or my personal life at all. I’m just this creative cog in a larger machine.”