Japanese Breakfast on composing Sable’s sprawling ambient soundtrack

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

forward Sable’s launching on Thursday and the release of the official soundtrack on Friday, I had the chance to talk to Zauner about composing the music for the game. It has a very different sound than 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 from. There was a lot to talk about, including glow worms, pop music, a massive Spotify playlist and the chrono cross soundtrack.

Read on for the full conversation, slightly edited for clarity.

The edge: How did you get involved in the project?

Michelle Zauner: I believe Daniel Fineberg, one of the developers, contacted me in 2017 via Twitter in a DM. I had just released my second album, “Soft Sounds From Another Planet”, and to promote it, me and this woman named Elaine Fath were developing a mini-RPG game called Japanese BreakQuest that had mini versions of all of the album’s songs.

Daniel and Greg [Kythreotis], the developers of saber, were eager to collaborate with a composer who was outside the game world and could bring something new to the world they were building. I think Daniel was a fan of Japanese Breakfast, and seeing that I was interested in and enjoying games, I thought I would be a good fit. I had only seen the GIFs of the art at the time because that was all there really was. And I loved it and just knew I wanted to join right away.

What was the process to actually work on? saber? I’m curious how you worked with the developers.

I don’t know if it’s normal or not, but I think 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, so I got into music very early on before I’d even seen much of the game. At the time, there was only a large Word document of what they were trying to do and what the different biomes would look like.

On tour I wrote a lot with plug-ins on the computer, [thinking about] what a glowworm cave would look like, based on a description. And then, in 2019, more of the game and more of the story came together. I saw some kind of videos of the different areas and realized if the music I had composed before fit better into different sections, so I just kept writing.

In 2020, I’d say I’ve spent most of my lockdown playing the game’s updated builds. Then the real concentrated work began; play the updated builds every week and find out where to put music in ways that can elevate certain sections, where to put the songs and how to integrate the music with the sound designer, Martin Wallace.

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

Yes, I think so. I wrote “Glider” quite early in the process before the story was really supported. I had maybe 10 keywords from what I knew [the developers] before I was working recording lyrics.

We all knew very early on that we would have a key moment in the game where you leave the main area and there is a theme playing. When you leave your village, [the developers] were inspired by the Jose Gonzalez composition in Red Dead Redemption; there’s a long moment where you get a song with vocals in it that paints the vibe and feeling of what it’s like to leave your hometown.

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

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

What was composing like before? saber other than for Japanese breakfast or writing your own music?

Super different in two key ways. One is that Japanese Breakfast is essentially a pop project. There’s a real structure to pop music with repetitive choruses, and you’re constantly trying to create an earwig and get a hook as fast as you can. While in these ambient instrumental pieces [in Sable] in which you traverse an open world, you really need them to not get raspy. The expansive ambient loops are a whole new type of writing that I had to explore.

textually, [Sable] was very different. So much of my work in Japanese breakfast is very personal and rooted in specific details of my life, while saber has nothing to do with me. I had to write lyrics that were very broad and universal and touched on what it’s like to grow up or be insecure about your future. It was really nice to learn that I don’t have to dig up my own personal trauma to write compelling music; I can write these themes that can apply to anyone and they can move in a unique way.

Do you think you’ll use some of what you’ve learned? saber to your next album?

Yes definitely. I think “Better the Mask” [which you can hear part of in this trailer] possibly the best song I’ve ever written. I am most proud of my work on that song. I have become much more proficient in 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’ll definitely be applying a lot of those lessons to Japanese breakfast.

I saw you had a great Spotify playlist with about 150 inspirational songs [note: it actually has 173 songs]. How did that come about and how did you use it while you were writing stuff?

I was quite new to ambient music and I really fell in love with it while working on this project. I started collecting a Spotify playlist to make sure Greg and Daniel and Martin and I were talking about what the atmosphere would be like and that nothing would be off-putting to them and because I ended up feeling like I was contributing to their world.

I have not been the creative director of the project. I am only a contributor. I think [the playlist] was a really great way to share my inspiration and talk to Greg and Daniel about what kind of music they were inspired by and what they were thinking about when creating these different spaces. [The playlist] was really fun to throw 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 called this game Secret of Mana for SNES. It’s an RPG game that I played with my father. I like the soundtrack of that game.

The Breath of the Wild soundtrack was very important. I really like the chrono cross soundtrack, and especially the variations of themes they have for an other world. I thought a lot about that when I worked on the day and night variations for the different biomes [in Sable]. And I love all Final Fantasy games, which have such incredible soundtracks.

I know Greg referred Majora’s mask a lot because there’s a terrifying, strange quality that Koji Kondo has that we wanted to bring out for the Mask Caster or certain parts of the game.

Do you think you would work on even more games in the future?

I hope this is a good addition to my resume to show my breadth as a composer. Hopefully in the future there will be another truly enchanting project like this in my life.

What kind of project would be most interesting to you?

I do not know. saber was such a perfect project for me to be a part of. It was a real pleasure and an honor to work with it.

It would be nice to work on some kind of platformer that was less ambient and more annoying 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 territory for me to explore. And it’s very different from saber.