Japanese Breakfast on making the music at the heart of ‘Sable’

Michelle Zauner caps off an incredible year of work with Sable’s inimitably soothing, emotive soundtrack

“And if in time you found that you’ve doubled back / learn to rely on a future you made / in which it gets better,” Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast sings in Sable’s moody menu song, Better the Mask. Indeed, travel and discovery are the main pulls of upcoming sci-fi adventure game and visually spectacular — like the greatest prog-rock album cover that never existed come to life — Sable, in which you play as a girl in a village who ventures out on a hoverbike to find her mask — i.e. her role in society — and return.

Zauner tried to broaden her more often more personal lyrics to make their themes more universal. Indeed, Sable is a game that demands to be played with headphones, with its synth-and-guitar heavy tracks laying down the perfect mood to merge your brain onto the game’s level. The sounds explore a broad range of canvasses, changing instrumentation subtly with each of the game’s zones. Consider them hi-fi beats to glide to. “It’s a game about exploration, and figuring out who you are. It’s a coming-of-age story, and when you’re coming-of-age, there’s so much pressure to know exactly what you want to be or what you do,” Zauner says, “It’s okay to not set out on this journey, knowing exactly who you are, what you want to become. Part of this game is exploring and trying things on and coming to that decision organically based on your experiences.”

It’s only appropriate that a game so focused on joy and gliding would have a soundtrack with a voice as soaring and sonically fearless as Zauner’s. Zauner tells NME that she joined Sable when developer Shedworks’ technical director Daniel Fineberg discovered she had a made an RPG with Elaine Fath for Japanese Breakfasts’ second album, Soft Sounds from Another Planet. “They were interested in bringing on a composer that wasn’t necessarily from the game world, but had an interest in gaming,” Zauner tells NME. Zauner was — like anyone who has followed the posts on creative director Gregorios Kythreotis’ twitter account — completely smitten by GIFs and artwork from the game, and agreed to join very early on into development in 2017.

The team went on a retreat to Sable sound designer Martin Kvale’s family’s summer home in Norway, where they tried to figure out the direction of the game’s sound. “It was still in that stage where I wasn’t actively playing the build. And so everything I was learning about the game was just through Greg and Daniel talking about it or showing us bits and pieces on their computer that hadn’t been put into the game yet,” Zauner tells NME.

The team discussed what they loved about open-world games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and specifically how there needed to be space for silence and solitude for the player. They went over how to iterate music, and discussed the world’s different biomes and clans. Zauner describes it as more of a bonding trip: “I don’t know if we got anything done [laughs]…I think I wrote one song on that trip.” However, Zauner was careful to note that she got to eat a lot of raw salmon in Scandinavia. “This was just a big log of salmon [from the grocery store] that I would eat. I just was very charmed by hanging out in Norway because I’m from the Pacific Northwest. And I weirdly think that Scandinavia has that sort of vibe. And so I was just all about hanging out.”

No stranger to adventures in world cuisine, Zauner released her memoir, Crying in H Mart in April of this year, which deftly threaded her coming-of-age development as a human being and artist with alternatively joyful memories of her mother and Korean family. In the book, she tries to replicate recipes for food her mother would make, sometimes based off of watching YouTube videos.

Though the Sable project is also a coming-of-age story, Zauner says she did not see writing for it as personal as one of her Japanese Breakfast projects: “It was really fun getting to write lyrics for this game, honestly, because I feel like as a writer, both for Crying in H Mart and Japanese Breakfast, it’s so personal. A lot of my writing style is really rooted in these hyper-specific details that are really integrated into my life. Sable has nothing to do with me. It is the story of a young girl and in a lot of ways the player is the person that’s deciding what her identity is going to be.”

When not writing a best-selling memoir and selling out shows for third album, Jubilee, Zauner has been spending much of the pandemic playing different builds of the game, she’s also played and taken inspiration from a number of different games she’s been playing. She says she’s enjoyed A Short Hike, Dawn of Man, and Spiritfarer recently and she writes in Crying in H Mart that she’s a big fan of farming simulators. Typically my favourite games are RPGs and simulation games,” she tells NME, “I guess I’m just like a very busybody, task-oriented person and so I just seek comfort in doing that.”

Zauner has also been re-discovering some JRPG’s that she says she understands differently now that she’s older: “I enjoyed replaying Legend of Mana, which was an RPG that got re-released on the Switch recently that I used to play when I was a kid, but I think I didn’t get when I was a kid because I wasn’t very good. I wasn’t smart enough,” she laughs. “I enjoy it a lot more as an adult now.” Zauner noted that Mana composer Yoko Shimamura worked on Parasite Eve, which is one of her favourite soundtracks. Vivi’s Theme, from Final Fantasy IX, inspired the music for one of the sneaking areas in Sable, Zauner says.

The soundtrack for Sable — which is composed and performed entirely by Japanese Breakfast, with exception of the strings, which she arranged — will run over an hour and a half long, and has three vocal-led tunes. Zauner says that while it’s done entirely in service of the game, she hopes that people can listen to the album as a standalone piece of ambient music. “A lot of Japanese Breakfast songs are very pop-driven and follow a very specific type of structure that was the total opposite of writing songs for an open world game where they’re largely loop-based, and sprawling and not repetitive,” Zauner says, “I hope that like in the same way that I really love instrumental music like Ryuichi Sakamoto, or Brian Eno people can put it on and enjoy it on its own as well.” Zauner says that composing ambient music exercises a different part of her brain, and that she hopes to get hired for more soundtrack projects.

Developer Kythreotis [told me separately in an interview coming out in WIRED today] says that hearing Zauner’s work on the game’s theme song, ‘Glider’ which featured in the original 2018 trailer for Sable, and which Zauner sang in a stunning live rendition at Summer Games Fest, pushed the game forward, and inspired him to up the quality of the title. “I don’t know how they do it – I’m just really in awe of Greg [Kythreotis] and Daniel [Fineberg] and the work they put into this game…[Greg] is very gracious and humble in saying that, but the results of my work were just trying to keep up with him,” Zauner tells NME. “It’s definitely a soundtrack. Its purpose is to serve Sable. I really enjoyed that and just wanted to play that role, to the best of my ability to support this game.”

Sable is a game that exudes magic and womblike warmth as you glide and bike around its varied and colourful different areas — Zauner says that her favourite part of the game is Kakoa, with its very tall characters — and allows the player to tackle its main quest in a number of ways, even allowing for skipping puzzle areas altogether. Zauner has brought to the game a soundtrack that’s as soothing as it is rhythmic and propulsive. It’s as easy to jump into as it is learning how to ride a hoverbike.

Sable is out now, the NME review is coming soon.

Advertisement

More Gaming Stories:

Advertisement