Lena Raine The Celeste video game composer talks new album, her lost voice, and finding sweet spots in her compositions

Photo: Sara Ranlett

Lena Raine is in high demand. I get a taste of this while trying to schedule this interview. Between travelling worldwide to awards ceremonies — most recently the BAFTAs, where she was nominated for Video Game Music of the Year — and navigating work (including the colds that always seems to prey on those who travel), it feels like luck when we finally catch each other on the phone.

This high demand makes sense to anyone familiar with Raine’s biggest claim to fame: the original score for the platforming game Celeste. After that explosive score, Raine released this March what she’s called her debut album: a collection of songs called Oneknowing. Together with her success as a games composer, the release of Oneknowing has placed Raine in a peculiar and wonderful position. She has both taken up the mantle of many of her heroes (other women game composers throughout history) and carved out a niche for herself as a young recording artist exploring the parameters of classical and electronic music production.

A lifelong video games lover and a classically trained composer and vocalist, Raine is also astoundingly accomplished in another category: as a fan. Her skill and musical insight is highlighted by her wealth of knowledge on games, music, anime, and other pop culture. Her candid awe (which transmits through the phone as we talk) with the arts that surround her further the portrait of Raine as an intrepid explorer, traversing the ecosystems of multimedia creativity and instilling it all with her own unique voice, memories, and wonder.


Now, after it has had such an obvious impact on both your musical career and your life, what is your personal relationship to Celeste?

I feel like it’s still very much in the present, in a lot of ways. I was very involved in the development of the game, and when we shipped it, we were all celebrating together and all extremely surprised by how well it did. I’ve stuck with the team since then. You know, we’ve had our group chat, our online communication stuff going. Most of the development was done online, since the team was all over the place — literally three different countries. The core development team was in Vancouver, I was in Seattle and then Montreal for a while, and the artists are in Brazil but have since moved up to Vancouver. We’re beginning to chat about stuff, beginning to work on DLC for the game, which will have new music in it. It’s kind of still a present thing. Especially with the awards we’ve been nominated for, it’s really kept the spirit of the game alive. You know?

Honestly the Game Awards were the first time the entire team had ever been in the same room together since we’d shipped the game. It was amazing. Then we were together again at the GDC awards and again at the BAFTAs. We’re gonna keep making things together. I think we’ve really found a nice, close-knit group of like-minded individuals that love creating things.

Wow, well I love to hear that as a big fan of Celeste. In fact, I really have an affection for most nostalgic “8-bit” games, and I know I’m not alone in this. Anything that brings me back to the SNES feeling brings me a lot of joy. Have you played through all of Celeste?

Oh yeah. Multiple times. I played through all the levels multiple times in development, even the hardest versions of them — they were way harder originally than what we actually shipped with. I had to play through to make sure all the transitions and cues and such were lining up. I was just having to bang my head against these really, really hard levels.

I know that feeling…

Yeah, and those really hard ones, where people were just like, “Matt, what are you doing?” Those ended up in the B-Sides and C-Sides. So I probably played through 160 hours on the game by the time it shipped. Then, after the game launch, I played through again start to finish on Switch. I’d been playing it on PC the whole time, and it was really cool to have it in handheld mode.

Thinking about the creation of the score for a game like Celeste, the reality set in that I’ve probably listened to it for over 100 hours, at times in a pure rage or total frustration over trying and trying and trying the same thing again. Yet still, the music has persisted as something I listen to and enjoy. Do you take that into account in your creative process? The fact that someone at some point will be hearing this, as they try and try and try again to accomplish one task?

Any music that you’re writing — the term that I use for it is wallpaper music, because it’s sort of the wallpaper of sound that’s playing, looping constantly while you’re doing something — when I’m writing something like that, I always need to have in mind that someone’s going to be listening to this for hundreds of hours, probably. Having music that has enough variation and enough catchiness to it that doesn’t grate on you or become obnoxious in any way is a huge goal when I’m writing.

Yeah, lots of my favorite music in the “ambient” tag never feels too rough or rugged or like it’s pulling on my attention too much, so that it’s harder to notice the beginning or end of the loop.

It’s one of those things where if you were to ask “What is music that doesn’t get irritating?” I don’t know if I’d be able to tell you specifically. But because I’ve been playing video games and listening to wallpaper music for, like, all of my entire life, I’ve internalized what those sounds are that are soothing, that don’t get tiring, that kind of melody or chord structure or whatever it is that creates that longevity.

So do you think there are tactics you use to find that “sweet spot” of perfect longevity, or do you think it’s, like you’re saying, something you’re naturally drawn to as someone who’s been exposed to so much?

I think ultimately it is habitual, just in terms of how I start on something. I could go back and analyze what I’ve done and describe to you, “Well, this is what I did.” In most cases, you need to be repetitive but not in a way that feels repetitive. That can mean, for example, doing a chord progression or song structure that you can get into a groove with, but at least once or twice throughout the entire loop there needs to be a part that stands out as “ooh, I love this part.” You’ve gotta have that moment. Because you know this track is looping forever, you know there’ll be a part that’s gonna come up during the next loop that you’re like “Ah, I can’t wait for this,” even if it’s just one sound. There’s definitely a track in Xenogears or something, one of my favorite game soundtracks — there’s a part during one of the loops that literally just plays one little “pcshhhh” sound in it — the only time it happens in the entire loop. Every time it comes around, I just feel like “yeah!” It’s these things that you look forward to! So you don’t oversaturate the loop with those kinds of things, but you make little markers that you can get excited for. It’s one of those many little tricks.

As a player, I think I’m way more likely to hit that perfect sequence and get that strawberry or whatever when I’m synced up with my favorite part of the music.

Totally!

So I do want to shift to talking about Oneknowing, because it’s new and because it feels like a really exciting new thing. It’s not often you get to see video game composers releasing albums like this that aren’t attached to any game projects. You’ve talked about your process with Celeste and how you’re super intentional with your compositions and how they connect to the creation of the game. What has been challenging and what has been liberating about creating a product that’s “free solo,” that’s not attached to gameplay?

In a lot of ways, it goes back to my younger writing. Before I actually had the opportunity to write music for games, I was doing a lot of writing that was either for myself or just for the sake of writing something. It was all just sort of that dream of being able to write for something. But because I wasn’t writing for something, I was left imagining something that I could score. So in a lot of ways when I do write music that’s just for me, I’m still kind of scoring something? It’s just more of — in a lot of cases for me — more like scoring memories or moments in my life or emotions that I can very closely relate to.

I feel like it’s obvious for any sort of songwriting or writing, obviously you’re capturing something in what you’re writing, but I sort of contextualize what I’m writing through writing soundtracks and accompaniments for things. I did a lot — before I did music for games — of music for dance choreography. You’re always kind of scoring something in some way, even when you’re writing original music. It just depends on what that thing is and whether or not the audience gets to see what you’re scoring or if it’s just something you want to evoke. I think that comes through in any instrumental writing. It becomes a little more literal once you include lyrical songwriting, but it’s more about being evocative when it’s instrumental.

When I first read about the album, I remember you were quoted saying “I have nostalgia for my voice as it sounded when I was younger.” Could you explain a little more about why you feel that way? What is that nostalgia you have for your younger voice?

It’s an interesting thing, because obviously everyone’s voices go through changes as we get older. But when I was younger, I was in a lot of choirs and was doing a lot of professional singing. I toured around with choirs. We went to Great Britain and did a folk tour there, sang in cathedrals, did all of these amazing performances with religious and secular music. With singing choir, we did a lot of soundtrack recordings. We’d record around Seattle for HBO movies and things like that. We didn’t do a lot of those, but it was this process of being part of a recording in a recording studio. In this case, it was a church, because we needed those acoustics, that was converted into a kind of makeshift recording studio. I would see some of what the film was and think “Oh wow, we’re gonna sing to that!” This was when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old.

All throughout my youth, I was singing in various choirs here or there. You know, it’s not the same voice. I don’t have the voice I did when I was younger; it was a kid’s voice. So I was really feeling that, the older voice. Well, not older I guess, the younger voice. The lost voice. The voice I had in the past. That was something very intriguing, since I was playing a lot with the concepts of memories and dreams and an otherworldly sense of the present day. I really wanted to, instead of just singing with my current voice on the album, use Vocaloid and go for a more youthful sound to the voice I was using.

How did you go about constructing the language that you sing in on Oneknowing?

It was definitely a process. I was working with Vocaloid, and that software is originally based in Japan. It uses the Japanese monosyllabic structure. All of these versions of Vocaloid have been released and most of them have been in Japanese. But in Vocaloid 5, which came out a year or two ago, they added an English voice. That opened up a lot more possibilities in terms of the language I was using sounding more natural. And so, when I was first testing out using Vocaloid, I would dial in the settings and the kind of voice I really wanted to create with the software, and I would recreate songs that I knew using that voice, just kind of putting it to existing music. One of the songs I recreated was a song from this anime called .hack//SIGN. It’s an amazing soundtrack by a composer named Yuki Kaijura. She likes to work with English-speaking vocalists a lot.

So there’s this one song that has a guitar intro that’s the same chord progression as the main melody. I just took the guitar intro and wrote down the lyrics and melody using the software, and placed it on top of the guitar solo so I could hear “Hey, how does this sound in context?” And it sounded really cool! But it also sounded… well, singing in English I could tell where the imperfections were in the language that I knew really well. It’s a little easier to make Japanese sound realistic, because it’s so syllable-based. Using a sort of made-up language, using phrases and words that were constructed from what sounds really good and natural using the Vocaloid software, it created this aesthetically pleasing sound that I used to build the language and build the lyrics that I was inventing for the songs. A lot of the songwriting was, like, I knew what the melody was but I was very trial-and-error with how the syllables and the words were being formed, because I really wanted to smooth it out and make something that sounded aesthetically pleasing to me.

It reminds me a bit of when I was younger, and my friends and I were obsessed with trying to speak Simlish from The Sims. You had to say words enough to be able to identify them, but mesh them enough that it sounds like something new.

Yeah, it’s a very similar sort of thing. Simlish is constructed very much like a real language would be. There’s a certain amount of repetition. Even if you’re speaking gibberish or speaking complete nonsense, if you have enough repetition and enough internal logic of what are the words you’re saying, it sounds more realistic. I used that same sort of approach. Another notable example of that is the band Sigur Rós or the Nier soundtracks, which make amazing use of it. Emi Evans, the vocalist for those soundtracks, she wrote all of these made up lyrics to accompany the songs for Nier. It really follows the same rules of linguistics, where you have enough repetition and you have these types of sounds that come back again so that you can get the sense that there is a message being communicated, but you’re beyond what the actual translation of it is.

Though your voice has been put through this process, still it seems, now that you’ve put out this record and it’s out in the world, there’s this presence of you. Just having your vocals and having it come straight from your memories and dreams. Now that it’s out, what are your feelings towards it as a body of work with your presence on it? With your experiences forming it?

It’s a really good feeling. It feels like: Well, here’s a really accurate representation of what I want to present to the world. Like, this is my sound. This is the kind of music I compose. This is the kind of vocalization I want to be capable of. In a lot of ways, since I primarily have been doing soundtracks, lots of that is like “Here is me, but through the lens of what I was writing for.” The closest I’ve come to actually presenting myself through a soundtrack was Celeste. It was very much a project I was given full creative ownership over and was able to really put myself into. But, at the end of the day, it’s still very much a soundtrack for that specific game experience. So in a lot of ways, it feels like I have a collection of songs now that I’ve put it out, so that if someone were to say “Hey, do you want to play a gig?” I can say yes. I can pull from these songs, and I can write more within the same framework. And even if it sounds completely different, it’s something I can add to and modify as time goes on.

So, here you are, there’s been this huge outpouring of well-deserved acclaim for Celeste and the music for Celeste, and you’ve now released this album into the world. What does the future look like to you now? As a recording artist, as a composer, what feels positive about what’s coming over the hill?

There are so many more doors that have opened both for my own soundtrack writing and projects I can work for, as well as just continuing to try new things with my music. Definitely in the coming year, in the short term, it’s a lot more indie game projects that I’m getting really excited for. I’m excited in expanding out all the kinds of music I love writing. But also, I really am very much looking to the future, looking to new avenues of scoring and things I haven’t done yet that I really want to be involved in.

One thing I’ve definitely acknowledged about myself as a creative person is that I never really want to sit still. I never want to be in the same place for multiple projects in a row. I want to keep moving forward, keep trying new things. I’d love to try scoring a film or an animated series or something that’s even beyond just the usual games that I love to score. The more recognition that I get, the more I want to use that to propel myself into more and more ridiculous situations.

Lena Raine
Photo: Sara Ranlett

Lena Raine’s debut album Oneknowing is out now on Local Action. She is currently working on new music for the Celeste DLC “Chapter 9: Farewell” and composing music for an upcoming game, codenamed “Drawdog.”

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