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Deep into NieR: Interview With Vocalist and Lyricist Emi Evans

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It’s not very often that we get to highlight a vocalist on OSV. We’ve already gushed a lot about the NieR RepliCant & Gestalt Soundtrack that was released in Japan last month, and a big part of what made that soundtrack so great was emotional vocal stylings of Emi Evans. I’ve been obsessing over the made-up languages she created for NieR over the past few weeks, and we’ve finally been given the opportunity to discuss with her at length her work on NieR.

From her interactions with MoNACA composer Keiichi Okabe, last-minute deadlines, in-depth details on most of the game’s vocal tracks, her favorite tracks on the album, her relationship to Sekaiju no MeiQ 2 Super Arrange Album vocalist Rebecca Evans, and her work with Hiroyuki Muneta as a part of a duo called freescape, Emi Evans tells all. If her touching music hadn’t made a huge fan of me, this interview certainly would have.

Check out our all-encompassing interview with vocalist and lyricist Emi Evans after the jump!

OSV: Hello Ms. Evans, and thanks for speaking with us about your recent work on NieR.  We really enjoyed the soundtrack, and particularly enjoyed many of your vocal pieces.  We’d like to know how you were approached to work on the project.  Were you approached by Square Enix, Cavia, or the composer team over at MoNACA?

Evans: In late autumn 2008,  I got a call out of the blue from the assistant working at MoNACA.

A few months earlier, I had been at a friend’s farewell party and got to chatting with the DJ who seemed quite cool, so I handed him a copy of my band freesscape`s album and exchanged contacts. The DJ, it turned out, was friends with MoNACA`s assistant, so when she had asked him if he knew of any native English singers, he just passed on my contact.

I was originally contacted because they needed a singer for a project they were doing for Dance Dance Revolution, but when the boss and main composer of MoNACA, Mr. Okabe listened to my CD, he decided that I wasn`t suitable for this particular music  but said that he liked my voice and that maybe in the future he could use me for some other project. And that “other” project turned out to be NieR!

OSV: When it was finally decided that you’d be working on the project, was it decided immediately that you’d also be writing the lyrics in these new, made-up languages? Did you have any experience in this area, and was it particularly challenging?

Evans: When we sat down to have the initial meeting about NieR, I was asked to write all the lyrics in made-up futuristic languages as well as sing.

I had no experience with this as such, but have always enjoyed singing in different languages -in church choir and at school we sang in Latin, German, French, Italian and I grew up listening to cassettes of Japanese kids songs which I couldn’t understand but loved mimicking- I found it so much fun to use different parts of my throat and mouth and make sounds which were unfamiliar to my own ears. So the idea of being able to invent and sing not just one but several different languages was just so appealing to me that I jumped at the chance. It was a little challenging at times but more than that, it was just fascinating!

OSV: How did you go about developing these languages, and how many did you end up creating? Do the words actually have meaning to you and the rest of the team?

Evans: MoNACA would send me very rough arrangements of the songs, 1,2 or 3 at a time, with instructions of what sort of language they wanted me to write in. For example  “Kaine,” they asked me write in a Gaelic sounding language, “The Wretched Automatons” in futuristic English and “Grandma” in futuristic French.

Altogether I wrote songs in 8 languages based on Gaelic, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, English and Japanese. I would find clips of language lessons for the required psuedo-language on the Internet and then just listen over and over to get the sounds and rhythms into my head and also try writing down passages in the language too in the hope I could absorb something extra. Then it was just a matter of trying to imitate the flow and fit similar sounds around the melody.

The only song which has a totally made-up language is “Song of the Ancients” which was the very first song I wrote lyrics for and had been given no guidelines at all other than “imaginary language.” I think that, at this early stage, no one was quite sure how to go about creating these new languages, so they just left me to it to see what happened!

For this particular song, I listened to as many different languages as I could on YouTube and took a little inspiration from each one and jumbled them all together. I was happy with the result but really anxious as to how I would be able to go on and create several more different sounding languages. I was very relieved when MoNACA then started giving me more specific instructions. Basically, as NieR is set in the future, the MoNACA team decided they wanted me to image how our languages of today would sound after thousands of years, so with the exception of “Song of the Ancients,”I felt that rather than creating made up languages for each song, I was taking a specific language, respectfully manipulating it and then aging it a few thousand years.

Apart from the final closing theme, “Ashes of Dreams,” the lyrics have no meaning-they are just a means by which to create a special atmosphere.

With “Ashes of Dreams,” NieR’ s producer, Mr. Yoko, gave me a list in Japanese of all the key words he wanted me to use. I translated each word into English, French and Gaelic (not German, as is suggested!), then scattered them throughout each song, twisting each word slightly so that the sound would be different but to just me and the team, it would have meaning. If you listen to the English version of “Ashes of Dreams” you `ll understand what I`m singing about on the other versions too!

OSV: What were the logistics of this project?  Were you given concept art, gameplay videos, or scripts to work from?  Did you work directly with the composers in their studios, or did you do a lot of work on your own?

Evans: At the beginning I was told the rough story of the the game and shown a short clip of Devola and Popola. The rest I just learned from looking at the NieR website. That was pretty much all I had to work from. I was sent files of the songs and wrote the lyrics at home in my basement room and then took the lyrics to the studio and recorded with the guidance of Mr. Okabe.

I would turn up at the studio with my lyrics for the latest songs, having only received the rough tracks one or two days before (everything seemed to be so tightly schedules), and then Mr. Okabe would try his best to describe what sort of scenario the song would be used in. It was hard because even he didn’t really know how the song would be used so he could only say vague things like, “there is a peaceful open green space and then there`s a big fight,” or “there`s  a metallic mountain and then there`s a big fight.” Everything ended in a big fight! So it was difficult to know what sort of emotion I should capture… and to make things even harder, very often the arrangements were only very rough or sometimes just the bare backbone of the song, so it was very difficult to catch any particular atmosphere to get idea of how to sing. All I had to draw inspiration from were the melody and harmonies (many of which I thought were gorgeous even in just their fetal form) and the actual sounds of the new style languages I was singing in.

Mr. Okabe was actually very good and apart from saying “this part I’d like you to sing softly but intensely,” or “this part is the climax so please sing loudly here,” he pretty much left me to it and let me sing my own interpretation of the melody. I just had to use my imagination and decide for myself what kind of feelings to convey. I was interested to learn afterwards that after I had put down the vocal tracks, the composers would listen to my singing and often base their arrangements on the feeling of my voice.

OSV: I was hoping to ask about a some specific tracks on the album.  “Hills of Radiant Winds” is one of the only upbeat tracks on the album.  Your voice has an open and airy feel about it.  What can you tell us about the meaning of this track?

Evans: I remember listening to the demo of this track and thinking how light and excitingly free running the melody was. I was asked to write lyrics for this in a Portuguese-sounding language and I do think that it suits the mood of the song very well.

I’m afraid I can’t say much about the actual meaning of the track because, as I said before, I didn’t really have much to go on other than what I made up in my own imagination, from listening to the rough demo. However during the recording Mr. Okabe  did mention “Winds,” so in my head as I was singing, I imagined my voice as a free spirit being carried on the wind and was soaring and dancing as the wind toyed with it. I was very pleased when I heard the final arrangement of this song as it portrays exactly that and more, how I’d felt as I was singing- with extra excitement added!

OSV: One of the most powerful pieces on the album is “Grandma.”  There’s a certain elegance about it with the piano backing, and the lyrics you created seem Latin-based.  Without giving away too much about the story, can you tell us what you were aiming for with this track?  Is this track particularly memorable in your mind?

Evans: Yes, I love this track and it’s definitely one of the most memorable songs that I’ve worked on! (Although I didn’t realize they’d called it “Grandma”).

The lyrics are based on French- as I learnt French at school and still have a lot of what I learnt floating around at the back of my memory, I was concerned that I might accidentally use real French vocab, so I asked a few of my French friends to listen to my lyrics and they reassured me that while it sounded sort of French even to their ears, it still made no sense at all!

This was the one track that Mr. Okabe gave me clear direction for. He told me that at some point in the game, there is a super strong boss that has to be fought, and that the tactic of this boss is to distract and weaken you by making you remember some of your saddest and most painful memories. So when I recorded this song, I just put in as much anguish and melancholy as I could–made easy by the beautiful soaring high melody–where I could just open up the back of my throat and gently wail. It felt so natural to sing this track in such a way and I think this was all first take.

The reason why this of all the songs is particularly memorable is that in just ten minutes in the studio, it transformed itself from just another track that I’d written lyrics for last minute with no idea of how it would turn out, to a truly gorgeous and emotional song that was giving me goosebumps as they played it back to me in the headphones. It suddenly came alive!

OSV: My personal favorite has to be “Song of the Ancients.”  It’s such a beautiful song.  There’s also a section towards the middle where he language seemingly changes to something that sounds almost Chinese in origin.  Please tell us about this track.  Do you have a favorite version of the four that are featured on the soundtrack?

Evans: I agree- this is such a lovely track! As I mentioned earlier, this was the one song that wasn’t based on any language in particular and I just listened to a whole bunch of different languages on the Internet (but not Chinese) and mixed them up. I knew that this was a song that the twins would sing together and separately in different versions, and that the twins had a very sad story. I have a soft spot for this song just as it was the first song that I worked on and was my first challenge to sing  in an unworldly language. The version I sang was the faster “fate” version and I was told this was for the twins fight scene.

I remember at first timidly and almost apologetically taking sounds and random vocabulary from Swahili, Hungarian, Swedish, German, African, etc. and changing them around, feeling like I was somehow doing something very indecent and ethically wrong by warping and mixing up these languages. But then in the studio as I was recording and getting more familiar with the sounds coming out of my mouth, I sang with more conviction until the sounds became a real language to me and I started to feel so excited, like I’d just made a new discovery. I think my favourite version of this track is “Hollow Dreams”-I love the jazzy piano chords and chilled out yet sad atmosphere.

OSV: “The Wretched Automatons” has a sort of electronic feel to it with the metallic percussion and vocaloid-like synth lines. Was this an interesting track to work on given how it contrasted with the other pieces on the album?

Evans: This is one of my favourites on the soundtrack and the one track I sang in futuristic English-my mother tongue, which felt very strange!

I didn’t know how this piece was going to turn out until I heard the final soundtrack. When I recorded it, none of the metallic sounds were there, it was just a very bare and simple demo. So I was very happily surprised to hear the final arrangement-definitely one of the coolest tracks on the album in my opinion.

OSV: The two “Kaine” pieces have an interesting sound about them.  What is the inspiration for the language featured in these track?  The “Escape” version is much more fast-paced.  Was it fun being able to retool your lyrics to fit this variation?

Evans: “Kaine” is based on Gaelic-and I remember thinking what a beautiful and gentle language it was to sing in. When I asked what sort of character Kaine was, I was told she was a bit of a bitch and had a foul mouth so I was rather surprised because her theme was so lovely! And yes, it was fun to do an up-tempo version. The “Salvation” version was the second song I sang on this project whereas “Escape” was recorded towards the end, by which time I was so used to hearing Kaine’s theme online that it was really easy and fun for me to liven it up for the faster version.

OSV: There are four different versions of “Ashes for Dreams,” each in a different modern language, including English, French, Gaelic (which was listed as German), and Japanese.  What is the reason for the switch from the made-up languages you created to these modern ones, and did you enjoy finally being able to express yourself in a language that the end user would understand?

Evans: So I’m sure now you know that my languages are not “made up” but all supposed to be “modern” languages! Writing the lyrics in English was the biggest challenge for me of the whole project! Originally I was asked just to write lyrics in futuristic English, but I felt that the soundtrack should have at least one “real” language so I persuaded Square Enix to let me try! “Ashes of Dreams” was the very final song I recorded for this project and the hardest of them all!

OSV: Which of the tracks on the album is your favorite?  Do you have any memories from working on this project that you think will stay with you for the rest of your career?

Evans: Aah, this is soooo difficult to answer because, since I heard the soundtrack, my favourite track keeps changing! “Kaine” was delightful to sing in futuristic Gaelic and listening to “Song of the Ancients” is so calming and special to me because that was my very first shaky attempt at creating a new language. The song  which I enjoy listening to most right now and find myself singing all the time  is “The Wretched Automatons.” The melody is strange and catchy and I love the way in which the metallic sounds build up into a cool loop and my voice comes in. The contrast between myself and the metal clanking is so unexpected strange, yet works so well!

“Grandma” is definitely most special and memorable to me as it gave me such shivers when I was recording-an experience which is rare for a session singer and thus one to be remembered and treasured!

One of my strongest memories from this project was the incredibly tough time which I had writing the English lyrics to “Ashes of Dreams!” Simply because this would be the one song which the players would understand, I felt a lot of pressure to write quality lyrics-I couldn’t hide behind my mysterious languages any more. For this song, I had been given a list of key image words which the client wanted me to incorporate AND the criteria that this song had to be heartbreakingly sad with no glint of happiness or hope for the future.

At the time I was trying to write these lyrics I was actually on another job, singing at Club Med on Ishigaki Island- a stunningly beautiful Okinawan island. I strongly remember sitting on the beach with iPod and note pad, looking at the gorgeous sea and being so overwhelmed at how wonderful I felt to be there, that it was just impossible to get any inspiration for such dark and despairing lyrics! The recording date was to be the next day and I struggled hard but in the end I had to plead for more time. The next week I went back to England, where I hoped some gloomy weather would help me out and together with the help of my Dad, who has such a gift with words, I wrote the saddest lyrics I could and sent them off. It wasn’t until I arrived back in Tokyo that I got a call from MoNACA saying “sorry, the lyrics are still aren’t sad enough, and can you rewrite them again- by tomorrow?!” I was so jet lagged and exhausted from my flight but had to spend the whole night hunched over my computer, turning sadness into utter despair and wiping out anything which could even be misinterpreted as hope. Gosh, that was tough! I was bloodshot for quite a few days after, but maybe my little episode of brief suffering was just what was needed to create these final satisfactory lyrics!

OSV: After working on a project like this, you have to have some interesting thoughts about language in general.  A lot of our readers and many of our staff members at OSV enjoy listening to music in different languages, and creating music in these unique languages kind of creates that exotic listening experience for all listeners.  What are your thoughts on this?

Evans: What I have always enjoyed about speaking and singing in other languages is the way in which, depending on the language, different parts of my brain become active and I feel like different parts of my personality are allowed to come through. What I found fascinating as I was creating and singing these new style lyrics was that even though the words had no meaning, I was still feeling different parts of my brain lighting up and the same excitement that I was able to express some new part of my personality which I hadn’t been able to before.  With this project, I really became aware of the power of language and sounds to trigger off different parts of our brain-even if they are not real languages.

Also, I felt that although the languages which we speak today are very useful tools to help us communicate, the real communication comes from the range of emotion which we show in our voices. Even though nearly all the lyrics I wrote have no meaning at all whatsoever, I felt I was still able to give them meaning and emotionally express my interpretation of the song,  just from the way in which I used my voice.

As I wrote the lyrics myself and am already familiar with them, when I listen to the NieR soundtrack, I don`t feel anything unusual about the songs, it`s just me singing. But I`m sure that to anyone else, these different sounding languages must create an exotic atmosphere and be a point of interest and curiousity.

OSV: Most of the music is here soft and melancholy.  Is this your preferred style of singing?  I imagine you’re able to perform a variety of styles, but do you have a favorite?

Evans: I love singing in this NieR style as it comes so naturally to me. I can express myself so much better when I sing softly and the melancholy must just come from growing up as an only child in rainy England! Also, this style is not dissimilar to the songs which I write and sing for own music project, freesscape.

With my work I sing classical, jazz, bossa nova, Celtic and pop styles, but always using a gentle voice. I used to wish that I had a more powerful, flashy, diva-like voice and tried to push myself to sing louder, but eventually realized that a soft voice can be equally if not more powerful in conveying emotions and especially creating subtle atmospheres. NieR was a brilliant chance for me to just sing in my own style and I’m delighted that so many people have reacted to my “non diva-like” voice in such a positive way!

OSV: Having been born in England, and having lived in Tokyo for 10 years, do you feel your exposure to different cultures has worked in your favor when working on this score?  Do you have any advice for aspiring vocalists in regards to travel and learning other languages?

Evans: I’m sure this exposure to two rather extreme cultures must have helped me with this project. Coming to Japan (which still feels exotic to me despite being my home for the last 10 years) probably helped open up my imagination to the existence of other cultural worlds-real and fictional. And learning Japanese from pretty much nothing helped me understand a bit better the way that languages are structured so maybe the task of creating my own languages was made slightly easier!?

I don’t know if I can give very good advice for aspiring vocalists because I feel that I am still one of them too! But what I would say is that with both singing and learning language, what has helped me the most has just been my strong desire to express myself and communicate my emotions to touch others. So far this seems to been the one thing which has really helped me get through all kinds of obstacles and discouragements.

Living in Japan and not being able to communicate my thoughts in Japanese would just have been too unbearably frustrating and I felt that I had no choice but to learn.

And with singing, even though I don`t feel that my voice is particularly outstanding or powerful and I certainly don’t have any great technical singing skills, I have still been able to touch people positively and make them feel a certain way through my voice just because I want so much to communicate to them.

I think that this constant need and joy of communicating is a great driving force and will help any traveling singer out there.

OSV: You mention on your website that you were hoping to revive some old languages on NieR, but didn’t have the time to do the research.  What languages were you considering, and if given the chance to do NieR all over again with unlimited resources and time, what would you have done differently?

Evans: When writing my new style lyrics, very often I would only have a day in which to complete everything as the music wouldn’t arrive until the very last moment before the recording date, so I really was operating on just a fraction of the time which I would have liked to have had.

If I’d had more time, I would definitely have collaborated with native speakers for each of the chosen futuristic languages and asked them to help me get my accent as close to the original language as possible. Regarding the revival of some old language, I didn’t have a specific language in mind-I just wanted to try any language that was dying or had died out completely that might benefit from me giving it some publicity. Maybe the ancient language spoken by the Incas or an African tribal dialect which only a handful of people could still speak.

Had I had more time I would have researched properly, then somehow tracked down a native speaker or a scholar of that particular language and got lots of accent coaching from them!  If I ever get the chance to do this sort of project again, this will be my mission!

OSV: As an aside, we noticed you list Etrian Odyssey 1 and 2 on your videogame credits.  We know a singer named Rebecca Evans worked on the SUPER ARRANGE VERSION albums that were released for these games, but we couldn’t find your name in the credits.  Can you tell us about your work on these titles?

Evans: Rebecca Evans is me too! My full name is Emiko Rebecca Evans and Rebecca Evans was just the name I was using at the time. The composer Norihiko Hibino asked me to write lyrics in English and sing for a few of the tracks on Super Arrange Version. I was rather busy at the time so I asked my Dad, who is fabulous lyricist and poet in his spare time to write the lyrics for me and then I recorded the vocals. Mr. Hibino  seemed very pleased with the result and I was happy to have been able to do a little family collaboration!

OSV: What do you think NieR will mean to your career moving forward?  Has it sparked your interest in working on more videogames in the future?

Evans: After 9 years of singing professionally in Japan, NieR is the first chance for my voice to leave Japan and be heard by people worldwide. I am really hoping that through this, I can draw some positive attention to myself and get the chance to collaborate with more game producers/composers, etc. overseas. I feel I have already proven myself as a singer in Japan and the next challenge is to be approved of  overseas! After working on NieR and seeing the power that music can have when combined with the visuals to make an emotional and intense experience for the players, I have become fascinated with this world of videogames and would love to continue working on similar projects. So much of my work as a session singer is creatively limited and my job is to just churn out whatever I am asked to, but with NieR I felt that I free was able to be part of the creative process too and I got such a thrill from the experience.

OSV: Can you tell us what’s next for you?  We know that you’re working on your third album with Hiroyuki Muneta as Freescape.  Want to tell us about this group, and perhaps other plans you have for the rest of 2010?

Evans: It seems that NieR and especially the soundtrack is getting an even better response that we’d hoped so I’m wondering whether there might not be some  interesting repercussions? Having written and recorded a lot of these songs, it would be great to perform some of them live! Just a thought but I know there are mumblings here of doing a NieR concert at some point. Also, I was thinking of making a lyrics booklet for any NieR fans that might be interested. Here in Japan a lot of people are saying its a shame that there are no lyrics on the inner pamphlet of the soundtrack. Right now, I’m the only person in the world who knows what the lyrics are and it seems a shame to keep them to myself! We`ll just have to wait and see what the powers at Square Enix say!

Aside from this, my next project is definitely to concentrate on freesscape as the third album needs to be finished! Everything got put to one side with NieR and also we were overwhelmed trying to get my new homepage finished.

www.emievans.net

freesscape has been asked to perform for a big Toyota Lexus event at a shrine in Kyoto this October and so a few new arrangements need to be written, but apart from this we are fairly free to work on third album recordings, until the next  fascinating project jumps out at me! (NieR 2 maybe?!)

About freesscape, it is actually the reason I stayed in Tokyo and became a singer. I originally came here to study Japanese as a university exchange student from Leeds University in 2000 only intending to stay for a year, but while studying, I met Hiroyuki Muneta who started arranging my songs (I’d been composing songs since I was 15, with the dream of becoming a pro singer songwriter) and when I saw the magic that he was breathing into my songs, I just felt I’d found the perfect music partner and that my dream to be a singer had the chance to come true. I announced to my parents I wasn’t going back to England, quit university, formed freesscape with Hiroyuki and have stayed in Tokyo ever since, with no regrets.

I work as a singer for weddings, lounges, brand events and do session singing/lyric writing for TV commercials and sing whatever I am asked to, but freesscape is my real passion, where I can totally express myself and selfishly create for my own satisfaction. freesscape music has been used on a handful of TV commercials (Yokohama Tires, Advan, Nishikawa Printers, Menard) and a Japanese movie “Vibrator.” Our music is electronic organic chill out “trip hop” and not totally unlike some of the tracks on NieR in regards to the atmosphere. We would love to hear our songs on a videogame or two!

Thanks to NieR, my voice has finally found its way out of Japan to ears around the world and so my next mission for 2010 is to get freesscape`s music out there too!

OSV: Thank you very much for your time.  Congratulations on the amazing work you and the audio team created for NieR.  We’re looking forward to hearing more of your voice in the future!

Evans: Thank you too, it was my pleasure!



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