Between Earth and Sky: An Interview With Project Arranger Julia Henderson
Between Earth and Sky is an operatically-trained soprano and arranger of video game music Julia Henderson's project. It re-imagines Yasunori Mitsuda's iconic score for Chrono Trigger. The album ranges widely, traveling through many musical genres and features talented guest soloists in its homage to Mitsuda's music.
Karl Magi: How did your passion for music first get sparked?
Julia Henderson: I always used to play music as a kid. I was involved in multiple choirs, I played the flute since grade five and decided after high school that I was going to pursue a career in classical music. I took a year off after high school and studied music formally in private lessons. I did six hours a week of voice lessons, studied piano, learned all my theory and did a bunch of auditions. I got an undergraduate degree in voice performance from the University of Western Ontario and went on to do my master’s degree in music technology at the University of Toronto.
The video game music arranging itself really began on a whim because I had bought a USB microphone for the purpose of doing Twitch streams, reviews on YouTube and that kind of content, but I decided in order to test out the microphone to try and arrange some songs, record them and see how that turned out. I didn’t plan on publishing them, but they turned out pretty okay or at least I thought so at the time. I created a YouTube channel and uploaded my first music video in September 2015. I immediately fell into this amazing video game music cover and remixing community where I noticed that everyone was so supportive and welcoming.
I went on to do multiple collaborations with others and released videos once a week or once every couple of weeks for the next couple years before I went on to do my master’s degree. It was actually the content that I had produced for YouTube that went into the portfolio for my master’s degree acceptance, so that was pretty neat how everything came full circle there.
KM: Who are the composers that have most strongly informed your work?
JH: In terms of classical composers, I would have to say Debussy, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. In terms of contemporary music, I am influenced by jazz/fusion, rock, funk, and progressive metal: Thank You Scientist, Devin Townsend, Hiromi, and Tigran Hamasyan come to mind. Anything with interesting harmonies and really prominent rhythms usually grabs my attention. In terms of Japanese composers, of course, I am influenced by Yasunori Mitsuda himself and also Yoko Kanno. She’s a huge inspiration for me, she does a lot of composing for anime like Ghost in the Shell and has some of the most beautiful compositions I have ever heard. She is very interesting because she can excel in any genre, yet everything she creates is distinctly her sound. I admire anyone who can do that while serving the visual medium which they are writing for.
KM: What was it about Yasunori Mitsuda’s soundtrack for Chrono Trigger that made you interested in arranging it?
JH: I didn’t play Chrono Trigger until I was in my twenties. It’s definitely not about nostalgia like it is for a lot of people I feel. Memories of Green was the first track I ever heard in a video game that made me stop playing just so I could listen to it. It was such an immediate reaction. I wanted to cry. It was strange because it’s not as if that style of music can be gorgeously orchestrated in the way that a lot of modern music is because they were working with samples and synthesis. The compositions themselves were evoking so much emotion despite the fact that they weren’t being played by humans. Usually it’s classical music and specific performances of classical music that do that for me, but I was just kind of flabbergasted when it happened within a video game.
I love Mitsuda’s blending of all these different musical styles. I cannot point to his music and say that it is one style or another. It is very influenced by progressive genres, jazz, rock, some funk and classical music traditions and it’s very modal. It’s super interesting! His melodies are some of the most hauntingly beautiful I have heard as well.
KM: What were you trying to accomplish with your arrangements on Between Earth and Sky?
JH: I was trying to infuse multiple styles and genres within a cohesive six track work that stayed true to the original while also making sure that my musical tastes came across, so keeping elements that were similar throughout the tracks. My voice and the flute parts were recorded in the same studio with the same microphones on most of the tracks. The same piano appears on most of the tracks as well.
What’s different are all of the collaborators that I invited to play with me on the album. I wanted to take into account how they could influence specific arrangements. It was a question of how I could blend their specific skill set with what I have to offer in the arrangements, but still make it sound cohesive.
KM: Tell me about your collaborators and what you feel they brought to the album?
JH: Patti Rudisil and Peter Anthony Smith (who goes by Soundole on YouTube)played on Memories of Green. I knew that I wanted them both to appear on the track, so that influenced my instrumentation which meant I had violin and clarinet to go along with my flute. That’s not really a standard trio of instruments, but I wanted to work with those two so I was set on making it work. Their playing is so dynamic and delicate that I knew there would be unrivalled musicianship on the track.
The next track, Battle with Magus, features my partner Lorenzo who is an excellent metal and hard rock guitarist. I actually made a trip out to B.C. to arrange that track with him. Lorenzo and I sat down and decided everything together. We even wrote his solo together. That was really the only time that I didn’t do it at a distance. With the other collaborators, I sent them the tracks and said, “Here! Have at it.”
I’ll also mention Carlos Eiene (insaneintherainmusic) who played tenor saxophone on Wings That Cross Time. I wrote that arrangement for him, but I’m not trained as a jazz musician so I sometimes feel as if I’m an impostor when it comes to jazz. It meant a lot to be able to get his feedback.
Finally I wanted to mention the last track: World Revolution. It’s a very special track for me because I put out a call to action with a Google Drive document that contained the vocal parts, the string parts, the click track and the mock up. I said that if people wanted to contribute, they had two weeks to send me their material. I got such a nice response from people. All the strings and the voices you hear on that track are a virtual ensemble which filled it out really nicely.
KM: Tell me more about your own vocal and musical contributions to the album outside of arranging the music.
JH: I knew for some of the songs that I wanted to write lyrics, but I have always been wary of adding lyrics because it’s a make it or break it kind of thing. They can be so cheesy or detract from the emotion of the track or they can really add something special. I decided that I’d only write lyrics if I felt that they could add something. Memories of Green, Schala’s Theme and Corridors of Time ended up having lyrics. They’re not literal, they’re open to interpretation. I also did tons of choral recordings. What I do for that is record four or five tracks of each vocal part, I layer them all together and add processing to make it sound like a larger ensemble in a real hall. The one stand out would be Wings That Cross Time where I scatted along with Carlos’ tenor saxophone playing and I let his playing dictate how I sang over it.
KM: What are your aspirations for Between Earth and Sky?
JH: I just hope that people rediscover this music and maybe go and play the game if they haven’t done that. I hope that people find something special in it that enhances the original work, but doesn’t take away from their memory or nostalgia about the game. I want their overall experience to be positive. I want everyone to see how much collaboration went on, not just with the musicians, but with the art designer, Lorenzo de Sequera, my mastering engineer AHmusic, and Materia Collective who published and distributed the work as well.
AHmusic is from Venezuela, so we were communicating with him throughout all of the power outages happening there. He still managed to master the album and deliver everything on time. Soloists came from Europe, Australia, Asia, and all over North America. The album was really a global community effort overall and I think that is absolutely the best way to make music. I hope that more and more people realize the power of digital media and what is possible in terms of music creation and dissemination nowadays.