On this last week's episode of Sound & Vision, KEXP's Dusty Henry profiles Seattle composer Lena Raine, who scored the video game Celeste in 2018 and recently released her debut solo album Oneknowing. Listen to the audio feature below an read an extended profile below.
Battling depression and anxiety can feel like trying to climb a mountain – a mountain that’s actively trying to keep you from reaching the summit. It’s a metaphor that gamers experienced for themselves with the video game Celeste.
Celeste was an indie game sensation last year. The game follows main character Madeline who’s trying to overcome her own anxieties and decides she wants to take on the harrowing task of climbing the mystical Celeste Mountain. Players jump and dash through hazardous, brightly colored obstacles while Madeline is chased by a mirror image of herself, a manifestation of her biggest insecurities.
Celeste quickly drew praise for its grueling yet exciting gameplay and thoughtful approach. It earned perfect scores from video game critics at IGN and taking home multiple wins at 2018’s Game Awards. Integral to the game’s success is its vivid and inspiring soundtrack composed by Seattle artist Lena Raine.
Raine’s evocative score blends heavy synthesizer leads with delicate piano melodies and mesmerizing ambient drones. It’s impressive enough for its musicality, but it’s how the score mirrors Madeline’s journey that makes the Celeste soundtrack work.
Today, Celeste soundtrack is now receiving a new deluxe edition vinyl release, the same day Raine is dropping what she's dubbed her debut solo album, Oneknowing – out now via Local Action Records. Raine recently stopped by the KEXP studio to chat about both records and share how she approaches both writing for video games and for herself.
Raine’s musical forays began at an early age. Her father was a composer, with a reel-to-reel studio in their home that he’d allow Raine to utilize as a child.
“I was down there as a kid and recording myself like when I was just learning how to talk right,” Raine says. “I would record just kind of like banging out some song or something on a piano. And then after I was done recording, I'd be like, ‘I want to go upstairs and listen to it.’”
At the same time she began to explore music, Raine also was being captivated by the world of video games. When she was six years old, she got both the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and a Gameboy. Playing games like Link’s Awakening and Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, her ear turned toward the whimsical soundtracks. When a friend turned her onto the NoteWorthy Composer software, she suddenly was able to make her own MIDI arrangements much like the video game music she loved.
Eventually, Raine would attend Seattle’s Cornish School of the Arts, where she enrolled in both the classical and jazz programs. While her professors tried to steer her toward modern classical composition, Raine persisted in her goal of creating scores and music for video games.
Her first big break came while she was working in Quality Assurance for video game developer Arena Net. The company was working on holiday content for their flagship game Guild Wars II and the idea came up of doing a music-focused mini-game. Raine put together some orchestral arrangements which impressed her team. Her music soon became a part of the core game and she would be listed as co-composer on the Guild Wars II soundtrack.
After Guild Wars, Raine wanted a break from doing orchestral work. So in 2016, she released what she calls a “very emotional deep house” EP called Singularity under the moniker Kuraine. The EP found its way to Vancouver B.C. based developers, Matt Thorson and Noel Berry. The two devs quickly fell in love with Raine’s sound and reached out to Raine about joining their team for a new game they were working on that would eventually become Celeste.
In the beginning, Celeste wasn’t the emotional experience that it’s become celebrated for. An early demo of the game caught on with speedrunners – gamers who compete to see how fast they can complete a game – who were impressed with the game’s mechanics. Thorson and Berry saw the potential to build it out into something bigger.
With Raine on board, alongside a fleshed out team, Celeste began to change and reveal itself to its creators. While they worked on building the game, the team’s personal lives and Madeline’s journey began to overlap.
”There wasn't this goal of making this big emotional narrative journey,” Raine says. “But as we are working on the game and as all of our lives were kind of having their own ups and downs to them and we all kind of contributed things to the game, that kind of naturally sprung out of what we were creating.”
Raine says it’s a testament to her and the rest of the Celeste team allowing themselves to go to these personal places, bringing their real-life experiences into the characters. Once they let these guards down, Madeline’s narrative began to form naturally
It also meant Raine had to change her approach. While the team liked her initial musical ideas, as the themes of the game changed her upbeat, chiptune music no longer fit the tone. While still a difficult puzzle platformer, the game started to become more exploratory and “thinking before you leap,” as Raine puts it.
First, she slowed down the tempo. She says this gave the game “more space to breathe.” But she still needed something to ground the music in Madeline’s very human experience. So she turned to the piano.
”I started introducing piano lines primarily as sort of a metaphor for the snow falling and that very icy, kind of vibe to it,” Raine says. “Through that process, I discovered, oh this piano is a pretty integral part of the sound for this game now.”
Raine, who also has battled with depression and anxiety, says she was able to see a bit of herself in Madeline. By being able to relate with the game’s central character, she was able to create a score that echoed the anxieties Madeline faces throughout her journey up Celeste Mountain.
”I definitely identified a lot with the struggles that [Madeline] goes through,” she says, “And so one of the things that I really wanted to bring to the score was the sense that the music is really a reflection of her internal headspace. This is the kind of stuff that she needs to be hearing to process all of these emotions and the adventure that she's having.”
There are transcendent and beautiful moments on the Celeste soundtrack, like the rousing, blissful “First Steps” or the soothing sprawl of songs like “Heart of the Mountain” and “Quiet and Falling.” But in a game that openly addresses experiences like anxiety and panic attacks, the music has to expand beyond this serene atmosphere.
As things get more chaotic, so does the score. Raine says she saw the music needed to reflect Madeline’s internal struggles. The music wasn’t an external narrator dictating the mood, but instead echoed Madeline’s internal dialogue. What you’re hearing is what Madeline is feeling. Raine’s own experiences informed her approach.
“I very much wanted to bring that connection into scoring the music, and especially when it gets really personal for her in the game, to really connect my own experiences to that in some way,” Raine says.
There are a lot of really great moments throughout the game to exemplify this approach. But there's one particular scene where Madeline is having a panic attack that showcases Raine’s prowess.
Madeline is stuck on a gondola hanging over a massive ravine. Along with her is a character named Theo, a fellow hiker looking for answers on Celeste Mountain and coping with his own insecurities and social media addiction. As the gravity of the situation sets in, Madeline begins to have a panic attack.
The world around her goes dark. The once airy, spacious soundtrack is suddenly overcome by swells of siren-like synths. Theo identifies what’s going on and leads Madeline through what is essentially a breathing exercise – a known method for coping with a panic attack – instructing her to imagine a feather floating and using slow and steady breaths to keep it afloat.
“I know what this feels like. I know how it can feel like control is taken away from you in a lot of ways,” Raine says she thought while scoring the scene. “The thing that stuck out to me the most was trying to display with the music the feeling of trying to be in control, to focus on something, and then something being completely out of your control and the way that those two things interact.”
Raine further details how she created the music for this pivotal and all-too-realistic scene:
”The way that I ended up doing it was by having two pieces of the music and they were sort of dynamically tied together with the breathing exercises where you had the core instrument, the piano, playing this repetitive phrase and just having it go over and over and over and it being sort of this almost mantra for the character to try and focus on. But then as the panic attack sets in, as the control is taken away from her, the large, overbearing synths just kind of rise and swell up and completely engulf that line. It's still playing the entire time, but eventually, you just can't hear it anymore.
“That feeling that I really wanted to get across was, to tie it into personal experience, one of those feelings that I kind of really center on when I am when I'm trying to calm myself down is realizing like, "Oh my heart is beating way faster than I feel like it absolutely should. And you know there's no way that I can actually calm it down. So I have to do something else rather than focusing on that specifically.
“And so that continual just heartbeat and pace of the music, having it be this sort of thing that overwhelms what you're trying to focus on. And then as you're actually able to calm down, then that emerges again and you can breathe again and can refocus on what it is that you're trying to do.”
The game’s success goes beyond just sales and awards. It’s had a personal impact on many of the players who’ve picked up the game. Raine says she gets at least one or two emails a week from people who say the game as impacted them in a positive way.
Following up on her breakthrough year, Raine is keeping the momentum going with a new album called ‘Oneknowing,’ which just came out yesterday via Local Action Records.
Where the music in ‘Celeste’ mirrored the experience of anxiety, the music in ‘Oneknowing’ is meant to soothe the mind. It’s a record of hazy, atmospheric beats and warm, dream-like synthesizer drones.
Relaxing was a driving force for Raine on the album. She says while she was working on scores from her commercial gaming projects, she found herself increasingly stressed out. She felt compelled to create something that was just for herself. She wanted to make music that would put her at ease.
“I was in this space where I needed to unwind, to kind of relax and breathe a little bit,” Raine says. “So I was like, ‘Okay, well I'm going to break my rule. I'm going to actually just write a piece of music for myself with no real idea of where it's going to go. And so that actually became the first single ‘Tsukuyomi.’”
After posting a clip of the song on YouTube and Twitter, Raine once again found a positive reception from fans who also praised the song for its relaxing nature. Raine kept moving forward with this same act of musical catharsis.
Steadily the material built up into what Raine describes as an album about memories, dreams, and the lack of dreams. The songs carry this dreamlike quality, veering into ambient territory and utilizing spacious beats and pristine production. The further she got into the recording process, the more her thoughts turned to her own subconscious and dreams.
“It really kind of became this exercise of being both something that's relaxing but also kind of troubled in some way and having those sort of ideas of dreams and insomnia – the lack of dreams,” she says, “It delved into that sense of the internal feedback loop of thoughts. Whether it's your unconscious, subconscious thoughts while you're dreaming that are looping and creating their own scenarios or the things that kind of cycle through your head as you're trying to sleep and completely failing at.”
As opposed to the mostly instrumental score for ‘Celeste,’ Raine’s voice is a central fixture to the record. But her voice takes on an ethereal, ghostly texture. Driven by nostalgia for her voice as it was a child, Raine affected her singing with software called Vocaloid.
“I wanted to make it sound as realistic as possible and also as much like me as possible,” she says. “I could use that software to become my own voice. And so instead of trying to create a character, I wanted to create myself with this voice and to allow that to sing on the album.”
The results sound both childlike and celestial, adding to the record’s themes of dreams and memory. It’s not just the tone of her voice, but also what she’s saying that feels otherworldly. Her lyrics aren’t in English. In fact, she’s not singing in any particular language at all. Instead, she sings in a made-up language or her own creation.
The choice to forgo a known language was inspired by artists Raine grew up listening to like the Icelandic group Sigur Ros as well as video games like the Nier series and the Japanese import soundtracks she grew up listening to. In all cases, she couldn’t understand the words but could feel the connotations in the music.
“I think that really appealed to me in a lot of ways. That sense of coming to a language that you don't know and trying to listen to it for the first time. You still get those emotions,” she says.
Crafting the lyrics became another exercise in the subconscious, allowing Raine to express herself without speaking directly about the thoughts and worries occupying her mind. Even so, she still needed the feeling and intention behind her made-up words to come through to the listener. Raine kept this in mind as she constructed this “dream language” into her music.
To do this, she says it was important to make the lyrics aesthetically pleasing. She’d utilize repetition in her made-up words and phrases. Raine says the act of repeating words became a sort of mantra.
“I wanted to give that feeling but without the commitment of saying specifically what those words were,” Raine says.
While the lyrics revel in their ambiguity, Raine says there is a poignancy to the title ‘Oneknowing.’ It encapsulates an idea that resonates throughout the album and her creative process as a whole.
Raine says she stumbled upon the word “oneknowing” in an essay on musical comprehension and writing. Quickly she identified with the phrases’ sentiment:
“The phrase oneknowing encapsulated a singular concept of someone experiencing the higher emotional power that music has. If you said "one that knows," you're still imposing that duality to it. And so when you combine it into the single phrase oneknowing, then it becomes this one singular object of just that state.
“It was something that resonated with me as a composer and as someone that listens to music. That was the experience that I wanted to evoke in the music that I write. And so it sort of became a natural fit for it for the album.”
In both ‘Oneknowing’ and her music for ‘Celeste,’ Raine has found herself exploring emotional depths. By channeling her personal experiences into her work, she’s crafting a body of work that’s just as empathetic as it is dazzling with its synthesizer wizardry and pristine production.
Both the deluxe edition of the Celeste soundtrack and Oneknowing are both available now.
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