As many composers would likely tell you, falling into a set style and way of composing—though sometimes unintentional—is a common obstacle in the creative process. This is most definitely not the case for Silicon Valley-based composer Skittlegirl, whose creative breadth and immense diversity in compositional styles is simply astounding. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Holly (Skittlegirl) in person, where we had a very exciting and thought-provoking conversation about feeling the power of music for the first time, decoding developer’s desires, and creative option anxiety.
Thanks for doing this interview! So how did you get started with music? Do you have any formal training?
Holly: Yes! I started to take piano lessons at the age of three. I would climb up the piano bench and started playing when I was two years old. I seemed to be really fascinated with sound, and interested in playing music. So my mom let me take private piano lessons. And not only did I learn about playing piano, but also my piano teacher used the methods of eurhythmics. So she tried to teach me that method too, and I started to transcribe by ear, and learn to sight-sing. Although, nobody was preparing me to be a musician. It was simply for fun. But my piano teacher just said in case you want to become a pianist later, I will just give you the basics. And that just really worked, now. I am very thankful for her.
Yeah, so it was more about enriching.
Yeah. I also ended up going to Kunitachi College of Music and majored in Music Composition.
Ah okay, awesome. So how did you come up with the name Skittle Girl?
Holly: I was living in Japan, and my husband—back then he was a boyfriend—was living in the United States. And he gave me this fancy gift box, and Skittles were included—it was his favorite candy. I liked the name Skittles, and I liked the candy too. So I made the compound word “Skittle Girl”, and I started to use it on the internet, like my username. And then when I decided to start my music freelance career, I decided to use that name, because I was familiar with the name already. And I was looking for another word, “Skittle Girl Something”, that matched, and I thought “Sound” matched better than “Music”.
Okay, so what or who are some of your main influences or inspirations?
Holly: (laughs) I’m supposed to say Nobuo Uematsu, because everyone often names him first, among other composers. I do think that this is because the Western audience was introduced to JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) from the Final Fantasy series. But we did have the Dragon Quest series beforehand. Final Fantasy was great, after Dragon Quest—kids were crazy about it. For me, Nobuo Uematsu is one of my favorite composers, and I definitely adore his work. I have from FFI to FFV, everything, even this Celtic arrangement… He has this symphonic suite CD, a collection from I – III. It was arranged by the Hattori family—Katsuhisa Hattori and Takayuki Hattori, father and son. Takayuki wrote an Overture for the Final Fantasy music, himself.
But, because of an experience I had when I was a child… I had a cassette tape player that I brought with me everywhere, and I would play Tchaikovsky’s ballet suite. I was dancing around, even though I wasn’t formally trained. (laughs) But I have this experience of immersion with music—that was really big for me, I just forgot about everything and just danced, and felt the power of music, being part of it. So I would say it’s Tchaikovsky. But I respect other people, too! (laughs)
Great! So what was the first piece you ever composed? And what sparked that initial burst of creativity?
Holly: I had the cassette tape recorder, and I recorded everything… When I would play video games, I would record it. And then I also played with my friends or cousins, doing some kind of skit, and I’d record that too. And one day, I was bored and decided to sit in front of the piano, and I put a picture book in front of me. I started to read the book, and I thought that I wanted some background music. So I started to play the piano—mostly improvisation, but also some arrangements of other pieces I already knew. That must be the first composition that I did, in elementary school… I was around six or seven?
That’s so cool! So what’s the first video game OST you composed? How did you get the position and what was the experience like?
Holly: When my husband, back then boyfriend, was going to Full Sail to learn game programming. He and other people were working on a final project, a shooting game called Star Stream Saga. They wanted game music for that project, so I wrote some stage and final boss music. So that was the first video game that I worked on.
Holly: Yeah, Mother Earth actually didn’t come out. A recent one I should mention is Legena—that was 16-bit music. That was one of the more recent ones… So there are two different kinds of processes. One is that the developer has a specific idea of the music, and will give me reference songs, and then say “Hey, I want music that sounds like this.” And then of course, I’m not going to copy it, but in this way you have to analyze the music, and try to figure out the feeling or atmosphere that the developer had for the scene. Maybe he meant the fast pace, maybe he meant the harmony that he liked: “This minor key is what I want!” Or sometimes they meant “This oboe-ish melody is what I want!”
Right…!! So it’s like they don’t have the musical expertise, so they don’t always know exactly what it is that they want! (laughs)
Holly: Yes, yes!! So, even if they say one thing… They meant something else. Even if they said “woodwind”, they might not mean woodwind. So decoding what they meant is one of the most important things. And then after you know what they want, then you can start to create it.
So that’s one way. And the other way is when they tell me, “Hey, it’s this kind of scene, and this kind of feeling.” And maybe they’ll give me a reference song, maybe not. But then I’m free to make anything. In that case, you need to have a specific idea yourself, you need to know the air, what kind of atmosphere they want. How do you feel when you are in that scene? I first imagine, and try to create that big image of what it will be, and try to articulate it into the music.
Okay, cool. So you have such an incredible diversity of genres—what style or genre is your favorite to write in, if you have one?
Holly: (laughs) Favorite, but hard. I always want to be good at writing orchestra music. I’m a big fan of Jeremy Soule. He’s been working for a game called Never Winter Night, Guild Wars, and the famous Elder Scrolls. He calls himself a “symphonist”. That’s so cool for me… Even though, orchestration… You have to be very, very good I’m still training myself to be better, but I guess because I like Tchaikovsky, I want to be like him! That’s the most challenging, but most favorite genre.
Okay, cool. So you have a playlist on soundcloud, titled “Music for RPG/Adventure”. In the description it says something about a royalty free music library—is there a story behind that?
Holly: Oh, yes! I have a website, where people contact me about commissioning music for their project. Some people liked my music, but unfortunately their budget was really low, so they couldn’t actually afford it. That happens quite a lot. So I wanted to have a solution for that. I decided to make non-exclusive, premade music. It can be used in many projects. I’m currently working on launching the store—trying to make it happen this year. I want to make a premade package that can be purchased at an affordable price. So that catch is that it’s non-exclusive, so whoever else could use the same music, but it’s a budget-friendly option for people I want to help out.
Wow, that’s very kind of you! Awesome. So which of your compositions, for a game or not, is your favorite, if you can choose one? (laughs)
Holly: (laughs) If I could choose one… I’m proud of most of the things i’ve done. But at the same time, when you look back, you know… You have a million things that you could’ve done, so that pushes you forward. Aside from my personal improvement and challenges and satisfaction, I try to do my best every time… Even though that sounds corny! Whenever the developer actually says “I loved that piece—thank you very much for working on it.” I’m really proud of it. Recently, Tony from Bunker the Underground Game, sent me a really nice, heartwarming message about how he really liked the end title for the game. So that felt special. I try to create something I’m imagining, so that reached him. Whenever I’m working on a project, I’m always thinking of the developer, so I try to make the best possible music, and at the same time I want to meet the expectations of the developer.
Cool, so in your opinion what are some of the key differences between video game music and other kinds?
Holly: Well, the biggest difference is that video game music tends to be made to be repeated, again and again. So it has to be tolerable! (laughs) In many cases, you have to listen to the same music for one hour. If that’s not interesting, players may start to use other BGM, so that’s kind of a bad thing. So even movie soundtracks, they make it to match the scene, but it doesn’t repeat that many times.
Sometimes it represents specific characters or scenes, which is the same for movie music too. But in games, sometimes the game itself doesn’t tell us what the character is about. For example, Street Fighter games don’t have much story. (laughs) They don’t need it. But they kind of recognize the character, aside from their appearance and skills. The feeling of the character is conveyed through the music.
Yeah, that’s interesting!
Holly: So that’s significant in the video game music—it could be the face of the character, or the game. It can be the representation of the scene, possibly way more so than the visuals.
Yeah. So what are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced while writing music for games, and how did you overcome them?
Holly: Aside from the usual writer’s block that people have… My biggest challenge is that I sometimes see many different answers to one particular thing.
Oh, so it’s like choosing the right one?
Holly: I learned the word “steadfast” because of this. I have to be steadfast, that’s what my husband tells me. Sometimes you’re working on one thing, and you think that’s the correct answer, that’s what the developer wants. Next day, you might have a different idea, it might sound better. Which is the right answer?
(laughs) Ahh, option anxiety!!
Holly: Yes, and that’s the challenge… I think you should stick with the original plan all the time, but that might not be the answer… So at the end, you have to be strong and follow your sense, and do the best with what you chose, and… Don’t look back! (laughs)
So that’s the biggest challenge for me. Sometimes I write like 50 sketches for one thing, and none of them sound right. But looking back, any of them could’ve been good, as long as you stick with it.
Do you ever keep them for future use?
Holly: Sometimes. But if I used a specific melody for a project, then I can’t use it—it’s gonna be in the trash can. (laughs)
(laughs) Yeah. Okay, I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible! You ready!?
Holly: Yeah, yeah!!
Favorite video game protagonist!
Holly: Aurora from Child of Light. She was so cute!!
Favorite video game series!
Holly: Mass Effect!
Favorite arcade game!
Holly: I don’t go to arcades! (laughs) I was really good at Dig Dug, how’s that? (laughs)
(laughs) Okay! Pick one: magic, physical strength, or defense?
Holly: Strength! All the way! Muscle for the win!
(laughs) Favorite Pokémon!
Favorite Character Theme!
Holly: Rathalos’s Theme, from Monster Hunter 2
Favorite battle theme!
Holly: Dragon Dogma’s Imminent Triumph. That’s a fanfare that plays when the battle turns around… It gives me goosebumps, every time!
Okay, cool. If you could live in any video game world for a week, which world would you choose?
Holly: (laughs) Since I’m playing Dark Soul 3, I was about to say that, but that’s gonna be so messy—oh gosh! Where to live… Ah, Phantasy Star online!
Okay, if you had to make a weapon out of any instrument, which instrument would you choose?
Holly: Tuba! A tuba rocket launcher! Play with pride!
(laughs) Yeah! Okay, that’s the end of rapid-fire questions. So what are your future plans? What are you working on now?
Holly: Currently working on the royalty-free music store that I mentioned. I wanted to finish that up, and launching the store is my first priority. And then some projects might come in, but it depends on the developers. Commissions might come in, but it’s to be determined!
Okay, cool, well those are all the questions I have! Do you have any final thoughts?
Holly: It was so much fun talking to you! Thank you for the opportunity! To be able to get to know a fellow composer is so cool, so thank you very much.
Yeah, thank you!