Billye Sands‘s exquisite ear for music and exceptional eye for photography completely drew me in, with her delectable assortment of VGM tracks, and a pleasantly peculiar playlist of original songs. The kind-hearted composer and I had a great discussion, from Georgia to California, where she shared her thoughts about cartoons as inspiration, spontaneous and free-spirited composition, vertical orchestration, and the importance of taking your time for the little things.
How did your life with music begin? Do you have any formal training?
Billye: I do, I started playing piano when I was 7—I’m 25 now. I wasn’t really as serious about music back then as I am now. I mean I played piano here and there—I did take lessons, and had recitals, performances, whatnot. I guess when it comes to composition… Have you heard of a game called Nickelodeon Director’s Lab?
No, I have not!
Billye: It’s this little game where you make movies. You make cartoons, the audio, the sound effects, title slides… I kinda got started with that—that was my start with behind-the-scenes aspects.
Okay, interesting. Who are some of your musical influences and inspirations?
Billye: Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy… For more modern times, I guess Tyler the Creator, Janelle Monáe, and Esperanza Spalding.
Okay, cool. So what other sorts of things do you get inspired by, outside of music?
Billye: That’s a tricky question. (laughs) I’m really visual, so whenever I hear something, I kinda see something too… It’s kinda weird. I don’t know, anything and everything. I hear interviews on NPR… I’m really into cartoons, so like Adventure Time. Do you watch Adult Swim?
Not too much. I do know of some of the shows.
Billye: So I really like Robot Chicken and Superjail!—those two… I always think of music to go along with those, whenever I see something.
Those little skits? (laughs)
Okay, interesting. What programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Billye: I mainly use Logic Pro X, and Pro Tools if I have to. It really depends on the project. If I’m recording audio, then of course Pro Tools, but if I’m working with midi, then Logic. I do have a midi keyboard, a mic, preamp… That’s pretty much it!
So what was the first video game you wrote music for, and how did you get the position?
Billye: It’s called Vague Tomorrow—it’s not out yet, still in development. It was for our final project, we got to either write our own song, or write music to a video game. And so I chose video game, naturally.
Cool! What is your compositional process like? How do you usually go about writing a new piece of music, if there is a formula?
Billye: (laughs) No formula at all. It’s very spontaneous: I just do what sounds right to me. I know that sounds self-centered I guess.
No, no. Not at all! (laughs)
Billye: If it sounds right… I’m really picky. If it sounds right to me, then I think it’s okay. I might do one section, then move onto another section with another instrument, and jump back and forth—there’s no really set formula. It’s just… Whatever sounds right.
Billye: Yeah, whatever happens happens. And of course I tweak… I often have a hard time getting all my musical ideas out, cause my mind’s all over the place. I’ll play a phrase, then I’ll think of a million different things I could do with that phrase. So it takes forever to finish something.
Do you do a lot of improvising? Or do you put it straight into the sequencer?
Billye: I improvise! If I’m using midi in Logic, I’ll usually click it in using the mouse, sometimes I’ll play it… It just really depends. I should probably mention, I just graduated from Full Sail! You asked about my musical background.
Oh nice, congratulations! Is there anything else you wanted to mention, with your experience at that university?
Billye: It was great! I graduated from the Music Production program. It was two years—it’s accelerated, so it’s not a traditional four-year university. So it was 21 months. I really love that speedy…
Just cram it all in! (laughs) So what sort of aspirations do you have as a game composer? What kinds do you want to write music for?
Billye: Adventure Time! I mean, adventure genre! (laughs)
If they had an Adventure Time video game!!
Billye: Oh yes! That would be fun! Platformers are fun. Basically anything and everything.
I don’t have a set genre of video game I would like to compose for, cause I’m really influenced by Final Fantasy, Nobuo Uematsu… I have to admit, I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game, but I am in love with the soundtracks.
Yeah, they’re amazing. He has really turned video game music into what it is today!
Billye: Yeah, he has. Koji Kondo, of course… And Yoko Shimomura, we have the same birthday! October 19, it’s crazy. Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy are my two favorite video game soundtracks.
Which Kingdom Hearts game is your favorite? Or which ones have you played?
Billye: I and II… I have to admit, I’m more of a Nintendo person, so Mario 64, Donkey Kong, Ocarina of Time…
Yes!! One of my life goals is to play all of the Zelda games. (laughs) So what’s one of the biggest compositional challenges you’ve faced, and how did you get through it?
Billye: Hm. Getting started—my main weakness is procrastination. I have a lot of ideas. I have the means to develop my ideas. But I just, for some reason, put it off. I don’t know why, I just do. But once I get started, of course, I’m just a train loose on tracks—I don’t stop. So how do I overcome procrastination? Just start, just do it. I have to be motivated.
“Getting started—my main weakness is procrastination. I have a lot of ideas. I have the means to develop my ideas. But I just, for some reason, put it off. I don’t know why, I just do. But once I get started, of course, I’m just a train loose on tracks—I don’t stop.”
I feel like that’s a pretty common problem, yeah. (laughs)
Billye: That’s the great thing about Full Sail—the classes are only a month long.
Billye: So you can’t procrastinate—I mean you can, but it won’t be good! I was in constant go-mode! So you didn’t have time to procrastinate, even though… I did. (laughs)
Yeah, interesting. So which piece of yours is the most different from any of your other compositions, and what did you learn from writing that piece?
Billye: “Slappa Da Bass” is my favorite. That one was fun. I wrote it for a class assignment. He gave us the chord progression, and he gave us the time signature. But it was up to us to use that however we wanted, with voicing, tempo, etc… So I kinda made it as a competition between the instruments. It’s like electronic drums versus acoustic drums. And the slap bass versus the thumb bass—they go back and forth.
Oh, okay! Are they on teams? Or is it just everyone against everyone else?
Billye: I guess? I didn’t really think of it that way. I thought about it like taking turns: you go, then I go, then you go, then I go. I guess trading eights, or fours, or whatever.
Okay, interesting. What’s your favorite style of music to write in?
Billye: Ooh. Style… Jazz, or orchestral. Yeah. I don’t really think of style when I write—I just write. You probably hear that all the time: I’m just free! (laughs)
I’m just a free spirit!! (laughs)
Billye: I just do whatever! (laughs) Like I said earlier, I just do. And whatever category it goes in, I guess.
Yeah, I feel like that’s the best way to do it.
Billye: Yeah, cause if I say “I’m gonna write a rock piece” or something, it’s not gonna come out rock, it’s gonna come out completely different. I mean there are elements of rock easily identifiable. But that could also lead into jazz, or classical, or anything.
“I don’t really think of a style when I write—I just write. … And whatever category it goes in, I guess. … If I say ‘I’m gonna write a rock piece’ or something, it’s not gonna come out rock, it’s gonna come out completely different.”
Okay, so what sorts of hobbies or activities do you like to do outside of video games and music?
Billye: Ooh, I like to skateboard!
Oh, nice! How long have you been doing that?
Billye: (laughs) Since about May of this year?
Billye: I can’t ollie yet, but I can coast!
Have you had your share of falling down and injuries?
Billye: Of course, of course. But I know how to fall now. There’s a technique to falling!
Billye: Very. Any other hobbies… Oh, photography!
Yeah, awesome! Now I have a list of rapid-fire question. Give short answers as quickly as possible! You ready!?
Billye: Okay! Yay!
Favorite video game protagonist!
Billye: Donkey Kong!
Favorite character theme!
Billye: Piranha Plant Lullaby.
Favorite arcade game!
Courage, wisdom, or power?
Favorite battle theme!
Billye: Zant Battle, from Twilight Princess.
Ah okay, that’s a really good one. Favorite time signature!
Nice. If you could live in any video game world for a week, which world would you choose?
Billye: Uncharted 4.
Nice. If you could befriend any video game antagonist, who would you be friends with?
Billye: Oh my gosh… Oh no. Okay. Ganon, I guess. Sure.
Okay, if you had to make a weapon out of any instrument, which instrument would you choose to fight with?
Billye: A double bass. (laughs) Am I allowed to modify it?
Sure! How would you modify it?
Billye: You know the scroll at the top? I would use that as a handle, and add a blade of a sword, and just use that. That’d be a cool sword though.
Yeah, that sounds awesome! End of rapid-fire questions.
Billye: Okay. How did I do!? Oh my gosh.
Yeah, that was good, that was good. A+! So what are some of your future plans? What are you working on now?
Billye: Finishing up Vague Tomorrow. Actually, I befriended some other game dev students at Full Sail, and we’re working on a game too. It’s a music-based game… And I’m still trying to figure out FMod and Wwise, audio engines. Have you played around with that yet?
No… I’m not so good with the technical aspects. (laughs)
Billye: That’s what I love about it, it’s so cool… I have a very technical side, and I have a very creative side. That’s what I love about video game music—you can combine both! It doesn’t have to be linear… Are you familiar with vertical orchestration?
Not really… Or maybe. Talk about it! (laughs)
Billye: Okay, sure! Say you have four layers. They’re always playing, but they’re muted for now. So you go into a new area, and one layer unmutes, and you go into another area, and another layer unmutes. Does that make sense?
Billye: Like you have a layer of drums, in a battle scene. And as the battle escalates, you’ll have a layer of like crazy violins or something. And as the fight escalates some more, you’ll have brass… They’re always playing, but they just unmute as you go along.
Yeah, yeah. That’s so cool. So what’s one of the most important life lessons you’ve learned, music-wise?
Billye: Take your time to do it right. I know that sounds cliché. Say you’re practicing a new piece for piano, saxophone, oboe, whatever. Take your time to work out the little things. Cause it’s the little things that could matter—it’s the “little things” that make up the big picture anyway. So… Take your time!
Yeah, awesome. Good advice! Well those are all the questions I have. Do you have any final thoughts?
Billye: Hire me! (laughs) No, that’s it!
(laughs) Okay, great! Have a good day!
Listen to Billye Sands’s wonderful music on soundcloud: