Legend Of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses – Interview with producer Jason Michael Paul

By Chris del Castillo

Over a decade ago, I would have never imagined that companies like Square Enix and Nintendo would rent out places like the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles to produce orchestrated music dedicated to one single gaming franchise. But thanks to Jason Michael Paul Productions, fans all over the world have been able to experience this, and better yet, we’ve seen companies like Square Enix and JMPP include guests like Nobuo Uematsu and the Black Mages to appear on stage and play with the orchestra.

Before the start of The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses concert in Los Angeles, we had a chance to sit down with Jason Michael Paul, the man who made it all possible.

Nerd Reactor: What led you to bring the world of games to life via concerts and symphonies?

Jason Michael Paul: I think it was a lot of luck. I was working with Square Enix at the time, or rather before they were Square Enix. (They were just Square.) I was spending a lot of time in Japan and I was being exposed to Koichi Sugiyama from the Dragon Quest series. And seeing them doing concerts with Dragon Quest, it was purely orchestral! I was actually in Costa Rica and I had a Final Fantasy CD, and I was putting it through a brand new sound system that we were using in a stadium there. Everyone was just kind of tripping because they didn’t know what a “One Winged Angel” was at the time.

Just imagine a stadium! It was pretty epic. And this was before I even started touching symphonies, but I had the recordings. At that moment, a lightbulb went off! I just so happened to be doing Luciano Pavarotti’s farewell tour in Tokyo at around the same time I had this idea, which is also around the time Square Enix was formed. And as a result, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest were now under the same umbrella. So that was when they wanted to do a Final Fantasy concert, and that was when I was having this idea. So it kind of just came together perfectly at once! They wanted me to do the press event at the Walt Disney Concert Hall to announce Square Enix merging at E3 that year. So in a sense, it’s kind of this long but real story about how it all came to be! It was just timing and luck.

What got you into music?

My dad, my parents, also I played when I was younger. My dad was in a band, my uncle used to play, we just had a lot of instruments around the house. I always had an ear for music and my dad was always a music aficionado of all genres. I owe a lot to him. He was also a professional roller derby star so I kind of got a taste of that side of entertainment. Looking back on it, that had more to do with where I am at now than anything. You know, I got lucky, I was working for PlayStation and I was the guy they asked to book all the music acts that came through like the Foo Fighters for the big parties they had at E3 and other conventions. That’s how they impressed, by booking all these big musicians to perform!

So what started The Legend of Zelda series of symphonies?

PLAY: A Video Game Symphony was where I was first really introduced to Nintendo. It was at my premiere of that show in Chicago that I invited Mr. Kondo and they accepted. So I had Koji Kondo and Kim Moore, who has been a long time contact of mine at Nintendo. She was there from the beginning. Mr. Kondo came and I just remember picking him up at the airport. He’s such a gracious and humble human being, kind of like this little kid, haha! I took him to his hotel and he performed on piano music from Super Mario Bros, so that was pretty exciting. I remember having a party that night and (so cool) he performed on the piano I had that night. That’s basically how I started working with Nintendo, and I will always remember that letter from Mr. Miyamoto thanking me (thanking ME) for including his music as part of my concert. I was thinking, “No, thank YOU, sir!”

Did you ever think that you would expand from PLAY to the Zelda Concert to the Master Quest to the Symphony of the Goddess? How did that come about?

That came through me listening to some of the people I had around me and utilizing my contacts to make it happen. We were evaluating franchises and obviously, Final Fantasy was the one that we knew could have this commercial success that we imagined and Zelda was all kind of in that same realm. We just believed in it. We knew it was going to be the most successful video game music concert. And here we are, 250 shows in, worldwide. I can’t say enough great things, I’m just blessed.

Looking back from the first show until now, how do you feel being able to do all these different shows around the world?

I’m very determined and I’m also the type of person who wouldn’t do it if I knew it wasn’t going to be successful. I knew from Day 1 that this was going to have the legs it has now. It was just all a matter of getting Nintendo’s trust and being able to maintain that trust for this many years.

Let’s play a little game. What are the first songs that come to mind? Let’s kick it off with The Legend of Zelda!

I’m a big fan of Skyward Sword. We have this really nice arrangement called “The Goddess Lyric,” which is one of my favorite pieces. The overture that we created for this concert is now one of my favorites. It includes Breath of the Wild; it’s always updated and it’s a great representation of The Legend of Zelda. Twilight Princess has got a lot of great music. I love the Fairy’s Fountain. Ballad of the Wind Fish is amazing. We just added a brand new movement from Skyward Sword so we have 5 movements now. And now that we know where the game fits in the timeline, we placed it as the first one. We also have Breath of the Wild of course, and we created an arrangement based on the one you probably heard at E3, and we perform it with sound effects from the trailer. It really flows beautifully with the orchestra. I will address this now, Gerudo Valley is one of my favorites, but unfortunately, we had to omit it from this one because we have so much FREAKIN’ MUSIC! I just need to say this now, I can’t do everything! I will add it as a finale if people keep saying it, but something will get cut, mind you!

Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy? Oh man! I like “Terra’s Theme,” “Aerith’s Theme.” “One Winged Angel” is always a favorite. “Maria and Draco,” I’ve had the pleasure of recording that. I even like the “Black Mages.” It’s always cool when you go to meetings at Square Enix and you see your project. [laughs] “Suteki da ne” is another one. I also like “Eyes on Me,” especially the vocals. That’s why I really am proud of More Friends because having that orchestra and rock band performing together is not easy to pull off. That production was not an easy production to do because our orchestra was over 70 members and choir had 32, and then we had all the soloists and then the rock band. I want to say we had 115 people on that stage.

Kingdom Hearts

I love Kingdom Hearts. Where do I start, geez? Well again, Utada Hikaru. That will always be my favorite Kingdom Hearts song.

Which do you prefer, “Passion” or “Sanctuary”?

I would say I wouldn’t mind either, but I speak Japanese so I can understand it. I like Japanese! I want to hear it again. That’s gonna bring me back because I remember I was trying to pitch Universal Music, who at the time was her label, and I was trying to get her to come perform that song. They were making such a big deal about her, in Japan, of course, she’s big time. It’s the same thing I did for another artist, Angela Aki, who also did Final Fantasy music. I was trying to get her to come out and she agreed. I thought the same thing would happen with Utada but that didn’t happen.

What is your favorite Legend of Zelda video game?

Well, I have a couple answers because it would be difficult to say. I can say that when I got the first gold cartridge, that was kind of special. I will always remember those days and it will always be one of my favorites. Fast forwarding, I’m a father now, been a father for 10 years, I play Zelda with my daughter now and the first game we played was Majora’s Mask. So as a 40-year-old man and a father of a 10-year-old who likes to play Zelda, that would be one of my favorites. And then Skyward Sword professionally. I was fortunate enough to do the orchestral CD that came with it. So it will always be a highlight that I produced that CD. I just wish I got a royalty for that. [laughs] Breath of the Wild is awesome and my daughter likes that game too.

So from when you started in 2003, how have you seen this music industry grow in the world of video games?

I see a lot of change. Honestly, I think the market can bear other shows, but I don’t know how much more. It’s not easy to do these types of shows and they’re very costly. I would say that the changes that are happening are that we’re definitely becoming more accepted by the symphony world. I’m seeing those changes being a very good thing. I think we’re contributing to growing a new market or kind of helping them to replace a dying audience, so in that sense, I think we’re really helping symphonies.

For example, Detroit we have a show with and they had a phenomenal success with the sales of the show. There’s probably going to be a lot of new audience members that they’re going to help grow. Just mainstream acceptance, it’s not just a niche anymore. Wouldn’t it have been great 30 years ago to hear Nintendo record some of their soundtracks with an orchestra? I think more game companies are investing in these soundtracks. They’re actually hiring orchestras and arrangers not just working off of synth, so that’s very exciting!

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