Aubrey Ashburn Interview: Voice of an Angel (July 2010)
Aubrey Ashburn is a classically-trained singer-songwriter known for her solo album Sleeping Virtue and her performances on several video game soundtracks. This year she sung the main theme for Dragon Age: Origins both for its soundtrack release and its appearance at A Night in Fantasia 2009. Her other soundtrack works include Devil May Cry 4, Alice in Wonderland, and The Lord of the Rings.
In this interview, Aubrey Ashburn discusses her background, solo works, and early scores. She moves on to detail her eminent collaborations on Dragon Age: Origins, Devil May Cry 4, and Alice in Wonderland with Inon Zur, Tetsuya Shibata, and Richard Jacques. Finally, she reveals that she is currently working on a second solo album that may feature video game tie-ins.
Interview Subject: Aubrey Ashburn
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Greg O'Connor-Read
Chris: Aubrey Ashburn, thank you for talking to us today. First of all, could you introduce yourself to readers and discuss your musical background, education, and influences? What ultimately led you to becoming a professional vocalist?
Aubrey Ashburn: I am a singer/songwriter for film, television and video games such as Alice in Wonderland, Dragon Age: Origins, Devil May Cry 4, Lord of the Rings: Battle For Middle Earth II, and Lost Planet: Extreme Condition.
I've studied music and performed since I was nine years old. I'm from Ohio where the public school system is pretty progressive and music and art is a class that's held daily, as opposed to weekly in other parts of the country. In addition to the years of choral study and private classical voice lessons, I also played violin, piano and even the snare drum in my high school marching band, though singing always stood out as a true passion of mine. I later went on to teach myself the basics of guitar in order to write songs. I thought, at the time, that guitar would be a better tool to write and perform pop music, although I use both piano and guitar nowadays.
The year I wrapped on my debut album, "Sleeping Virtue" — a four year endeavor — I also finished an Associate of Arts degree in Music from Ventura College. After I graduated I moved to Hollywood to perform live shows and accidentally stumbled into music for video games.
I've been influenced by many of the classics as well as modern artists, including Sarah McLaughlin, Peter Gabriel, Zeppelin, Imogen Heap, Sting, Coldplay, Sade, The Cranberries, Paul Simon, The Art of Noise, Enigma and many more.
Chris: In 2003, you released your first solo album, Sleeping Virtue, while working with music producer Jerry Merrill. Could you discuss the concept and content of this folk-pop album? What do you regard as the major highlights?
Aubrey Ashburn: It was originally intended as a developmental collection of songs, designed to showcase our range of talent. We'd hoped to get the attention of major labels, which we did, but all interest dissolved after 9/11. We realized that we'd have to release it independently, so Jerry started up the label named Gaston Records.
Jerry was my songwriting mentor and, although he steered me quite a bit, as a producer should, he left room for me to be creative. Jerry used to describe my lyrics as "ethereal" because really, he was trying to get me to write material that would appeal more to the pop market. I specifically was trying for songs that were different though; that had a more spiritual and personal message of empowerment and overcoming challenges. Writing about love was not interesting to me at the time, although "Speak To Me" is a true love song that came about when we were in Germany for the Music Bridges songwriting event in 2000. And don't let the title "Woman in Love" fool you — that's about someone else!
There were so many memorable moments during the making of that album. "Only Me" for instance was what I call "a crier." The chorus lyrics came about in phase with the melody and the words just appeared from what felt like my subconscious spiritual self, and it made me cry involuntarily. That's when I know something is going to be good!
Chris: After producing this album, you worked at the Soundelux Design Music Group in a range of roles. What inspired you to work for this company and what did it teach you about the business and creative process of music-for-visuals?
Aubrey Ashburn: I never intended to do sales, but I was drawn to the group because it is a team of highly creative people working in the entertainment industry. During my time there, I learned a tremendous amount about the business of creating content and it really was the first time I saw for myself, a functional industry model. I guess I was just so out of the loop as far as understanding the supply and demand aspect of the business; the public has a healthy appetite for this stuff you know. Also, in being exposed to the process of creating to picture, I learned about the power of subliminal sounds. I gained a lot respect for what composers, sound designers and voice over artists do.
Chris: On behalf of Soundelux, you served as a Jamie Christopherson's The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II and Lost Planet: Extreme Condition. What was it like to work on these video games and how did you adapt your vocals for the very specific demands of these scores?
Aubrey Ashburn: Yes, Jamie was the first composer to hire me in a game. The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II required a smooth sustained sound and at times, the voice had to be so delicate, yet high, which requires a lot of support. This is what I call the back end of the power curve (stolen from aviation terminology). Composers love this sound because it's beautiful and it blends well within the fabric of most arrangements.
Lost Planet: Extreme Condition needed something entirely different. Deddy Tzur was actually Jamie's co-composer at the time and so I recorded with him. He wanted me to produce a sort of ethnic battle cry voice that wove in and out of an intense action sequence. That was the first experience singing like that and it was a challenge but thrilling at the same time.
Chris: You came to widespread attention to gamers the subsequent year with your work on the main theme of Devil May Cry 4, "Out of Darkness". What resulted in your international collaboration with Tetsuya Shibata on this score? How were you able to emphasise the dark yet celestial qualities of his composition with your lyrics and performance?
Aubrey Ashburn: Devil May Cry 4 was a very exciting project for me because it was my first real opportunity to contribute lyrics as well as sing on a main title song. Shibata-san delivered a synth track and a melody and told me a bit about the concept of the game, although he wasn't allowed to share any visuals or much of the storyline, so I began writing from there.
He told me that he wanted a dark religious context that spawned certain metaphoric relationships, for example, "hear the devil's cry of sin, never turn your back on him", and "a light in yours eyes, an angel up high, fighting to ease the shadow side." After further correspondence and feedback, I sent him a second version of the lyrics, which he liked very much and accepted.
Soon after that, Shibata-san came to LA for the recording. He wanted the vocal to be pop classical and I did this by using a powerful full voice, but keeping the vibrato tame. Shibata-san was very happy with the result and because of that, the session was pretty painless. Overall it was a smooth collaboration.
Chris: Returning back to the West, the award-winning score for Dragon Age: Origins also featured your vocals. How did you produce suitably coloured vocals to fit with the game's fantasy concept? How were you able to create a distinctive Elvin sound?
Aubrey Ashburn: This is one of my favorite styles to perform. Inon Zur, the composer, had directed me to create this sound through trial and error and by giving me ideas and circumstances to imagine. I experimented with different techniques and ultimately it came out sounding precious yet haunted. It was the writing that influenced the mood and the tone as well. I'm not sure if it's distinctly Elvin, but the approach certainly served the story well I think.
Chris: The main theme of Dragon Age: Origins, "I Am The One", is particularly powerful. Could you discuss how you worked with Inon Zur to produce such an evocative and dramatic work? Was it challenging to synchronise the vocals and instrumentals with the cinematics on this theme?
Aubrey Ashburn: Honestly, I never saw a cinematic. The way this song came about is somewhat complicated. I originally wrote a melody and a lyric in English that was meant to stand-alone from the score. When I brought it to Inon, he re-wrote the chorus and added harmony and we recorded it as a pop ballad. The BioWare team later decided they didn't want to stray from the Elvin language/concept, so I elected myself to write the Elvin, which was a rewarding but challenging job.
Once we got squared away with what type of song it was going to be, we got to work on the finer points. I had to transition the melody to reflect a Celtic atmosphere and Inon worked to sculpt an orchestral backdrop with mainstream production. We used a lot of airy vocal layers to fill the body of the track and the lead vocal was what I call "expensive" in terms of air quantity. I was barely singing; I was on the edge of no sound. The goal was to create a truly otherworldly sensation.
Chris: You have performed this theme in a live setting at A Night in Fantasia 2009. Could you reminisce about your experiences at that concert and what the live experience brought to the music?
Aubrey Ashburn: It was fantastic. Nothing can replace a live performance and the quality it brings to experiencing music. I performed in front of a live orchestra months before the game was even released. Unfortunately I came down with a cold on our way to Australia but I was able to sing up until the moment I stepped off stage. After that, I sounded like a horse and myself and the other guest artists and composers spent a couple of hours signing autographs. It was wild.
Chris: The score for Alice in Wonderland composed by Richard Jacques features a very different fantasy sound. How were you able to establish the dark fairytale sound of this title with your vocal performance for the main theme?
Aubrey Ashburn: Richard was pretty specific about the sound he wanted and, again, his writing made it easy for me to achieve it. I recorded with a local engineer and we worked remotely with Richard via Skype so he could direct the session from afar. I tried using as little vibrato as possible to create a spooky spinning sound within the 6/8 feel, which was Richard's intent. It fit well within the complex vocal harmonies.
Chris: In addition to performing music for several upcoming scores, you are currently working on your next solo album. Could you elaborate on what we should expect from this album? Will there be any tie-ins related to your scoring works? Also, is there any message you would like to send to your fans around the world?
Aubrey Ashburn: I can't really say at the moment, but you're guessing on the right track. I want to thank everyone for caring about the details and for listening so intently. Your voice matters.