Composer, musician, and producer Michael A. Levine was tapped by the Resident Evil VII team to produce and arrange the main theme ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhody‘ sung by Jordan Reyne. Michael was chosen partly based on hearing his famous re-working of other songs for film and video games including his collaboration with Lorde, ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World‘ for the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack and later used in Assassin’s Creed. Michael had previously been known as a violin performer and prominent composer for television, commercials and film. DesigningMusicNow recently had the chance to catch up with Michael and ask him about his collaboration on REVII.
1. How familiar with the RE franchise were you before you began working on the song?
Embarrassingly ignorant. I knew it existed, but had never played it.
2. Did the game developers send you a script or any notes before you began working on the project? How did ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhody’ fit into the RE universe?
I received a story synopsis and a storyboard (drawings). Rhody was my suggestion. They wanted something recognizable the world over but not a pop song. I knew Rhody had a Japanese version as well as its European and American versions, all with different lyrics. Go Tell Aunt Rhody is the American traditional number. But there are European versions in English and French with different lyrics that are even older.
3. When discussing the song production, you have previously mentioned that Capcom urged you to go darker with the song production. Can you discuss how that affected the instrument and harmonic choices, and effects that ended up in the final production?
Mostly it meant eliminating traditional instruments in favor of highly processed ones or pure sound design elements. For example, in an earlier version we had a string section. It’s still there, but has been abused in the computer almost beyond recognition. I also used my ciola (a viola in the register of a cello) to create a lot of moaning and groaning sounds.
4. Were you influenced by techniques used in either music or sound design from other films/games?
5. There are many theories online about hidden messages, and backwards material in the theme. Can you speak to that in terms of how you produced the track?
There are lots of backwards sounds, but no specific messages intended – at least none I put in there. However, I am very interested in the subject of coded messages in music and have been following the development of the use of musical messages in the way-too-cool online Cicada 3301 Puzzle. Some people have told me their music sounds like mine. https://techgeek365.com/coded-music-cicada-3301/ and https://techgeek365.com/slice-cicada-pi/.
6. How did you choose the lead vocalist Jordan Reyne from New Zealand for the project?
We had something like 100 singer demos that we went through. Jordan’s stood out for its uniquely compelling edgy character. I had already done some demos of the song with Mariana Barreto, a wonderful singer who is also my daughter. She sang the reference track on this project and also the one I did with Lorde (Everybody Wants to Rule the World, used in Hunger Games Catching Fire soundtrack and the Assassin’s Creed Unity trailer). She also sang all the background vocals on both projects. But Mari’s vocals were a bit too “pretty” so we brought in Jordan for the menace.
7. In a previous interview you mentioned that you recorded Jordan Reyne (the vocalist) for the REVII theme in the UK while you were working in LA. Can you give us tips about producing musicians remotely?
First off, make sure they are as good as Jordan! (Good luck!) Secondly, it helps to have clients who are willing to stay up late. When we did our final session, Jordan was in London (6 pm), I was in LA (10am), and the clients were in Japan (2 am! to 4am!!!!!) Let it never be said that those guys aren’t dedicated!
8. Between the RE track, and your reinterpretation of ‘Everyone Wants to Rule the World’ with Lorde on the Hunger Games soundtrack, you’ve become known for this type of work. Are you planning on more reinterpretations of songs for film and video games?
I am delighted to do so when it works. There is a tradition in the folk music world where you take a bit of something that has been around a long time and either write new lyrics or some new music and new lyrics. Bob Dylan’s With God on Our Side comes to mind – it’s based on an Irish folk song called The Patriot Game. I have an expanded version of an old Irish ballad that is just begging for a game or trailer home called Stars of Falling Snow.
9. In terms of the skills needed to make it as a contemporary composer in today’s market – what are most important music skills for students to learn at college?
Many years ago, I convinced jazz great Carla Bley to listen to some of my music and asked her if she had any advice. She said, “Go to business school.” I was (quietly) insulted and thought she was telling me I didn’t have enough musical talent to make it. Now I realize she was saying, “Go to business school.”
10. You’ve had quite a diverse career in music from songwriting, music production, film scoring, music for advertising, to video games and more. For composers who at the beginning of their careers, what is your advice for maintaining a successful career for more than three decades?
Be useful. I have had such a diverse career in part because that’s where the jobs were at any given moment. And, of course, I have a pathologically eclectic streak – everything interests me.
11. What are some networking tips that you can give to struggling composers trying to find their niche?
I never found one. This week I am the spooky game song guy. Next week, why knows? The key is to keep learning and be grateful any day anyone is crazy enough to pay you for what you know you’d do anyway just because you love it.
12. At your stage in your career, with both a PR firm and an agent – do you find that you are relying mostly on their ability to create relationships that lead to work? Or are you still doing most of the legwork to bring in the work?
No agent or publicist creates something from nothing. They can make miracles happen – but you have to supply the holy water. Brian Epstein may have been a genius, but the Beatles already had a following – he amplified it. You are always responsible for your career.
13. Looking back on your career, is there one thing you’d have done differently that others might be able to learn from?
Stop waiting around for other people to give you a chance. If they do, great. Otherwise, start making “chances”. People who say there is no luck have usually been lucky beyond their imagining. But those who say it’s all luck haven’t done the work.
14. What are some of you favorite tools to create music in? What does your studio look like?
Lots of wood. I have a midi keyboard built into a wooden desk with a qwerty keyboard on top, three monitors side by side behind the qwerty, and a video display above that. Lots of instruments hanging from the walls or in racks, especially ones from the bowed string family. Guitars, a mandolin, a uke, a banjo, etc. as well. An acoustic piano. A U87 permanently ready to go on a flexible radio announcer’s stand. Not a ton of outboard – I try to do as much as possible in the box these days – I don’t even have an audio mixing desk. It’s all pretty tidy – I’m a bit OCD.
15. When creating mockups , what are some of your favorite sample libraries and/or synths?
Anything I can get my hands on is good. You could probably buy a small house with what I’ve spent on software. But I am especially fond of sounds I make myself. If you’re curious to know more about anything here, you can go to my website www.MichaelLevineMusic.com and also write me at Michael at MichaelLevineMusic dot com. I do my best to respond.