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Award-Winning Composer Kevin Penkin On Creating The Soundtrack For Grow:Song of the Evertree

by Lynzee Loveridge,

British-Australian composer Kevin Penkin rose to prominence within the anime scene after his evocative and captivating soundtrack for the Made in Abyss anime, which won him the Crunchyroll Anime Award for Best Score in 2017. With his latest project, the magical sandbox video game Grow:Song of the Evertree, slated for release on Steam, PS4, and the Nintendo Switch this month, Anime News Network had the chance to speak to him about his approach to creating the soundtrack for the game.

It's great to be able to talk with you again. The last time you spoke with Anime News Network, it was on the heels of the Made in Abyss anime. Since then, you've created the score for The Rising of The Shield Hero, Tower of God, Eden, and “The Village Bride” in Star Wars: Visions. Grow: Song of the Evertree is your newest project, a magical sandbox video game slated for release on Steam, PS4, and the Nintendo Switch. Can you tell us what drew you to this project?

It's my absolute pleasure to be talking to you again as well. I hope you're enjoying a taste of the post-pandemic life. What drew me to Grow were a number of things. The game was a style I'd never had the opportunity to explore in this depth, so to work within this idea of creating unique music for each biome of the game (but hopefully with a personal spin) was very... cathartic? Writing music for this game was honestly very therapeutic. Also the team at Prideful Sloth are literally the best people. We chat a lot about everything. Not just the game!

What are the primary themes of Grow: Song of the Evertree and how did you interpret them through music, especially instrumental selection?

We gravitated towards the main theme being sung by a solo boy's voice, which is an instrument I don't get a lot of chances to work with. Rhylan just was this perfect kid with this incredible voice who just absolutely dominated the soul of the soundtrack in such a phenomenal way. The supporting cast of orchestral instruments and soloists were used to differentiate the different Biomes, while still allowing for a little cross-pollination between styles.

Do you feel like there's a through-line in your compositions? As a non-professional, there feels like there's a certain otherworldly and expansive magical quality in the choice of vocals, strings, and flutes in the Grow: Song of the Evertree track I was able to sample and “The Village Bride.”

If there is, it's not conscious. Funnily enough when I hear that comment my gut tells me it's time to do something different and mix it up, so I'll be working on that. Tracks are dreamed up through a combination of ambition and inspiration, and I find that in a creative industry, you are always working from the original experience or learning that gave you that initial spark to make something special. I always enjoy the opportunity to not only build on my work, but to explore outside of it and bring something truly fresh to a project.

Are there any technical or composition considerations when creating a score for a video game compared to an anime? I imagine that in a video game, audiences may spend more time hearing certain tracks repeat as they explore the world.

The natural answer of course is interactivity. I was very lucky to work closely with Matt McCamley on how the music and gameplay can intersect. I really appreciate his guidance, support, and suggestions while we experimented with different ideas for interactivity. He's VERY good at his job. In particular, we spent a good chunk of time discussing how tracks could be cut up, reworked, and rescaled in order to give some new life to the music. Video game scores have to account for a lot, so it takes a lot of planning and coordination to do it right.

Grow: Song of the Evertree's description suggests a large focus on nature, like “hearing the sun sing across the sky” and “the language of rain against the earth.” How is this connection represented in the music of the game?

I absolutely wanted the music to feel like a physical extension of the game. I've always admired music that bends around the game or motion picture like water. The water becomes the cup, so in a way, the music becomes the game itself for me. I do my best to try to have the music physically depict the world, and feel inseparable from the environment.

What materials were you given in advance to help with creating the score for Grow: Song of the Evertree?

There were of course many meetings (both in-person before Covid, and remotely) where we discussed large chunks of the game and set out a scope and timeline to create everything. The commissions came in waves, so the process of writing music in a somewhat parallel pattern with the development of the game felt incredibly organic for Grow. I also always appreciated the cute animal pictures from the good folks over at Prideful Sloth that gave me a great deal of inspiration!

How much of the game have you been able to experience for yourself? Were there aspects of the game you've especially enjoyed?

I've actually had quite a few long-plays of the game. Going through large portions of the game gave me essential insights into what wasn't working with the music, which meant we could return to the drawing board and better tailor some compositional and interactive aspects of the tracks. As with making the music for Grow, I find the play experience very soothing, like an autumnal warm blanket! Interacting with the friendly characters and chilled pace really let you fall into the fun rhythms of the game which keep me playing for hours.

Has anything changed in your approach to composing compared to when you last spoke to Anime News Network in 2017?

I know how to express myself in interviews slightly better? Lol. To be honest, I'm a lot slower at writing music compared to 2017. I feel like I could smash out 30 tracks in 30 days back then. Now I'm lucky if I get 30 tracks done in 30 WEEKS to the standard I want to try and hold for myself. I find this happens when you start setting yourself bigger challenges and higher standards for you output, so I think that this is actually a positive change in the long run!

Do you have an inspirational process, places or routines you return to when it comes time to compose?

Surprisingly, not composing can be the best trick. Bike rides, TV, walks and grocery shopping. All that stuff is great at hacking the brain back into composer-mode. VERY occasionally I'll get tracks when I dream, and if I'm lucky I can remember enough to write down before I forget them forever. It's rare and sometimes the results aren't as good once you review your notes with coffee, but it's at the very least good starting point for what could be a great track.

What's your current “soundtrack” to 2021? Are there any composers or performers whose music you've been listening to often?

I'm listening to this SICK K-Rap album called "The Movie Star" by BewhY. I can't get enough of this album!

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