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Julie Elven sings a lot of songs in video games without words. That’s called “vocalization,” where she uses her voice as a kind of musical instrument. And she has carved out a career singing as a vocalist in a number of award-winning video games.
She has contributed studio vocals as a soloist to major themes in Horizon Forbidden West, The Legend of Vox Machina, Horizon Zero Dawn, League of Legends, BBC Universe, PBS Nova, World of Warcraft: Legion, Hearthstone, Honor of Kings, Star Citizen, RuneScape, multiple Blizzard Entertainment projects, Tomb Raider – The Dark Angel album project, and more.
And she stepped onto a very big stage in 2021 at The Game Awards. She performed her original vocals from composer Joris de Man’s Promise of the West for the celebrated video game Horizon Forbidden West with film music legends Lorne Balfe, Pedro Eustache and the Game Awards Orchestra during a record-breaking live stream audience that saw 85 Million views.
That’s a great outcome for Elven, who is a soundtrack vocalist, musician and composer based in Munich, Germany. When she was growing up, she played the piano and violin. At age 20, she began recording her own compositions and uploaded them to Soundcloud. And that’s how she got noticed by a composer for film and TV. And her career took off from there and it spread to singing for video games.
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She gave a talk at the Reboot Develop Blue game conference last week in Dubrovnik, Croatia. She spoke about singing in video games in a talk along with Marie Havemann, senior audio designer and additional composer of Albion Online and also a freelance composer and sound designer. They talked about how players could trigger the right music to fit a scene during moments of combat or emotion in a game.
I caught up with her after the talk in Dubrovnik. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You’ve been getting more visible in the game industry. How did that all get rolling for you?
Julie Elven: I was a kid who loved to play the piano and violin, and I worked on my own compositions. When I was 20, I discovered that you could buy recording equipment and record your own compositions, so I would record myself on the piano and record violin lines over it, like a string section, and then my voice. I uploaded them to Soundcloud and grew a small musician following there.
One of the people who followed me was a composer for film and TV. He asked me to sing on one of his tracks. This track got very popular in the epic music kind of world. From then on, his colleagues asked me if I could sing on their music as well. At first, I sang on a few film scores and production music. Later on, I went over to video game music because of recommendations.
GamesBeat: What was the first game you worked on?
Elven: The first game I sang on was a cinematic for Total War: Attilla, with Ian Livingstone. It was the cinematic called “The Celts,” I think. I think it was in a DLC trailer, but I’d have to look it up. That was the first one. And then Joris de Man, from the Horizon team, he was a colleague of Livingstone’s on the Total War series. Joris asked for a vocalist recommendation, someone who had a more specifically breathy voice. Ian recommended me, so that’s how I got onto the Horizon project.
GamesBeat: That would have been all audio, right, in Total War? I played that game for hundreds of hours.
Elven: Yes, that was audio recordings, music for the soundtrack.
GamesBeat: Horizon seems to be the one that generated a lot of reactions. You had a BAFTA nomination.
Elven: Yes, we got a BAFTA nomination for the music in the first one, among other nominations. This time, for Horizon: Forbidden West, I think there were five or six BAFTA nominations, but not one for the music. But it’s still a lot of nominations. I think the team won a BAFTA for, what was it, the graphics, or technical achievement? I know they won one.
GamesBeat: But all of this generated attention for you. Did any particular performance help you get off the ground, do you think?
Elven: I performed at the Game Awards in Los Angeles in 2021. We performed “Promise of the West,” which was the reveal trailer theme for Horizon, Joris de Man’s composition. I performed it with film music legends, Lorne Balfe and Pedro Eustache, and the whole Game Awards orchestra. It was a surreal experience. I’m so grateful.
GamesBeat: That would have been, what, about 85 million people?
Elven: Yes, over 85 million people! I only saw that number afterward. Otherwise, I would have been even more nervous. The people who were in the audience, it wasn’t a lot because of the COVID restrictions. But it was all game devs, so I felt very supported by the audience.
GamesBeat: You got to know Geoff Keighley through that, right? I see you chatting on social media.
Elven: Yes, he’s a very kind person. He has a very big vision, always, for any project he does. It always goes big, almost Hollywood-style. I really admire him. He’s very generous.
GamesBeat: Is it turning into more of your specialty, your career, to focus on video games?
Elven: I definitely have a focus on games now. I don’t just sing on triple-A games, but also indie games and everything in between. But I also sing on TV and film scores, documentaries, these kinds of things. I love it all, but video game music definitely has my heart the most.
GamesBeat: What is it about games that makes them special?
Elven: It’s an interactive experience for the player. It’s hard to say, but I do feel it has a certain intimacy when you spend so many hours in a game. You get really identified with a main character or the NPCs or the whole world. I love that. Also, I have to say, the community of composers and musicians who work on games, it’s not a lot of people. It’s a very tight-knit community. I love that as well.
GamesBeat: It feels like people maybe thought of you as the spirit of Aloy in a way.
Elven: They’ve said that I’m the musical voice of Aloy, the emotions she goes through. And then of course Ashly Burch is the actual voice of Aloy, and brilliantly, how she performs it.
GamesBeat: Is there a way to describe the type of performance you do?
Elven: In the Horizon series, I mainly sing in a style called vocalization. It means you don’t actually sing lyrics. You use the voice like an instrument, For instance, I mainly sing on “aa” the whole time. But vocalizations can also be different syllables or combinations of consonants and vowels. For me, it’s mainly on that “aa.” That’s my signature. Also, on some other projects–I sing, for example, in some fantasy languages that can be created, like when I sing for World of Warcraft or some indie games. Or I can also sing with real lyrics, of course.
GamesBeat: What opportunities have opened up for you? Are you getting to choose from different kinds of video game projects?
Elven: I’m very grateful that now–it seems like for years now it’s opened up more and more. All of us musicians in the industry, we work very hard. When you see that it bears fruit–it’s never guaranteed. You have to have a certain amount of luck. But it’s opening up more and more. I’m working on so many different projects right now, and I love the diversity of it.
GamesBeat: What were some of the messages you were trying to get across in your talk yesterday?
Elven: Marie Havemann, my colleague from Berlin — we gave a talk together. I’m a vocalist, while Marie is more on the composing and sound design and audio design side. We had a good combination there. Our talk was mainly for game devs. How do they start if they want to have music in their game? How do they budget for it? Also, where do they put the budget efficiently so that they know what percentage of the budget goes where? And what tips and tricks there are if your budget is low, but you still want to have an orchestral sound, for example.
GamesBeat: I did wonder how that worked. When you have things like, say, combat music, versus other kinds of background music–do you record, say, hours of that, or do you just record minutes of that and find ways to loop it over and over?
Elven: Definitely, loops are being used. I’m not a composer or a music implementer, so this isn’t my specific expertise, but I know that a lot of things get looped. Then, for example, yesterday, Marie used an example. We saw that in the combat music, a lot of the combat music gets looped, and it also gets triggered when you encounter an enemy. Then the loop plays until you’re done with that enemy. But other kinds of music, like themes, don’t get looped. It’s just one piece of music playing.
GamesBeat: Do they bring you in for things like cinematics more often, then?
Elven: In both the Horizon games, Zero Dawn and Forbidden West, I was brought in for a lot of the cutscenes, that’s true. Those were the points where Aloy had emotional moments. I was used more there than, for example, in the actual gameplay. I’m here and there and everywhere, but the focus is on the cutscenes.
GamesBeat: Was there a pattern to when they would do that? When Aloy sees something spectacular, or when she’s about to go into combat, that’s when they would use you?
Elven: The pattern would just be that–the moments that are most emotional or pivotal for her journey, and her inner journey as well. Sometimes it was when she was getting out of a difficult situation, out of combat. Sometimes it was just when she was having a heart-to-heart conversation with someone. It depends, but it’s always emotional moments where she grows or has a revelation or learns something.
GamesBeat: That’s what the music does, though. It’s amplifying whatever emotion might be there.
Elven: I think so, yeah. We were lucky to have this great composer team. It was a whole team of composers. We had Joris de Man, of course, in the first game. This time we also had Oleksa Kozowchuk. He did a lot of music, a lot of the cutscenes and trailers. Then there was The Flight, a composer duo, and Niels van der Leest. And lots of musicians, of course.
GamesBeat: Do you think games are getting better in that respect? Caring about the musical side of things and how it can bring that much more emotion.
Elven: I think music has always had that function in games, to bring emotion across. In previous decades maybe the music–the ways that music was implemented were a bit more limited by the technical aspects. But when you remember something like the Tetris theme, it’s still very emotional when you hear it. It evokes emotion. Or the Mario theme. All kinds of music. It was always there to amplify the emotion of games. It’s just that now we have more technical possibilities.
We’re also seeing more and more game music performances with orchestras, for example. Back in the day, I think film music people used to look down a bit on video game musicians. I’m not entirely sure, but that was always my feeling. That’s slowly changed. There are orchestral performances of not only film music but also game music now. I’m performing with orchestras every year now, and that’s just beautiful.
At one of the concerts, there were two 13-year-old boys, dressed gamer-style in their hoodies, and they were there with their mom. After the concert one of them came up to me and said, “Hey, you did the League of Legends theme!” We talked about that a bit, and as his mother was standing there, I think she was realizing that this is a real art form. Video games are a real art form. I just love that.
GamesBeat: Do you remember a lot of games by the music in them? One that I remember is the monks in Halo, the chanting.
Elven: That’s so iconic, right? I remember a lot of the background music in Tony Hawk, the skating games, that rock music. And I remember the background music in The Sims a lot, like when you buy the house and do different things. Those were my childhood, the games that I would play.
GamesBeat: Is that what you want to do, to create that iconic feeling that people remember?
Elven: I want to help create something that touches people in some way. It doesn’t have to be super iconic or anything. Some things are iconic now, like Aloy’s theme in Horizon, or maybe the theme I did with Neal Acree in World of Warcraft. Some of the themes are well-known. But the overall vision or purpose that I feel I have in music is to make people connect with something and touch them in some way. I hope that every time I record something, I can emotionally connect with someone.
GamesBeat: Are the opportunities there? Is this a continuous career opportunity for you?
Elven: I think so. I just pray–every year that I’m still in the business I’m grateful. But I do think that once you’ve established yourself to a certain point, new possibilities open up in different directions. Giving talks like I did here, for example. I’m not excluding the possibility that maybe I’ll compose music as well, in addition to being a session musician. There are a lot of different possibilities. I’m very grateful as a singer, especially, to not be in pop music, for example, where as soon as you reach a certain age it’s more difficult.
Maybe that’s a cliche, but I do think that in soundtrack music, even when you yourself and your voice grow older–the roles that I have at the moment are often things like the voice of Mother Nature. Or I was the voice of the Milky Way in a BBC documentary.
GamesBeat: You’re not that old!
Elven: No, I’m not. But in pop music, being 33–it’s kind of a thing. But in soundtrack music, I have colleagues like Lisbeth Scott. She’s been in the industry for many decades, and she’s still going strong with soundtracks. She sang “I Was Born For This” for Journey, and she sang that when she was around 40. I think a certain maturity in your voice can be an asset in this industry.
GamesBeat: Do you still have a dream job that you’d still want to get to, or do you think you’re already in it?
Elven: I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, because I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I think this is my dream job. I’m just so glad I can work at this every single day. I’m thankful. I’m also a voice therapist. I studied medical speech and language therapy, and I work in a practice in that field. I also still do that. I love that combination. I don’t know where else I would want to be. I really love where I am.
GamesBeat: Where do you think you have opportunities to go in the future? There’s this newfound alliance between Hollywood and games. We’re seeing things like the Mario movie or The Last of Us on HBO. That convergence is happening in big ways.
Elven: Absolutely, and also with Horizon being a Netflix series soon. I’d love to be a part of that. Right now I can’t say anything. But I’d love to work on some of these adaptations in the future.
GamesBeat: Geoff Keighley has another orchestral show going now, too.
Elven: Yeah, the really big orchestral concert at the Hollywood Bowl in June. That’s going to be amazing.
GamesBeat: Where do you think a lot of your exposure happens now? Is it on someplace like YouTube, or at these big gaming events?
Elven: It’s an interesting question because I’m not at game conferences like this super often, or music conferences. I think the biggest exposure happens in the games themselves. When people hear that they look up who worked on the soundtrack. That’s the biggest source of exposure if you can call it that. I do think that we as soundtrack musicians are often very behind the scenes. A lot of people know my voice from games, but often people don’t know who you are. Same with a lot of composers and other musicians. But the ones who are very interested to look up the soundtrack can find you. Of course, the Game Awards performance in 2021 was a huge exposure for me as well. It’s funny sometimes how life links things together, how one opportunity leads to the next and then to the next.
In terms of social media, it’s interesting. Film music people are on Facebook. A lot of my opportunities come from Facebook, from connecting with composers and other musicians. But the game industry seems to just be on Twitter. And there are a few people on Instagram who do lots of cool things. I feel like I’m between these two worlds, Facebook and Twitter, games and the soundtrack industry. It’s a very creative place to be.
Soundtrack-wise, I think the game industry is giving a lot of new people chances. In film music, it’s much more set on the names out there that are already big. That’s just my personal observation, and maybe it’s not objectively correct. But I do feel like that’s true. I like the innovative quality of the game industry.
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