Disclaimer: This transcript was edited for better narrative purposes.
Note: (Italicized words in brackets are extra notes by me, the interviewer)
I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing Donna Burke & Ganime Jazz members: Kohji Ebisawa the drummer, Shunsuke Ito the pianist, Tsuchiya Hideki the guitarist and Motoyoshi Ozawa the bassist. As a major fan of the Metal Gear Solid series, it was safe to say that my excitement was hard to contain.
Ganime Jazz is a quintet that does music for both games and anime, that’s how they got their name “Ganime”. This interview was done on Day 2 of AniManGaki 2018, after their amazing live performance on Day 1. I asked a dozen of questions for the quintet, everything from Donna’s origins to the future of Ganime Jazz. All these answers were quintet-ssential (see what I did there) for both veteran fans (like myself) and newer fans alike. So, here’s the need-to-know on Donna Burke & Ganime Jazz and some amazing life lessons close to the end.
Q: What got you into singing and voice acting?
Donna Burke: It’s always been my dream to be a singer and actress when I was a kid. I was one of 7 children, so we didn’t have the money for vocal lessons then. When I was in school, my school never had theater arts or even a music club. So, the only chance I got to sing was in church.
When I was 30 years old, I’ve got a long service leave from my high school teaching job in Australia. You would think as a 30-year-old, that your dream was no longer a reality. But when I got into Japan, my dream finally came true. After I left school, I got a job in a bank and paid for my own vocal lessons. My story isn’t that my parents groomed me since young, my story is about how my dream and passion did not die and I continued to pursue what I loved, even if it took a long time.
Q: How exactly did Hideo Kojima approach you on singing Heaven’s Divide for Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker?
Donna: I was never personally approached, my agency got a call from Kojima Productions and at first, I was meant to sing the demo and to be used as a guide vocal for a famous American singer to sing it. So, I wasn’t too invested in it and wasn’t like “OMG, THIS IS MY CHANCE!”. Another thing is, I have never heard of the Metal Gear Solid series and had no idea who was Kojima. That’s how ignorant I was.
So, Kojima used my voice as a placeholder in the game and tested it before they got the famous person. But they decided they really liked my version and approached me for a rerecord. And I still didn’t know who was Kojima and the series that he was making, but because of me being oblivious, I was free, I could just be myself and do the job right.
It was just like when I first met Stan Lee for the first time, during Metal Gear Solid’s 25th Anniversary. Kojima introduced me to Stan Lee, but I totally did not know who he was. People would say he’s from Marvel, but I was like “Oh? Yeah, okay.” It wasn’t until a year later and I searched him up and was like “FAR OUT, I JUST MET – OHHH!” My ignorance is… just embarrassing.
Q: How did Ganime Jazz form?
Kohji Ebisawa: Me and Donna first met on a jazz performance. Donna told me that she wanted to do game and anime music with jazz style. And I was in on it and approached Shunsuke, Hideki and Motoyoshi. Thus, the birth of our band in 2016.
Q: How did you guys feel when you found out you’re doing a gig in Malaysia? What were your reactions to the Malaysian Fans?
Motoyoshi Ozawa: I was not sure what to expect from Malaysian fans at first. On Day Zero of AniManGaki, I was told that Malaysians were inherently shy, but it came to my surprise that Malaysian fans are a whole lot more engaging and have amazing interactions to the songs, fans that are so passionate about games and anime. Because, our band’s nature of having our songs in English, the reception in Japan is not as amplified as much as Malaysia. It’s so much fun to perform in Malaysia.
Tsuchiya Hideki: I’ve never been to Southeast Asia before, but was always interested to visit there because of the weather. So, I was thrilled when I knew we were invited to play in Malaysia. I too have heard that Malaysian fans are shy, but turns out that they’re really friendly and a whole lot of fun.
Kohji Ebisawa: Both Motoyoshi and Hideki pretty much said it all. I was probably the most excited out of the rest, that when I was looking through the rooms in Sunway online I was like “Oh my gosh, look at these rooms!” I also got to pick up a bit of Malay while being here.
Shunsuke Ito: I loved how amazing your reactions were when we played To Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X where I didn’t have the same experience in Japan when we performed, so it was very refreshing and so great to perform in front of you all. The Japanese are a lot more reserved and would quietly listen, while I felt that the Malaysian audience and Ganime were like one. Donna added saying that if there was a gold medal for shyness, Japan would have won it, while Malaysia would probably just be at the Semi-Finals.
Donna Burke: I’m having such a great time, coming to Malaysia and this being our first live international event. We feel really at home and the guys are blown away by the audience. The food is really great. It reminds a lot of Australia, that our two countries are both huge melting pots of all kind of culture. Everything felt familiar, the sense of humor is the same. It’s so great to crack jokes and everyone would laugh. In Japan, when I’m cracking jokes, the translator needs to translate and only then you see them go “Ohhhhhh”, the punchline is totally lost.
Q: Could you give us any hints on what’s next for Ganime Jazz? Can we expect more singles or even maybe another album in the works?
We’re recording some new material on Thursday and Friday next week (23rd & 24th August) in Tokyo. We may release a few songs from last night’s concert, once we get all the audio and what not sorted out. We’ve got 6 new tracks that we’re gonna do: Inner Universe from Ghost in The Shell, Unravel from Tokyo Ghoul, The Real Folk Blues from Cowboy Bebop and Heaven’s Divide from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker as a few examples.
Q: Does Ganime intend to stay as a quintet or have you guys thought of having an additional member? Like someone who plays a trumpet or saxophone?
It’s much easier to have just us 5 as a group, but we have thought of collaborating with some musicians here. In our studio in Japan, we have a technology called “Source-Connect” so we could have a rehearsal in real-time with a musician in Malaysia. For example, Raja Farouk from Fazz Band, that was performing on Day One for AniManGaki Idol X: Battle Royale, she said that he’s such an amazing guitarist with great charisma along with the backup singers and the strings that were absolutely phenomenal. If we were more organized, we could have collaborated.
(I added by saying that Snake Eater without the iconic trumpets, felt like something was missing.)
She then said, that is the challenge with our quintet, we’re not aiming to be exactly like the original version, but we intend to give a fresh new jazzy twist on an already amazing song.
(Which is so true, if you haven’t had the chance of hearing Ganime’s version of Snake Eater, you absolutely have to, such an amazing rendition that brings back memories of the legendary franchise.)
Q: In Japan, Donna has done the English announcer in the Bullet Trains. How does it feel to hear Donna’s voice when you’re aboard the train? Is it weird to you guys? (Question from a fan: Nick Ho)
Shunsuke Ito: Hearing her announcement in the train is so different because “Oh, she’s so serious” when usually Donna is a lot more of a lighthearted person that usually cracks jokes.
Q: Between singing and voice acting, which do you prefer? Why?
Singing. (Without a doubt, she answered it so fast before I could finish my sentence.) An example I would use, the champion of Animangaki Idol X: Battle Royale: Tan Zie Ann’s performance was phenomenal. I couldn’t understand a single word that he was singing, but I had tears in my eyes. The music, the vocals and the actions he has done throughout the performance portrayed the message so clearly even though there’s a language barrier. The message from a speech or even a Shakespeare-ish performance doesn’t come close to the message amplified through a song. Even if I couldn’t understand the words, I could feel and empathize with the person on stage and be absolutely moved.
Q: Among the many voice acting gigs and narrations that you have done which was your most proud of?
Probably Claudia Wolfe from Silent Hill 3, the fact that I nailed the audition of eating the fetus of an aborted “god” and going insane, in an office building with a few guys sitting there. During the audition, they were really nervous, swallowing and stuttering “What we like you – to umm…” and I was thinking, oh no, is this gonna be some sexual thing? But no, it’s a lot worse. Claire, the main protagonist vomits out the fetus and Donna’s character, Claudia swallows it whole. I loved doing the voice acting and the motion capture (MOCAP) for Claudia Wolfe throughout the entire game.
Q: Among all the songs that you have done, which one is your favorite and which would you recommend to new fans?
Definitely Sins of The Father. There are 20,000 people that have covered “Glassy Sky” from Tokyo Ghoul in YouTube while rarely anyone has covered Sins of The Father, because technically it’s a very difficult song to sing, I wasn’t even able to sing it right the first time. I had to go to the gym, no joke, to gain the right strength to easily sing it. I felt like I didn’t give it justice for the first time. It’s a mothe- sorry, monster of a song.
Q: What were the emotions that you wanted to portray for the song, Sins of The Father when you were in the recording studio?
We did quite a few demos at Dagmusic with Ludvig Forssell and Akihiro Honda. The (iconic) “Woah-ho” and the pain of it. Even though I wasn’t writing the lyrics, they told me to listen to the music and write some dummy lyrics for the song. At first, “Blind, in the deepest night” was what I wrote in my dummy lyrics and the exact words popped up in the actual lyrics. So, the music made me think the same words they ended up using. The music was so painful, to fit the events that Venom Snake has to go throughout the game.
When I was doing the demos, I couldn’t sing the whole song, the song is so painful, the utter desperation, you’re completely abandoned, you’ve been betrayed, everything has gone wrong and I would start tearing up as I sang. When I sing, the emotion that gets me again and again is that there are actual people out there in the world who lives a life as painful as that. That’s why I find it so powerful and saddening that people are going through a similar scenario, it’s not just fantasy, it’s real.
(For me, the lyrics had so much deeper meaning inside of it, that it spoke to me directly when Donna sang it.)
Q: Throughout your entire life, which was the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced?
Learning to love myself. If you don’t love yourself, you cannot believe it when someone tells you that they love you. When I was in high school, the worse thing anyone would say is “You so love yourself!” and you’d deny it and you would be horrified that “Do people think I love myself?”
But yeah, I totally love myself, it has taken a bit of work, but I managed to overcome that challenge. One thing that helps, is the love of a pet. Pets have unconditional love for you, there’s no judgment or whatever and that’s the love I have, with myself. Like I would look at myself like an adorable cat *Adorable voice* “Aww, who’s the cute one, yes you are”. If you can talk to yourself like that, and when someone says “I love you”, you would be “Oh yeah, I am pretty cute”.
It doesn’t have to be words, it’s just the feeling. When I talk to my cats, I would make noises to them to show my love for them. When I’m away, I would talk in my cat voice to myself, that transports me to remember what love is, that will always put me in my happy place. Do the work to love yourself, and love will come. You cannot have love in your life, if you believe you’re unlovable.
It was an incredible experience to interview Donna Burke & Ganime Jazz. I never would have imagined crossing off this item in my bucket list this early in my life. It’s incredibly humbling to hear her entire story of how she made it as an artist, and continue to grow together as a band in their future endeavors. I loved every second of their performance during AniManGaki with tears included in the mix.
“We absolutely cannot wait for you guys to comeback and perform <3”
Fans of Ganime Jazz In Malaysia
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