The Kingdom Hearts Orchestra World Tour kicked off its debut in the U.S. on Saturday. The show allows fans to come together and listen to their favorite Kingdom Hearts songs performed by a live orchestra accompanied by scenes from the series – some of which were created for the tour. I was fortunate to be in attendance and get a look at Kingdom Hearts III’s newest trailer. I also had another special honor: interviewing composer Yoko Shimomura about her career and the tour. Shimomura has been with been with the series from the beginning and is now working on the music for Kingdom Hearts III. She’s also been composing video game music for nearly three decades now, working on everything from Street Fighter II: World Warrior to Final Fantasy XV. 

Kingdom Hearts recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. What has the series has meant to you, and what impact has it had on you as a musician? 

Kingdom Hearts was the first franchise that I’ve actually worked on that’s a series. Up until then, I was never able to handle a full-on series, so it is definitely very memorable in that aspect. In terms of its impact on me as a composer, there are many different Disney worlds inside the game and so many memorable songs within the Disney world. I wanted to make sure I was living up to that expectation, [creating] something that wouldn’t pale in comparison, while also being mindful of the [unique] aspect of Kingdom Hearts and combining it with the world that Disney music already has. Adding the original spin to it gives me the purpose. [It's] a sense of accomplishment to able to work on those songs, and they give me new challenges to take on. So it has definitely helped with my own growth. It’s a very inspirational series. 

You’ve been in the business a long time now, nearing three decades. How has the process changed over time for game music? 

When asked if the process has changed or evolved over time – because my stance toward composing has been stable – mentally I feel the stance hasn’t changed so much. So I can’t say for sure when asked if there’s been a change or evolution. But physically speaking, technology advances and my PC gets better and I get to upgrade my equipment. Things have become very convenient over time. And so, there are areas where I can borrow that newer technology and do what I wanted to do in further detail. 

What are some of your favorite memories from working on Kingdom Hearts? 

This may have been something I mentioned prior, but “Lazy Afternoon” – I just never got that song to a point where Mr. Nomura would give me the final approval. He kept saying there’s a not enough melancholy or a longing for – that sort of emotional aspect of it. So I actually stood on my patio and just stared at the sunset and took it in and tried to bring out that nostalgic melancholy kind of feel and finally was able to come up with the song. 

When composing music for Disney worlds, how much inspiration do you draw from the original scores?

Of course, there are times I listen to the original music that goes with whichever world we’re depicting and I would think about, ‘Oh yeah, this kind of song would match this kind of scene’ and reference some of the original songs for the world. But even if a particular song matches within the same realm, you also have to have your battle music, so that’s not necessarily a song that’s prepared in the Disney works. So it might not be a 1:1 reference; it might be a little difficult to find a direct reference for those songs. In that case, I take not the song itself, but think, ‘What does the world entail?’ I make sure it matches the world we’re depicting in the game. I know that's vague, but I listen to the original and imagine and expand from there.

Don't think hard about this. Pick three of your favorite songs/themes/melodies from the Kingdom Hearts series.

This has been asked by many people before, but all my songs are like my children. I love them all. It’s like trying to pick three children – these three are cute, but the rest are not. It is so hard for me to do. If it would be okay, I’d like to say all of my songs are very important and I love all of my songs.

Pieces like "Dive into the Heart" and "Organization XIII" are much heavier and dramatic in tone than ones like "Traverse Town." Is it challenging to find the right balance of emotion for these scores?

It actually isn’t a matter of wanting to intentionally create something that’s completely different. There’s also the consideration of what type of theme fits the stage best. That feeling is at the core of how I approach those songs. For example, with “Traverse Town” as you have mentioned, that’s something that you’ll be listening to over and over again. Having something that’s sad and somber playing over and over again might seem a little weird, so there was a slight intention of wanting to have something more lighthearted for that area. It’s not something that’s deliberate like, ‘I want to make a heavy song for this area.’ It’s more, ‘What does this stage entail? How does it feel like to me? And what kind of music fits it the best?’

Between all your major projects, such as the Kingdom Hearts games and Final Fantasy XV, you have also produced new music for many Kingdom Hearts compilation titles (2.8 with the 0.2 chapter, for example). How do you keep all these worlds and characters separated in your mind to write for each project? 

This kind of relates to what we just talked about with finding a song that fits each particular area with Kingdom Hearts. It’s similar thinking for different games as well. Each game has its own world and its own lore, and so when I’m writing songs for a particular game, I would just fill my head with the lore and the world of the game. It’s not about ‘This is a different game, so I will make a different song.’ It’s not about separating or compartmentalizing, but it’s Kingdom Hearts has its own world and Final Fantasy has its own world, so when I’m creating songs for either one of those titles it just came naturally when I’m immersed in that world. I’m hoping that I was able to accomplish that through the music. 

Very few franchises get their own exclusive concert series. Your colleague Uematsu-san has had the honor with the "Distant Worlds" series, for example. Now, you have your own with the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra World Tour. What are your feelings about this, and how much did you contribute to the process?

To answer your first question about how I’m feeling... I’m simply happy about this whole thing happening. At first, I was only thinking with the mindset of, ‘Oh, if I can only do one or two concerts in Japan that would be nice.’ Now we have the series and it’s a world tour! I’m just blown away. I’m just surprised and having so many people come to see the concert just makes me so happy. In terms of how much I contributed, there were certain elements I wanted to incorporate in this concert series, including the songs and the setlist. I made the first proposal of the setlist and I wanted to make sure it had a sense of drama  – that the listeners would go in there as if they were enjoying this one big video game from start to finish. I wanted to have a story and have an ending, so I really wanted to bring that out. I’m hoping we executed that. In terms of the different songs that were included in the setlist, I did all the supervising. I feel like I have been a major part of the process.

 Do you plan on attending all the shows? How exciting is it to see all the different fans around the world come together for Kingdom Hearts music?

Yes, I have been attending all the concerts and do plan to attend all the future planned ones. In terms of the fan reaction, it’s just beyond what I could imagine. When I enter the stage and the applause erupts, that is just wonderful. There have been opportunities to meet-and-greet with the fans and people have just been wonderful. They’re so passionate about their love for Kingdom Hearts and they would rave about the music. Some people were just shaking and they’re about to cry, handing over their CD to be autographed. It’s just way over expectation. I’m just floored to see so many people just so passionate about Kingdom Hearts music and just thinking about that fills my heart as well. 

The Kingdom Hearts fan base is very dedicated and passionate. The music is very important to that experience. Does that put pressure on you, or does the importance of the music to them motivate you?

If I say no that would be a lie, but I don’t want to be restricted or in fear from that pressure because that would restrict me from producing music naturally. I try not to focus too much on the sense of pressure. In terms of how I make sure I’m responding to the fans’ expectations, I definitely don’t want to betray their trust, especially with this concert series. I don’t want this to be something where the fans come in and are like, “This is not what I expected!’ As a creator, I love to make music, but I don’t want it to just be my personal view. I want to make sure I am looking at this from the fans’ perspective, making sure the fans are enjoying what they’re listening to. That’s not just the approach I take for the concert series, but also any songs that are arranged or rearranged for different installments within the game. Same goes for new songs. I do my best to keep that in mind. 

For people who can’t make it to the show, has there been any discussion about putting out a live CD or Blu-Ray of the performance?

A live concert CD has not been created yet, but in advance of the concert series, we do have an orchestra arrangement CD. Now, this is not all the songs that are being performed at the concert series, but an excerpt of some of the songs. So we do have a CD for those who are not able to attend our concert. In terms of recording it into any sort of media, when we’re thinking of capturing images or sound from live performances, we also have to consider if we want to include live footage. There may be some hurdles to overcome in terms of the logistics of getting that put together. But, if there is a very high demand for it, if there are a lot of voices that we hear from our fans, if it is something we can overcome and make clear, [it's possible]. I didn’t imagine there was going to be a CD with the orchestral arrangement, but this is proof that if we work at it hard enough we can execute something like that. If there is a demand from our fans, we will consider it. 

I have to ask. How is work going on Kingdom Hearts III? How does it feel to finally be working on that game after all this time?

I actually recently saw some reference materials and I am very excited for this project. And yes, everybody is aware this is our first numbered title in a while, and so again I’d be lying if I say there is no pressure, but I’m more excited. My excitement goes beyond that sense of pressure. I’m hoping that just like the finished product of the game, the music is going to be something that people will listen to and feel that it’s wonderful. I can’t wait until we’re able to make the announcement, so I ask for your additional patience and understanding as we get ready to be able to make any further announcements. 

For more info on the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra, click here.