Saturday 19 January 2019

Singing for Nintendo

Founder of the Fingal Academy of Music and singer, Dónal Kearney tells John Manning how he ended up singing on Nintendo's latest blockbuster game

A voice on one of Nintendo's big game releases for Christmas belongs to the founder of the Fingal Academy of Music who found himself earlier this year, in a Sony recording studio in Tokyo, adding his distinctive voice to the soundtrack of the blockbuster game, Xenoblade Chronicles 2.

We're in Tokyo. It's 2017. And the Irish singer walks into a booth in SONY Studios. He places a set of heavy black headphones around his neck, covering one ear only.

He gets the thumbs up from Grammy-nominated producer Brian Masterson. The backing track rolls. He takes a breath.

That Irish singer is Dónal Kearney who founded and now runs the Fingal Academy of Music.

Dónal grew up in Warrenpoint, County Down. Born in the late '80s, he played Gaelic football and sang in church on Sundays.

As a child, Dónal played Pokémon on his Nintendo Game Boy Colour and loved the warped fantasy of 1993 film, Super Mario Bros.

Back in present day Tokyo, one of the composers of the huge worldwide phenomenon of the gaming world that was Final Fantasy, looks up through the sound-proof glass.

Dónal slowly inhales in the dry studio before another take. He knows he is adding his voice to a long and lasting legacy.

Soon his session is done and the producer makes an announcement: that's a wrap!

Recording is finished for Nintendo's latest release, Xenoblade Chronicles 2.

Founded in 1889 in Kyoto, the Nintendo company originally produced handmade hanafuda playing cards.

Although it had launched a Japanese taxi company and a 'love hotel' chain, it wasn't until the 1960s that Nintendo moved into the toy-making business.

On the cusp of the early electronic gaming era in the 1970s, it tried its hand at video games.

Then 1980 welcomed the first hand-held gaming console, the Nintendo Game and Watch. The rest is gaming history and now the Fingal Academy of Music founder is part of that history.

So what took Dónal to Tokyo in the first place? Well, in February 2017, Irish choral ensemble ANÚNA was in Tokyo collaborating on a historic Noh Theatre production. Noh Theatre is one of the most thrilling cultural treasures in Japan's ancient trove.

Considered almost sacred, this dramatic form is considered high art in Japan.

The show in rehearsals was an adaptation of W. B. Yeats' 1917 play entitled Takahime/At the Hawk's Well, which was itself inspired by Noh Theatre.

ANÚNA's unique choral timbre was a key element of the production. If you took a moment to look through the ANÚNA archives, you might describe them as Ireland's most prolific and versatile performing group of the past three decades.

ANÚNA, directed by its founder and director Michael McGlynn, performed to Japanese imperial royalty in this avant-garde production fusing ancient Japanese dramatic techniques with 21st century choral composition.

Dubliner, McGlynn co-directed the show and wrote the original music.

Through this production and similar previous endeavours, ANÚNA has made a huge cultural contribution to the spiritual and artistic connection between Ireland and Japan.

Dónal Kearney has been a member of ANÚNA since 2012, and has since toured Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, the USA, China and Japan with the group.

He performs with other groups too. Alongside his three brothers, Dónal produces Tourist Walk; since 2010, the four Kearney boys travel somewhere together, write songs about the place, film live performances of the songs, and hold a gig for a local audience. Then they upload it all to YouTube.

Tourist Walk has taken them all across Ireland, Scotland, England, Belgium and Sweden.

Dónal's folk-soul trio TRÚ, a collaboration with fellow ANÚNA singer Zach Trouton and Northern Ireland Music Prize nominee Michael Mormecha, is set to release its début album in early 2018.

This hard-working young Irish singer now based in Fingal, has sung in concert halls across the world and now his voice features on a Nintendo soundtrack.

The story seems all the more fantastic given that, in a previous life, Dónal studied Law at University of Cambridge.

Dónal told the Fingal Independent: 'I have a Law degree from Gonville & Caius College and a Master's in International Human Rights Law from NUI Galway.

'I even worked as a Researcher at the UN OHCHR in Geneva for six months before returning to Ireland and committing myself fully to music. It was a strange time, full of confusion, just when the Syrian War was escalating.

'I wasn't content with things in my own head, even though I knew I was so lucky.

'Everything was put into perspective there, not for entirely positive reasons.

'Of course, I had nothing to complain about in the grand scheme of things, but the lack of art in my life was becoming a bigger and bigger issue for me.'

So Dónal became more involved in ANÚNA when he moved back to Dublin.

He focused on building up more singing students, falling back on a Vocal Diploma he attained while studying music in school.

In the intervening four years, he has become Director of Fingal Academy of Music, which he co-founded last year.

He has also trained with international humanitarian organisation Musicians Without Borders in Derry city.

He now manages half a dozen choirs all across Ireland and regularly works with Ulster Youth Choirs and National Youth Choirs of Great Britain.

Dónal told us: 'Global projects like this are magnificent to be a part of.

'ANÚNA is an incredible group that persists in its ambition and creative output. As a performer and educator myself, experiences such as recording for Nintendo in Tokyo's SONY Studios are invaluable for what they allow me to pass on; to students, to audiences, or to colleagues.'

The song on the new game, was set for release on December 1, featuring Dónal's baritone voice is called Shadow of the Lowlands and was written by composer Yasunori Mitsuda, himself one of the most prominent composers in Japan's video game scene, working on games like Final Fantasy and Street Fighter.

Nintendo is responsible for genre-defining video games like Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Pokémon.

It conceived the Game Boy, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (affectionately known by fans as The SNES), and the Nintendo 64, which launched in 1996. The company's most recent invention, the Nintendo Switch, was released worldwide in March 2017.

The video for Shadow of the Lowlands, published by Nintendo, is a promo for the release of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on December 1.

The video features ANÚNA singing against the majestic Irish landscape. After one day, the video has over 52,000 views on YouTube.

To be involved in a Nintendo soundtrack is a huge feat for an Irish artist. Dónal's career is still young and only time will tell where his voice brings him next. Given where he's come from, it's difficult to predict.

When the game was released on December 1, Dónal had much more local concerns on his mind as the Fingal Academy of Music put on its Winter Gala recital.

The Choral programme at Fingal Academy of Music now runs six choirs under Dónal's guidance, four of which perform at the Academy Winter Gala on December 1 at The Riasc Centre, Kinsealy. Fingal Youth Choir returned after a fantastic concert in the same venue last May, while the Fingal Children's Choir performed fresh from victory at a recent festival in Kilcoole. For both Cór Fingal and Fingal Boys' Choir, the Winter Gala was their first public appearance ever.

Fingal Independent