Henrik Oja

Everything to play for

Henrik Oja has produced Säkert!, Invasionen, Sofia Jannok and Syket. And half of Umeå’s hardcore scene.

With his own brand of soulful indie pop, he has captured the imagination of critics and audiences, yet has still found the time to produce commissioned pieces for Swedish Television’s Julkalender (Advent Calendar) and Umeå’s year as European Capital of Culture. What’s next? Game music.

Composing music for video games, in other words.

Nothing else.

Together with folk musician Frida Johansson from the Kraja music group Henrik Oja has just completed three months’ full-time work on creating the music for the next new black in the gaming world – Unravel.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Last summer a little red character made of yarn managed to win the hearts of the gaming world when game director Martin Sahlin from Umeå-based Coldwood presented their new video game Unravel and its protagonist Yarny at E3, the world’s largest video game trade show, in Los Angeles.

Unravel is a puzzle platformer in which you control a little character made of yarn that unravels as you move forward. The yarn represents love and the ties that bind us together or unravel when we separate. The mission is to tie up the missing bits.

“All levels in Unravel have carefully selected Norrland environments, such as the Strömbäck-Kont nature reserve a few miles south of Umeå. We are talking about mountains, forests, peatlands and ice landscapes. So when Coldwood started to look for composers to create music for the game it seemed natural to go for someone with roots in this type of natural environment”, Henrik Oja says.

So where do you go to find a reliable and creative Westrobothnian composer?

Ideally, two doors down the street to a studio where you have played yourself.

In the late 90s, the period that Umeåites call the HC, or hardcore, era, Martin Sahlin played in a band called Bloodbath, which held studio sessions in Second Home Umeå – the studio that Henrik Oja runs together with his colleague Mats Hammarström.

“So, to my great joy I was asked”, Henrik Oja says. “Umeå’s music scene is just large enough for nearly all musicians to somehow come into contact with each other, which is a great strength and gives rise to unexpected constellations across the genres”.

A case in point is Henrik Oja’s own band, Honungsvägen, which has been dubbed Umeå’s supergroup. Singer Christina Karlsson plays the keyboard in post-punk band Invasionen, Daniel Berglund from Jonas Bergsten’s and Lisa Miskovsky’s bands and folk musician Frida Johansson from Kraja. Annika Norlin from Säkert!/Hello Saferide produces lyrics.  

Henrik Oja, who lives in Skellefteå, is not surprised. He has seen it all before in the late 80s, when Skellefteå bands such as the Wannadies and This Perfect Day, Piteå-based Popsicle and Luleå-based The Bear Quartet were some of the names surrounding record company A West Side Fabrication and really brought music to life in Skellefteå.

So in 1995, when childhood friend Bengt Strömbro (yes, the one from radio program Mammas nya kille) suggested that they move to Umeå, Henrik Oja once again found himself in a situation.

“In the rehearsal rooms next door Meshuggah drowned out all our attempts to rehearse, and when we opened our studio we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of Umeå’s hardcore revolution. A huge number of bands – Refused, Doughnuts, Abhinanda – recorded demos or records in our studio. I imagine that’s how it works in all cities”, Henrik Oja says.

Because of Unravel’s distinctly Westrobothnian feel, Henrik Oja decided to link up with folk musician Frida Johansson right from the beginning.

“We wanted a folk music theme, so writing the music with Frida was a must. She hasn’t just been schooled in folk music; she also has a huge repertoire of traditional songs. It’s a fair guess that Unravel is the only video game in the world with a loop from Bångpolskan, a traditional Westrobothnian song by Zacharias Bång after Alfred Nilsson”.

As neither Henrik Oja nor Frida Johansson are real gamers – “at most, I have played some Mario Bros with the kids now and again” – the composers began their research by checking out game play videos on YouTube.

They were impressed by the PS3 game Journey and by the Spaghetti Western game Red Dead Redemption for PS3 and Xbox 360.

“I have understood that it’s like kicking in an open door when it comes to the music for Journey, but it’s seriously good, as are Red Dead Redemption’s playful allusions to Ennio Morricone. The game music really covers every level of your soul and heart. But the vast majority of video games are based on short loops that soon became tiresome”, Henrik Oja says.

Still, Unravel has 12 game levels – and all stages need to be loopable.

“Which creates a lot of challenges, especially when you need to get back into pace with the traditional folk tunes”.

Thanks to a fat contract with a US gaming giant, Coldwood has been able to invest a lot of money into creating the music for Unravel.

“We had a clear objective when we budgeted for the project. We would go all-in. So we were able to hire an impressive ensemble for the studio sessions: Torbjörn Näsbom on the key harp, the whole of the Kraja vocal quartet and Petter Berndalen, Sweden’s first traditional folk musician on percussion and the go-to guy for folk music. The instrumentation is unusually acoustic for a video game – bass clarinet, pump organ, violin and key harp”, Henrik Oja says.

So what, then, do you do to compose?

You do it every conceivable way, according to Henrik Oja.

“Our working days have been varied, to say the least. We looked at each element of the song at a time, writing the notes directly on the note sheets one day and jamming our way to the right tempo and key in the studio the following day. I am more of an electronics guy that can do mood loops on the computer, while Frida would often arrive at the studio with fully composed themes the day after a session”.

And that’s how the winter progressed. Three months of full-time labor, eight hours a day.

“The game has twelve levels. Each level has several themes and contains 10 to 25 minutes of music. In the end we delivered over three hours of music, so a project like this is more about discipline than inspiration”.

And about collaboration.

Henrik Oja believes he would have struggled to bring the project to conclusion on his own.

“Working together, you can inspire each other to overcome the obstacles that arise on the way. Just like in a band, you have to help each other along. The process reminded me a lot of how Annika Norlin and I work on Säkert! Each person is doing his or her own thing; the dialectic is what pushes things forward”.

Another aspect is deadlines.

“You also have to allow yourself to bring things to completion in an entirely different way than when you are working on your own pop songs. We had relate to a very detailed American contract, so you can’t sit around and fine-tune things ad infinitum. Perhaps I could do with a bit more of this pragmatism when I work on my own songs”, Henrik Oja says.

This is not the first time that Henrik Oja has done commissioned work. In 2014 he composed music specially for Umeå’s year as European Capital of Culture and already in 2009 he wrote music for SVT’s “Superhjältejul” (Swedish Television’s Superhero Christmas).

That left him with a taste for more.

“As a musician it is not every day that you have the chance to work on composing music and get paid for it. A proper job. Having a defined framework as a base and filling it with something sensible is a different and creative task. In the case of Unravel we had a creator who is passionate about his game that we needed to relate to, which meant that we often had to redo things. But Unravel takes place here, in the place where we live and work, so even though we approach the matter from different angles this is still an opportunity for us composers to express something that we believe to be important”, Henrik Oja says.

Not many composers are able to sign a royalty agreement with a big US gaming company, and thus not rely on funding from Stim. Henrik Oja and Frida Johansson are no exceptions.

“Of course it feels funny that the music in a sense no longer belongs to me and Frida”, Henrik Oja says, “but we are both very proud of our musical work, and it will still say ‘composed by…’ in the credits. Under our agreement, we are not allowed to disclose our fee, but we were able to work full-time in the study and hire musicians and give them reasonable pay, so we have nothing to complain about”.

Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that Unravel and Yarny were created with so much heart, or perhaps it is related to the Westrobothnian landscapes?

At least, it wouldn’t have been the same if they had been working on a hack ‘n’ slash game or a shooter game, Henrik Oja admits.

“And it does feel great that the kids will soon be playing a PS4 game that Daddy made the music for”.

Unravel will be released in early 2016.

What does it sound like?

A sample is available at YouTube. Search for unravel official gamescom.

Henrik Oja on a good song:

“It’s got to be something that touches you. It needs to speak to your heart. It doesn’t need to follow the format verse, bridge, refrain, some riff or stick. I appreciate all formats. It can’t be more difficult than that”.

On descriptions of nature:

“Ice cave is equal to B minor”.

The best game music:

“Journey, apparently. But Silent Hill is powerful”.

Musical role models:

“Recently I have been listening a lot to Bramble’s record. David Sylvian is a stock favorite”.

Most often on my iPod:

“Swedish Radio 1”.

The next project:

“Finish my own music. Finish other people’s music”.

Stim license for video games – how it works

For specially written music for computer and video games Stim hands back the rights to the music in computer and video games to the author under a waiver. This means that the author is responsible for monitoring those particular rights.

In other situations, where the music is played with no link to the game, Stim ensures that the money goes to the author. This is the case if the music is played on radio, streamed in a music service or if someone performs the music live.

You can apply for a waiver by sending an e-mail to [email protected].

Stim facts:

  • 42 years
  • Grew up in Skellefteå, now lives in Umedalen, Umeå.
  • Two children, girlfriend.
  • Paying back loans to the National Board of Student Aid, for old sins. Self-taught when it comes to music. 
  • Likes Chinese food and all those TV series that other people like too.

Five songs that Henrik is listening to right now

Gudförälder with Vasas flora och fauna

I spenaten with Mattias Alkberg

Singularity with Stephan Bodzin

Norrland with Gidge

Lilltåa, tåtilla with Triakel