Parkville Teen Finds Her Voice Setting Lyrics To Video-Game Music
But when her phone rings, the ring tone is the original Super Mario Brothers theme for the Nintendo Entertainment System. A plush doll of Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for Sega systems swings in the backseat of her car, and the music playing inside is from video games.
“That’s all I listen to, pretty much,” Fischer says, sitting in the Panera Bread at Towson Place. Blond and blue-eyed, she speaks thoughtfully and with a sweet Maryland drawl, wearing Vans and a track jacket with Link from the Legend of Zelda game for NES and the words olde school emblazoned on the back. “Like, I tried to listen to normal music, but it’s just not me, you know.”
Born in Baltimore and raised in Parkville—where she still lives with her family, commuting to and from Villa Julie College as a first-year student—the 18-year-old singer, who performs and records under the stage name pIENESS, grew up surrounded by video games and music. Her father, Thomas, and two older brothers, Matt and Jared (an occasional City Paper contributor), play guitars and drums, and her older sister, April, played keyboard. Video games were always in the house, and Fischer spent a great amount of time watching her family members play.
“My mom would play Tetris when I was a baby,” she says. “The first Nintendo, yup. That’s the only game she liked, actually. And then I liked to just watch my brothers play and beat the games, and that was really cool.”
Fischer bought her first mainstream music CD, Green Day’s Dookie, when it came out in 1994, but as she got older video-game music won out over everything else. She discovered the internet as a source for her favorite songs and soundtracks, and no longer did she have to play the games to hear those tunes. After a few stints as drummer/singer for different bands—“it’s hard to keep up the beat and sing at the same time,” she says—Fischer switched over to listening to video-game music exclusively. She played it so much that she began to think about doing something more with it. In 2003, pIENESS was born: video-game music with vocals.
“I just listen to it so much that words would come to me, for certain songs,” Fischer says. “If you listen to a lot of it, it sounds like there’s a melody being played by some kind of instrument or something that should have vocals. That’s just what I go along with. It sounded like it was missing something, and I thought, Oh, it would be really cool if I made a song out of it.”
And make songs she did. Fischer started recording as pIENESS two years ago by singing into a computer with video-game music in the background. Now, she works on vocal and video-game tracks separately in her basement, experimenting with GarageBand, recording software made by Apple. Six electric guitars stand nearby alongside a drum set, a filtered microphone, and a PA system; elsewhere in the basement are tubs full of video games, an NES, and a Sega Master System. “We even had ColecoVision,” Fischer admits. “But I don’t know what happened to it.”
Her first solo gig was in early 2004 at a church in Hamilton, as the opening act for an all-punk concert, using just a microphone and a CD player. Fischer recorded a duet with guitarist Temp Sound Solutions (aka Shawn Phase, a friend of her oldest brother, Matt [No Cover, Aug. 11, 2004]) to the soundtrack of the DuckTales game for NES. Later that year, she created a MySpace profile (www.myspace.com/pieness), which led to her song “eASTER” being played on 98 Rock last Easter. 98 Rock DJ Don Koenig had befriended her on MySpace and asked to borrow it.
“I actually couldn’t hear the actual song, because I was screaming the whole time” it was on the air, she says. “It was exciting. I think it’s kind of neat.”
Also neat is how well Fischer and her lyrics mesh with video-game tracks. For “This Race,” set to music from the racing game F-Zero for Super NES, she sings in a mellow alto, her vocals jumping together with a tense, dissonant background. Her voice highlights and accentuates “Churches Bridges,” which uses a MIDI version of music from the Sega Master System game Columns. And “Ice Fing Castle,” set to music from the Super NES game Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, is dramatic and swarthy with gothlike vocals over a churning, ethereal, roughly metallic mix.
Short and catchy—each piece runs anywhere from one to two minutes—pIENESS’s songs make you want to play them over and over, like video games. They’re made even more addictive with easy-to-remember verses. Take, for example, the lyrics to head-bopping “Double Dragon,” set to the remixed theme of the game of the same name for Super NES: “I wanna play Double Dragon/ I wanna play Super Dragon/ I wanna play Double Dragon/ I wanna play Super Double Dragon.”
It’s not Bob Dylan, but Fischer isn’t exactly working in a traditional songwriting idiom. She taps into a nascent young subculture riffing on video-game music that has sprouted up in the past few years—see also the aforementioned Shawn Phase, the Minibosses, the Neskimos, Norway’s Press Play on Tape—musicians who treat game music like found-object sound sources. Fischer herself, while citing Halo 2 as one of her current favorite video games to play, considers herself more a game devotee than a gamer. (“I’m horrible at them,” she confesses.) She’s just into the music, especially the older stuff.
“I like to hear that video-game sound—it’s just so unique and different, and it doesn’t have annoying people singing over it already,” she says, laughing. “I can stand some normal music, like some metal, stuff like that. Heavy stuff. But I prefer that unique sound. . . . I guess it’s just because I grew up with it. There’s just something about the older games. Newer games, they’re OK, but they don’t have the same feeling as the older games. The newer games are always trying to be realistic, and that kind of takes away from the whole video-game idea, I think.”
And, as 18-year-olds did with punk, hip-hop, and rock ‘n’ roll before her, Fischer doesn’t waste time dissecting what it is about video-game music that so enthralls her. She, quite simply, knows what she likes. “It’s really fun for me,” she says. “It kind of makes me stand out, you know, good or bad. I think a lot of people find it interesting, and I like seeing their reaction to it, like either they recognize it, or they’re just like, ‘Hey, that’s different.’”
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