Mike Wyzgowski is a songwriter and musician best known in the world of animation for being the lyricist for anime composer Shiro Sagisu’s English-language songs since 1996. He wrote the lyrics for “Komm Susser Tod” from End of Evangelion, various insert songs from Shin Evangelion including “Hand of Fate” and “Lost in the Memory”, “Nothing Can Be Explained” from Bleach (which he also sang), and the countless action themes involving a choir that have been popping up in Sagisu’s soundtracks since 2007.
He’s also made some waves in the pop music scene, co-writing the mid 90s dance hit “Not Over Yet” with Rob Davis and Paul Oakenfold as well as the minor UK hit “Slave to the Summer, Son” with the alt-rock band Garlic. It was through his work on Garlic and recently his solo act Green Retriever that I discovered Wyzgowski on Twitter, and I made contact with him to say thanks for his Garlic/Green Retriever work for helping me through a rough patch in my personal life.
We got to chatting for a small bit, and he brought up that he was Sagisu’s lyricist when he noticed I had some Eva stuff on my own Twitter profile. Considering how much of a role he’s played in Sagisu’s work over the years, and as I view him as something of a personal hero when it comes to songwriting, I decided one day to ask if I could interview him about working with Sagisu for Cartoon Milk.
Amazingly, he agreed to it, and after a few weeks spent putting together questions (with the help of many awesome people who I’ve thanked at the bottom of the article), I sent them his way and he eventually replied back.
This was originally done in April of 2022, with a plan of even sending questions to Sagisu himself to answer. Questions were sent his way, but he hasn’t yet panned out (likely due to how busy he’s been lately with projects such as the new Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War anime), so I’ve decided for now to post the interview conducted with Wyzgowski. If anything does occur, I’ll either do a follow-up article or make an addendum to this one. For now, I hope you enjoy the interview and find it insightful and interesting.
Cartoon Milk: When did you first meet Sagisu?
Mike Wyzgowski: Back in the mid 90’s at a studio in Kilburn, North London. He was doing a session with a co-writer friend of mine, Martin Lascelles.
(writer’s note: Martin Lascelles is a music producer who’s been working in the industry since the mid 80s, he’s known for co-writing/producing “Love Is A House” by American R&B group Force M.D.’s)
How did you end up collaborating with Sagisu? What was the first project you worked together on?
Pretty much through that initial contact. He needed a lyricist for Garzey’s Wing (a TV series if I remember correctly).
(writer’s note: Garzey’s Wing is a three-episode OVA directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino of Gundam and Ideon fame. The soundtrack features vocals provided by Lorraine “Loren” Briscoe, who will be discussed in slightly more detail later on. Two of the songs she sang with lyrics by Wyzgowski are “The Legend of the Holy War (Vocal Version)” and “Song of Prayer Woman (Inori”.)
Most people would be familiar with your work through the songs “Komm Susser Tod” and “Thanatos ~If I Can’t Be Yours~” from End of Evangelion. So I’d like to ask a few questions about your work on that film.
Where did the idea of using English vocal themes come from?
I would assume it was Hideaki Anno’s idea, but in all honesty I don’t know who would make those decisions.
I understand that the lyrics for “Komm Susser Tod” were adapted from a poem written by Hideaki Anno. What was the process in adapting the poem? Did you have any specific directions from Anno or Sagisu, or were you allowed to do your own thing?
Shiro generally gives me a brief outline or a few buzzwords for whichever piece we’re working on and just leaves me to get on with it. On a lot of pieces it says “english translation” by me, but I think interpretation would be more accurate.
Did you have any input in the specific musical stylings for “Komm Susser Tod”? It’s quite a striking song in terms of its style, such as the slide guitar, the use of the choir, and the long breakdown at the end.
No, that’s all Shiro’s handiwork. Occasionally I will be at the studio sessions and he may ask for a lyrical change, but that’s about the extent of my involvement, production wise.
The vocalist for “Komm Susser Tod” is a singer simply credited as ARIANNE. Who is Arianne, and how was she brought on to sing the song?
I met Arianne (Schreiber) at around the same time I met Shiro. George Michael had just signed her to his label, and I think she was recording her demos at Martin’s studio.
“Komm Susser Tod” is perhaps the most famous original insert song in anime. What do you think about its legacy?
It’s amazing. It has millions of views on YouTube. It’s quite scary (and satisfying in equal measures) for me, seeing some of the comments of what the song means to people and what they read into the lyrics.
“Thanatos ~If I Can’t Be Yours~” is another unusual Evangelion song, going for an R&B style not seen elsewhere in the series. The song has been credited to LOREN & MASH. Who are LOREN & MASH, and how was the song created?
MASH (MArtin and SHiro) I guess was the forerunner to [the] Shiro’s Songbook [albums]. Martin had found Loren through a session and wanted to do an album with her (which we subsequently did, called “Up All Night”). Shiro fell in love with her voice immediately and has used her on most of his R&B/jazz projects to this day.
As far as that particular song goes, we had pretty much settled into a pattern of Shiro giving me a melody and loose arrangement. I write the lyrics and we get the vocalist in. More often than not that would be Loren.
There was another insert song written for End of Evangelion, called “Everything You Ever Dreamed” – it even features Arianne from KST as lead and backing vocals. However, it was never used within the film. Can you tell us more about it? How or where was the song originally planned to be used, and why was it eventually dropped?
I think that’s one of the best songs we’ve written. By the time I’ve done my bit, I don’t have any say in what happens to it. Sorry!
Featured within the film’s soundtrack are pieces where English lyrics are sung by a choir (“Emergency Evacuation to Regression” and its orchestrated version “Escape to the Beginning”). Did you write the lyrics for these pieces? If so, where did the idea come of writing lyrics for the choir come from?
To be honest, I have written literally hundreds of these pieces for Shiro, many of which never see the light of day, so I can’t really remember all the titles. But there’s probably a 95% chance it was me, haha! The process from a lyricist point of view is pretty much the same writing for a choir as a solo.
Had you written choral lyrics before working with Sagisu?
No, a whole new experience. The first time I heard a finished piece, I shit my pants. To go from a single note piano line to write to, to the finished article was pretty mind blowing the first few times. Took me into territory I’d never dreamed of.
There was another choral piece recorded at the time, but it wasn’t featured in the film and went unused until it reappeared in Evangelion 3.0+1.0 as “Born Evil”. How was this piece originally intended to be used?
Sorry to be a cop-out, but I have no idea what’s to be used where and when.
Around 1997 (the year EOE came out), you took part in the Symphony of Evangelion concert performed at Bunkamura Orchard Hall. You played the guitar on the performance of “Ritsuko”. Can you recall what it was like performing at the concert?
The worst 2mins 40 of my life, I hadn’t played live for years and even at that I’m an average to shite guitarist, and it was a piece of music I hadn’t written in a style I couldn’t play, in front of 4000 people. It was like playing with boxing gloves on. Luckily for me, I was duetting with an amazing pianist who’s name escapes me (it was 25 years ago) and he bailed me out big time.
(writer’s note: the pianist mentioned is Makoto Kuriya, who has been working with Sagisu on-off since 1995.)
Later that year, an Evangelion arrangement album was released called “Evangelion-Vox”. It featured many of the series’ songs redone as R&B, gospel, and even rap. You wrote the lyrics for the R&B and gospel numbers, so can you discuss how the album came together?
I had no input into this album other than lyrics. But I think Shiro is a jazzer at heart and had Loren and these amazing London session [musicians] at the time, so why not?
When writing the lyrics for “Evangelion-Vox”, did you have any characters or themes from the series in mind? Some songs are focused on specific elements from the show (“Image of Me” is based on Rei), while others like “From My Dreams” and “Promised Land” seem more general.
I get a vague idea of characters or plot lines, so a lot of educated guessing on where the song goes, but if I stray off topic, Shiro will tell me.
To move away from Evangelion for a while, what’s the process you have for writing lyrics to Sagisu’s music? Does Sagisu suggest a topic, or do you come up with a topic based on your impression of the song?
He gives me the melody and I try and write as close as I can to that. Lyrically, I’m left to my own devices.
Around 1999, Sagisu began a series of albums under the name Shiro’s Songbook. You did the lyrics for many of the songs featured, which have vocals provided by LOREN, along with Hazel Fernandes, Ian Pitter, the FREEDOM Gospel Choir, and many others.
What was it like writing for the Songbook series?
The process is pretty much as previously mentioned and as seeing how prolific Shiro is, I never really know which song will end up on which project. But he always surrounds himself with quality musicians and vocalists so they find a home at some point.
Some of the songs featured in the Songbook series and elsewhere are rearrangements of songs originally written in Japanese or other languages (such as “Where Your Heart Belongs” from the soundtrack to MUSA The Warrior, or “The Glory Day” originally performed by MISIA).
When adapting the songs into English, do you work from translations of the original lyrics or do you do your own thing?
A bit of both. Generally, I get to do my own thing but very occasionally he will ask me to convey the sentiment of the original.
What are your inspirations for writing lyrics to Sagisu’s music? Is there anyone you could cite as a specific inspiration?
Shiro and I are of a similar age so we have a lot of similar reference points. But generally soul and R&B stuff is relationship based so try not to get too controversial on that front. One of my main inspirations is Todd Rundgren. On his early albums he could write the most heart wrenching soul song followed by a heavy rock head banger, or a country ballad, and then a pirate song… mental. It wasn’t always easy to digest but it made you listen.
Between End of Evangelion and Bleach, you didn’t write any lyrics for Sagisu’s anime work (apart from rearrangements featured in the Songbook series). Was there any particular reason for this?
Not as far as I’m aware. We weren’t married so I didn’t mind if he fucked around, lol.
Apart from Evangelion, you’re also well-known for having written the lyrics to the insert songs “Number One” and “Nothing Can Be Explained” for Bleach. What prompted the use of English-speaking songs for Bleach, and what was your approach for writing them?
Generally when I’ve finished writing the lyrics, I will sing them roughly for guidance to pronunciation, etc for Shiro.
“Nothing Can Be Explained” is notable for being the first time you sang lead vocals on a Sagisu song. You’d previously written the lyrics for Sagisu’s music, so how did you end up singing for this song?
I didn’t know “Nothing Can Be Explained” was going to end up with my vocal on it, so I was presently surprised when someone sent a link to it. That one works but if you heard some of the others….. not so much, haha!
Around 2007, Sagisu began incorporating a four-person choir – the “Special Choir”, going by soundtrack credits – singing English lyrics into his pieces. You’ve written the lyrics for every one of these, as far as I can tell. During the early 2010s, Sagisu was often scoring the music for multiple projects at once, including the new Evangelion films, Berserk, Shin Godzilla, and Attack on Titan.
Considering that these projects often featured Special Choir pieces, did the increased workflow affect your ability to write lyrics?
I wouldn’t say it affected my ability to do it, but it could get challenging trying to not repeat something I’d done previously. And how successful I was in achieving that may be open to debate, but I’m sure that’s something most songwriters are guilty of. And the sheer volume means that not everything gets used. I’m sure there’s a few duffers on the cutting room floor.
Somewhat related to the previous question, but have there been songs that were written for one project that ended up appearing elsewhere?
I ask because I’ve seen a few folks online speculating that the lyrics for “The Ultimate Soldier” from Evangelion 3.0 seemed to be more fitting of Griffith from the Berserk films than anything in 3.0.
Somewhat related to the previous answer…. Definitely.
Do you receive any input from the director(s) of the projects you wrote lyrics for, or is that something solely handled by you and Sagisu?
As far as I’m aware the director has the final say, but I very rarely get asked to re-write so I think we must have a chemistry that works (fingers crossed).
Are you able to check out the shows and films, or at least read scripts/source material, when you’re writing lyrics for the soundtracks? So that you can see how to lyrically express the themes of the work or a specific scene.
More so when we first started collaborating, but like anything the more you do it, the better you get. So I think the directors trust Shiro and he trusts me (again fingers crossed).
Most recently, your lyrics have stood out in a trio of insert songs that featured in Evangelion 3.0+1.0: “Hand of Fate”, “Yearning For Your Love”, and “Lost in the Memory” (the latter two were sung by you).
According to a portion of Sagisu’s liner notes available from his website, you first wrote the lyrics for “Hand of Fate” back in 2006. Did you know much about the new Evangelion films when writing the lyrics, or did you go by your own instinct when writing them?
I’m reasonably oblivious to most of it. I try and do a bit of research to get context right but if anything specific is required, Shiro will point it out in advance.
“Lost in the Memory” is a sombre acoustic guitar piece in which you sing the vocals, much like “Nothing Can Be Explained”. Was there any particular character or idea you had in mind when writing the lyrics?
For a generally upbeat kind of person, I tend to be quite good at doom and gloom. I can’t remember the brief, but I think whatever the brief was and the chord sequence dictate how it ends up.
Did you have any contact with Hideaki Anno during the making of the new Evangelion films? If he was, did he specify certain themes or ideas that you wrote around? (Spiritually, somewhat akin to his poems which you adapted back in End of Evangelion)
I met him a couple of times in Tokyo and maybe once in London. Usually in the middle of recording orchestras and choirs, so I usually just melt into a corner and let them get on with it.
Has your approach to writing lyrics changed over the years?
Not really, I think once you have your method/style that’s it. I lived and loved glam rock, prog rock, punk, disco, jazz funk, Pfunk, dance, indie etc so have quite a reasonable memory bank for what fits where. I guess when Shiro went down the classical and choir route it took me a to a place I’d never even considered, but to my relief the process of songwriting is the same no matter the genre.
What would be your advice for those interested in becoming lyricists, or for how they can improve their lyrical style?
If you really want to do it, you’ll do it. Persistence is the key.
What is your favourite genre of music to write for, when it comes to Sagisu’s music?
For the sheer pleasure of the end result, I would say the classical stuff. But a song that turns out better than you expected is always pleasing.
Are there any songs that you’re particularly proud of, whether as part of the soundtracks or for the Songbook albums?
I’m proud of anything that triggers an emotion from complete strangers. Even if it’s negative, I know it’s not personal because no-one knows who the hell I am. But when I read people saying they cried, laughed or more often than not say they want a song I’ve written to be the last thing they hear before the world implodes, that’s very gratifying.
What’s it like working with Sagisu after all this time?
I’ve only seen him a couple of times in 10 years, but thanks to the wonders of technology we can carry on working. We had planned to meet in France to write a new Songbook album with Martin Lascelles, but the pandemic got in the way, so hopefully next year, and I’m sure we’ll just pick up where we left off.
Around December 2021, Sagisu posted a video of you performing part of “Komm Susser Tod” on his Twitter page. (As it turns out, another video of this recording was postedConsidering the microphone set-up seen in the video, is there a plan to record and release an arrangement of KST, or perhaps an Evangelion arrangement album of some sort?
He’s full of surprises, so who knows, I certainly don’t.
(writer’s note: as it turns out, another video of this recording was posted back in March of 2020, so this was done for a good while longer than I had originally assumed.)
That’s pretty much it in terms of questions, although there’s a couple of bonus questions I couldn’t really work into the main list.
Did you ever collaborate with Sagisu on anything for Kare Kano at all?
What happened to your band Garlic? Are you planning to release more solo work?
Garlic basically ran its course (great while it lasted). I now have a home studio so am headlong into Green Retriever… I will have a 2nd album going online on all platforms and pressing vinyl hopefully to coincide [with this article]…
(UPDATE – 17th February 2023: The second Green Retriever album “CHOONGUM” was released on the 1st of February 2023. The album can be listened to on YouTube and Spotify.)
And that’s all the questions I have. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for the article.
Special thanks to everyone who asked questions that I used either directly or as inspiration for questions to ask Mike. To all these people, thank you:
NAveryW, Notorius P.I.G., SGTCharlynne, kuribo-04, dzzthink, UrsusArctos, FelipeFritschF, Imperivm97, RussianRiz, Faithslayer202, ZGoenMusic, JeremyG918, LuizTomikawa, The Hylian, goodgamer222, Tweee, 2EM18KKC01, S2P Thai Lyrics, soulagement, Joao524, Estrelar, angelo87.
Thanks also go to bubbrubb666 from the now-defunct FFShrine forum, who uploaded the scans for the “Shiro’s Songbook” album I sourced the Sagisu and FREEDOM Gospel Choir picture from.
FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.