I had the great opportunity to interview one of my biggest inspirations, Joe Zieja, last week. He’s a professional voiceover artist, a fantastic musician, and just sold his first novel, Mechanical Failure, coming out June 7th, 2016 from Saga Press, the new speculative fiction imprint of Simon and Schuster! He also composed two remixes for the OverClocked ReMix FFIX album, Worlds Apart, coming out tomorrow, 9/9!
On to the interview:
Joe Zieja. A self-described “Renaissance man without all the lace and tights”. Ex-Military. Author. Composer. Voiceover Virtuoso. Is there anything you don’t do?
Absolutely. I don’t dance, and I can’t even draw a straight line. My handwriting is atrocious, and I tend to screw up house projects that involve anything complicated. I’ve also played Ticket to Ride exactly once and scored an 8. Really. An 8.
I’ll get to all these points, but let’s start with your military experience: you describe your new book, Mechanical Failure, as a “Space Opera Military Science Fiction” book. Reading back on some of your blog posts, it seems like your time in the military has heavily influenced your writing. Could you elaborate on how it’s done so?
I think it’s hard for anyone to say that the military doesn’t influence absolutely everything about your life experience. Not only has it altered my writing, it’s altered my worldview. More specifically, I guess you could say it’s enabled me to describe the military culture in a way that is accurate and relevant.
Could you explain what a “Space Opera” is, for those readers who may not know? (Not me, though. I definitely know what a “Space Opera” is. Definitely…)
Sure. There are two broad sub genres that fall under neat science fiction. One of them is hard science fiction and the other is space opera. Hard science fiction relies on existing science and extrapolates upon it to come to a fantastical or speculative conclusion. In many cases hard science fiction focuses on a lot of technical detail that is interesting to people who are interested in science in general. Space opera, on the other hand, really is just about having fun in space. I don’t say that to say that space opera can’t be serious, but that it doesn’t overly focus on the science, and you can get away with a little bit more. Star Wars, for example is a good example of space opera. Nobody is sitting there explaining to you that lightsabers are a result of positively charged ions reacting in a vacuum.
You’ve remixed a number of songs over at OverClocked ReMix under the alias XPRTNovice, including tracks on the Final Fantasy VI remix album, Balance and Ruin, and on the upcoming Final Fantasy IX album, Worlds Apart. Which tracks do you remix on Worlds Apart?
I have two tracks that I did on that album. One of them is Cid’s theme from Lindblum Castle, and the other is Esto Gaza.
Do you have a specific style?
Haha that’s funny. the only thing I can really say that’s consistent about my style is that I generally stick pretty closely to the source. Nostalgia is a big factor for me. Other than that, I’ve done everything from a Bon Jovi style thing to klezmer to bluegrass.
What can people expect when you’re remixing or composing?
Live instruments. I have a lot at my disposal, and I almost always make them the focus.
Before I say anything about your voice work, I gotta congratulate you – you’re the highest-ranked male voice on Voices.com over the past week, and 15th all-time.
How long have you been doing voice work?
It kind of depends. when I was a kid at the Air Force Academy I would be official Academy announcer for football games and parades and all sorts of other events, so I’ve been doing something like voice over for a while. If you really mean voice over work like I’m doing it today, I really only been doing it for the last two and a half years.
On your blog, you’ve mentioned that voice work is “the big moneymaker” for you, and that it’s basically your job at this point.
yep. After I got out of the military in 2012, I worked for the government for a little while. But by time the end of 2014 rolled around, I was ready to quit everything and be a full time voice over artist, which I am now.
What are the biggest pros and cons of being self-employed?
While the military has its exciting moments, it really is basically a desk job for most of the time. It was the same thing with the government. I absolutely love not having a boss, not having set hours, being able to work from home, and being responsible for my own success without having to cater to some arbitrarily organized corporate or military promotion ladder. I get to express myself creatively every day of my life, which is a privilege that not many people can say they enjoy. As far as the downsides, sometimes it’s a little hard to keep organized, and to keep boundaries on my work time versus my free time. and now of course I have to pay for my own health insurance and worry about my own retirement if there is such a thing.
It’s clear that you do a ton of creating in many different ways – how do you manage the time between writing, composing, voice work, and… y’know, everything else you do on a day-to-day basis?
I don’t have a very structured organization for how I split the time between all of that. Basically I know that being a voice over artist is what’s making most of my money at this point in time, so that’s what gets my priorities. After that comes writing, because I have a book contract and I have deadlines to worry about now. Lastly unfortunately comes music, because all the way to make money with it from time to time, sometimes I need to just put it aside and focus on the things that let me put food on the table.
What does a day in the life look like for Joe Zieja?
The timing changes every day, but I generally do about four to five hours of voice work. That can be anything from actual microphone time to managing my business to talking to agents and managers. I try to write for about an hour or two every day, but I don’t always get there. I hang out with my daughter and my wife and try to relax as well as get some physical activity in. The blank spots I fill in with reading or playing video games or playing an instrument.
This interview is a part of my “Gaming Inspirations” series – do you play many video games? I can’t see where you’d have the time!
I’d be a pretty poor excuse for a nerd if I didn’t play any video games! I get a couple of hours a week in nowadays, but when I was younger I could binge with the best of them.
Do you find games inspiring? If so, which ones, and how?
If there’s one common theme in my life, it’s that I love a good story. In order for a video game to inspire me, it has to be very story focused. I generally don’t like to play games that don’t have stories, or don’t focus on them, or don’t have an end like MMOs. I really loved watching video games develop into a fantastic storytelling mechanism from its roots. I just finished playing The Last of Us a few weeks ago, & I haven’t played a game in a long time like that that made me put down the controller and stare at the screen in disbelief at what I had just experienced.
What inspires you to create?
What inspires you to breathe? after a while, if I don’t create, I start to feel hypoxic.
What do you do when you don’t feel like creating? You must feel uninspired, or just feel like being lazy and vegging out, at times – do you have any techniques to help you stay motivated?
My real trick to staying motivated and active is having so many things to cycle through. If I’m feeling particularly uninspired by the novel and writing, I go write some music for a couple of hours. Or I’ll go do some character work for voice acting. Or I’ll go employ creative movement as a parkour practitioner.
What’s one specific action that people could take, right now, to get closer to:
Selling their first book?
Write it. you’d be surprised how many people I talk to who have been writing chapter one of their novel for the past 10 years. Finish the damn thing.
Contributing to their first album?
This may sound redundant, but start writing music. If you don’t write music, you’re never going to get on an album. If you’ve never written music before, start getting educated. Do something ridiculously basic and celebrate because to you it’s something new. Then keep doing new things.
Becoming a kickass voice actor?
People think there’s some kind of magic that has to happen with the voice that God gave you, but I’m not so sure about that. I have well over 15,000 auditions behind me. Yes that’s 15,000. In between that, I’ve managed my business so that clients come back to me so I don’t have to audition anymore. And when I’m not doing that, I’m taking classes and workshops from the most experienced people I can find. They always say that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.
Since this is FinalFantasyIX.com, after all, a few FFIX-specific questions:
Who’s your favorite character?
Freya, maybe. Aside from Final Fantasy X-2, when girls got different powers by changing into different skimpy outfits, I always thought Final Fantasy had a great edge on the strong female character front. Freya has a great backstory and a great attitude. More importantly, she’s not Steiner, who I hate.
What do you enjoy most about the game?
I think I’d have to choose Vivi’s story. The whole idea of artificial beings and their humanity or lack thereof may be kind of an overused theme, but there’s a reason for it. We haven’t really figured it out yet, primarily because we haven’t gotten technology far enough to force us to do so.
Do you find FFIX inspiring? If so, how?
If I’m being completely honest, Final Fantasy IX wasn’t my favorite FF by any stretch. While FF8 was a little teenage-angsty, FF9 was on the childish side in multiple ways for me. There are definitely gems in there, though – I love Vivi’s arc, particularly, like I just said.
Thanks so much to Joe for allowing me to interview him – it was a great experience to be able to talk with one of my biggest creative inspirations! Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeZieja, his musical alias XPRTNovice @XPRTNovice, and give him a like on Facebook. Keep an eye out for his new book, Mechanical Failure, published by Saga Press!