JAPANESE BREAKFAST: THIS THING THAT I LOVE
illustration by kelly abeln
Formerly the frontwoman of Philadelphia emo band Little Big League, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner began her solo career as an experiment in songwriting and self-expression. Her first record Psychopomp was a response to losing her mother to cancer—an album where making music was a method of healing. Critics responded with great enthusiasm, which helped land Zauner a deal with Dead Oceans, and her 2017 follow-up Soft Sounds from Another Planet is in the running for one of the best indie rock records of last year. She’s got a series of sold-out performances soon, with Coachella this weekend as well as the Roxy next week and the Glass House in June. This interview by Bennett Kogon.
You have one of the best homecoming shows I’ve ever seen—opening for Belle & Sebastian at the Oregon Zoo Amphitheatre. I don’t know how you could top a show at a zoo—is there anywhere better you’d want to play next?
Michelle Zauner: This has been a pretty amazing year for me. In December, I was able to play in Seoul, Korea, which is where I was born and where my mom’s family is from. My aunt was able to come see me and it was really special for me to speak a little Korean and perform there. Almost more special to me in a way was to play the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, which is where I saw all the bands that really shaped me as an artist. Like, the first show I saw there was Built to Spill when I was a teenager. And then to play that stage is totally bonkers. I also used to work coat-check at this venue in Philadelphia called Union Transfer. I never thought I would get to headline a room like that and we are going to be there at the beginning of June. I don’t know if I have many more goals after that—I guess I can pretty much retire after this year.
Your first record Psychopomp was written about the emptiness you felt after the trauma of losing your mother. What is your newest Soft Sounds from Another Planet about? How did it feel to write?
Michelle Zauner: I wrote Psychopomp two months after my mom passed away. Some of it was reused material that was written before she passed away, and some of it was material that I wrote specifically about that experience. In a lot of the songs there was an outpouring of raw emotion and confusion. I don’t think I really understood how to feel. It was just stating the very core of where I was at the time. It was definitely a way for me to compartmentalize those emotions because I found it really difficult to communicate with other people what I was going through. I really didn’t have any expectations for Psychopomp—that was very much a record I wrote for myself. It was really a surprise when it garnered a lot of press. It was my first record that did well commercially, or whatever. When it was time to write Soft Sounds, I had a label, I had a deadline, and I had a lot more expectation. At first, I wanted to distance myself from my personal experiences, so I went into it thinking I was going to write a science fiction musical. The song “Machinist” was the first song I wrote for it and it’s quite different than the rest of the record. I quickly realized it didn’t feel fulfilling for me at the time to continue with that narrative. I still felt like I had a lot to say about what I went through and it felt phony to just pretend that I’m not gonna write about my mom dying under tragic circumstances. It was really a huge part of my life. I’m probably going to write about those experiences forever. [Right now] I find myself really wanting to create something that’s very dramatically different. I want the follow-up to sound very melodramatic and kind of theatrical. I’ve been listening to a lot of Nine Inch Nails, so I really want it to be like Homogenic meets Pretty Hate Machine, with this kind of gothic industrial-vibe to it. As soon as I say that, you know … ‘it sounds great!’ But once I sit down and try to write material like that, it doesn’t really go well! That’s the general idea, but right now I’m just trying to write a lot and see what comes naturally. I hope for this next album that I have the opportunity to just take more time and explore different directions. I want to write a lot of material and be able to gain the perspective of having 30 or 40 songs to pick from, which is something I’ve never really done before.
You’ve said you can use your music as a kind of meditation—how does that work?
Michelle Zauner: It’s self-meditative in the sense that it’s very intuitive music. Especially with this project—I kind of started it as a way to express myself quite directly. It all began with a cassette release called June. I had written and recorded really lo-fi and shitty songs for thirty days—every day for the month of June. No matter what I had going on that day, I would have to put out a song. I think it was an exercise in forgiveness and just sort of a way to let my subconscious wander. It came with a lot of really great material and it was a new way of writing for me that was different from what I had been doing with my old band, Little Big League. I think the very beginnings of all my songs come from an intuitive and honest place. I’ve always written music that was really personal and in that way, this has been a way for me to meditate on my life.
Has your relationship with music changed since you’ve become a musician? And as you’ve gone from a DIY musician to the festival circuit and having label backing?
Michelle Zauner: I feel a lot more competent and confident as a musician. I’ve always felt good about what I was making, but I think everyone feels a little nervous and possesses some self-doubt about their work. I’m definitely a lot more capable than I thought I was. I feel much more confident, especially as a producer and an arranger of music. I wasn’t really brought up in an environment where I was allowed to feel that way. I don’t think I’ve been able to fully enjoy the feeling that I’m good at this thing that I love until the last couple of years. That’s been really nice.
The proportion of Asian-American women within rock music is very small—have you ever felt there wasn’t a place for you?
Michelle Zauner: I don’t know—I have complicated feelings about it. I don’t know if I’ve felt that way as a woman as much as I’ve felt that way as a human being. I think everyone feels self-doubt as a creative person, especially being raised in a family where that wasn’t really a valued or promising profession. I think many people are raised to believe that it’s a very lucky and unique position to find yourself as an artist that can support oneself. I think there was more concern about that than being a woman. In a lot of ways, I grew up feeling excited to assert myself in arenas that felt male-dominated. I felt much more like that about other interests than I have with music. I was an avid chess player in elementary school and there are very, very few female chess players. I got used to inserting myself into male-dominated arenas—it excited me more than it intimidated me.
Your work as a solo musician is very much a direct transmission of yourself and your emotions, and you take a very hands-on approach to your other work, too, like your music videos. How is working with image different than working with sound?
Michelle Zauner: I just really fell in love with directing last year. Most of it came from having a really amazing collaborator. I’ve made seven videos with the same director of photography—Adam Kolodny. He’s an amazing talent and honestly pushed me into the role of a director. That gave me the confidence to take something like this on. I’ve been writing music for twelve years now and at this point my progress feels much smaller. Everything that I direct now, I can feel great leaps of progress where I learn so much from project to project. When it comes to music, I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s much more subtle how I’ve grown. I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to directing, so I look forward to where it takes me.
JAPANESE BREAKFAST WITH EMNINEM, ODESZA AND MANY MORE ON SUN., APR. 15, AND SUN., APR. 22, ON THE GOBI STAGE AT COACHELLA AT THE EMPIRE POLO CLUB, 81-800 51ST AVE., INDIO. 3:25 PM / SOLD OUT / ALL AGES. COACHELLA.COM. AND WITH SNAIL MAIL AND AND AND AND ON TUE., APR. 17, AT THE ROXY, 9009 SUNSET BLVD., WEST HOLLYWOOD. 8 PM / SOLD OUT / ALL AGES. AND ON SAT., JUNE 23, AT THE GLASS HOUSE, 200 W. 2ND ST., POMONA. 8 PM / SOLD OUT / ALL AGES. THEGLASSHOUSE.US. JAPANESE BREAKFAST’S SOFT SOUNDS FROM ANOTHER PLANET IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM DEAD OCEANS. VISIT JAPANESE BREAKFAST AT JAPANESEBREAKFAST.ROCKS.