I wait to meet Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast in the darkened game room at the back of Brighton Music Hall. After some time a woman that was unmistakably her walks in the room. She wore a black crop top, black wide-legged cropped trousers, black tote, and badass black leather combat boots, the ensemble finished with a sequined hairpin clipping back her raven black fringe, a pixie cut in the midst of being grown out. She also has a distinct partial sleeve tattoo on her right arm featuring “Astroboy,” a character from many a Japanese childhood.
Zauner is the former leader of Philadelphia’s grunge-punk band, Little Big League. Japanese Breakfast was born out of a song-a-day project in June 2014, when her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive terminal cancer. Japanese Breakfast’s debut album, Psychopomp (2016), is graced with a photo of her mother on the cover.
I suggest we chat in a teashop around the corner where we can grab a drink away from the venue.
I know it’s only the second stop of your tour, but how’s it been so far?
It’s been great, really relaxing. The drives are still pretty short. I’m living in Philly now so I don’t feel like I’m on tour yet because I’m going back to pick up a bunch of stuff I forgot.
You’ve had some pretty big features lately, like for Rolling Stones and NPR. At what point did it dawn on you that Japanese Breakfast is becoming huge and that you felt that you’ve made it?
It was probably when I played at SXSW (South by Southwest). This record was supposed to be my last. I was in Little Big League and felt like I needed to move to New York and pursue a “career” because I’ve done music for so long and was afraid of not having any real routine or stability. I actually did work at a 9-5 job for nine months while waiting for the record to come out, and I hated it. I’ve never done it before so it was really eye-opening to think “I really don’t want this!” So I told Yellow K Records that I’m not looking to tour, I just want this record out there in the world. I tried out different labels but had no luck until Yellow K, who responded really well to the album. And when we went to SXSW, there was a lot of attention.
Do you feel like JB’s sound is more “you?” It is so different from LBL.
Yeah, this is the first time I had full creative control, and I was going through a super personal time and it was really close to me. LBL was more a democracy, and the guys I played with were more from punk and hardcore backgrounds.
You did a song-a-day-for-a-week project with Frankie Cosmos, Eskimeaux, Florist, and Small Wonder on may5to12songs.tumblr.com. Did collaborating with them help shape your current sound?
Just like really intuitive pop music, not overthinking it. A lot of the songs were written really quickly. I wrote “Jane Cum,” “Triple 7,” and “The Woman that Loves You” all in a day. A lot of those songs, like the basic form of Heft was written in a day. A lot of my songs came out of these exercises of writing very quickly. It has that intuitive pop songwriting. There’s no time to second guess, I like to work really fast. I think also I was able to get a lot of distance from it because I had months after that to think about how I wanted to mix and arrange them and have them be produced. I recorded an album in the woods with these four guys, in a trailer owned by one of my friend’s dad. “Everybody Wants to Love You “was a song I made several years ago, and we never did anything with it so I recorded it at about twice the speed of what it was originally.
Do you have a particular song that you just can’t wait to play up on the stage?
I really like “In Heaven.” It was a total standalone track. I wrote that song specifically after my mom passed away, and it took the longest out of all the songs. And it really wasn’t popping until the producer Ned Eisenberg found the right arrangement and production. They’re all diverse so it’s fun to go around and play all the different songs.
I really love that track, too, and am currently going through the grieving process of losing my own parent. In a way, it brought closure. I don’t really believe in a God or religion, and so I felt like the usual “It’s okay, he’s in a better place,” stuff didn’t help.
I was really surprised by my grieving process because I’m such an outspoken person, and generally really an open book about all of my emotions. So I felt like being pushed away from everyone. I wasn’t able to relate and felt isolated in my particular experience being half Asian-American, like there’s this part of me has died. I used to get so angry when I put flowers on her grave, thinking, “Well she can’t see it so what is even the point?” But I sometimes do believe my mom visits me. Whatever helps you is totally okay.
A lot of our generation doesn’t have religion and we don’t have any psychological practice to help us deal with shit when it happens. It’s like our whole generation worships science and progress so much but those things don’t help you when there’s shit that happens that you can’t explain. Two weeks after my mom passed away, my dad got into this horrible car accident, totaled his car, that landed between two telephone poles and when I went to pick him up and saw the scene, I thought, “He’s dead. I’m just an orphan now. I’ve literally just lost my mom, and now I’ve lost my dad. And he was totally okay, insane that he was still alive and it was hard not to believe that in some way my mom was like, “you have to stick around.” So weird things happen and I think it’s okay to privately believe in that and not get angry at yourself because it conflicts with your normal way of thinking.
On Psychopomp, I felt I was being lead through this swirly and dreamy space between life and death, the waves crested in beautiful and soft mourning. It ends with a voice recording of your mother. How does it make you feel whenever that part of the track comes on?
I can’t listen to it, because it’s poking at the wound. I’m usually surprised by random things. The other day I saw the name “T.J. Maxx”, and started bawling, because my mom loved T.J. Maxx and I haven’t seen it in a long time, so it made me sad at the moment. But I think that my mom died when I was 25. That was a really big year for her — the year I became an adult. That was also the time she got really sick and passed away. So I felt like I didn’t really have the time to be depressed. Obviously I’m still sad and still grieving, but I felt like I had to stay productive with a project. Even though I can’t listen to it, I think it was natural to want to immortalize other people because that’s how I find meaning in my life, and my mom wasn’t one who did that for herself.
We take a little break here as we order our bubble milk tea. I ask about her experiences with restaurants in the area and make a suggestion for a Korean restaurant nearby.
We’ll probably be back in September so definitely check that out! We’re doing another tour. I can’t say who it is with yet, but it’s very exciting. It’s a really good tour, I wish I could tell you.
Does this mean you’re working on new songs?
Yeah, I just signed on to Dead Oceans label as well, and I’ve written four songs already for the LP. I’m playing one of them today in addition to the songs from Psychopomp. So yeah, slowly working on new material.
Article and photos by Shino Takahashi