Japanese Breakfast On Healing, Hunger, and Representation

Japanese Breakfast On Healing, Hunger, and Representation

Michelle Zauner launched her solo project amidst great loss, and is still exploring her healing.

Michelle Zauner launched her solo project amidst great loss, and is still exploring her healing.

Text: E.R. Pulgar

Michelle Zauner's big break came on the heels of enormous loss. Formerly the frontwoman of Philly indie band Little Big League, her solo project Japanese Breakfast rose to prominence soon after her mother's death from cancer. Her career was then bolstered by her spacey debut Psychopomp, an album of heavy guitar and dreamy vocal gymnastics that was as grounded in Zauner's grief as it was her good humor. This is a record where the sparse musing of a track like "Moon on the Bath" can exist alongside "Everybody Wants To Love You", a guitar-laden, joyous reflection on love and sex.

Zauner's second record, aptly titled Soft Sounds From Another Planet, is a much deeper exploration of grief, a work that feels as ethereal and contemplative as it does angry and honest. On standout track "This House," Zauner sings "I'm not the one I was then /My life was folded up in half." On the same record, she muses playfully about a lover long gone on "Boyish": "I can't get you off my mind / I can't get you off, in general." In Zauner's world, humor, music, and good food are coping mechanisms that feed off each other.

Currently on Japanese Breakfast's second headlining tour, Zauner spoke to V on the phone about the winding grieving process, empowering young Asian-Americans to pursue music, and why rice with a runny egg yolk is the ideal breakfast food.

Comparing Soft Sounds From Another Planet to Psychopomp, you have a proclivity for these big guitar sounds that are still incredibly spacey.  I'm wondering what sounds you're trying to play with for the next record.

Psychopomp and Soft Sounds From Another Planet came within a year of each other, so I want to take some more time with this next one. I wanted to go for these heavier sounds at first, but as I've been worming through it, it feels unnatural to me. I'm trying to find a way to push myself out of my comfort zone but try to find what feels authentic to my voice and skill set. I'm just grappling with that now. It'll take some working on it before finding out what direction this new record is gonna take. I do feel more confident with every record, and I think that's exciting to apply. I fell in love with synths and electronic drums on this last record, so that will make more of an appearance. I want to work more with samples too.

As far as thematics, I know you were dealing with a lot of themes of death and loss after your mom’s passing. I'm wondering what's on your mind right now, as far as songwriting.

I think there's a lot on my mind right now. I think I'll always write a lot about grief and my mom, and on the one hand, I've written two records about grief and need to write something new, but I don't think human narratives work that way. It's not like "this is my grief record, this is my coming out of grief record, this is my post-grief happy record." I would like to say that's the narrative, but I'll always probably write about my mom and what I went through. I'm now thinking more about becoming an adult. I'm aware of my age in a way I didn't think much about before. I think about chosen family, which could be a big part of the next record.

What do you mean by chosen family?

I lost my mom three years ago and my father moved to Thailand. When the family you grew up with is broken apart, it's hard to navigate a new family because there's some trust that's not inherently there.  I got married and was incorporated in a big way into my husband's family, I have a band family I spend most of my time with on the road. It's stressful sometimes because at the end of the day, it's not like the family you grew up with. You can't expect them to be there for you the way your family was. I've been mentally fucked up about that, so I think about that a lot, making your close friends your new family when a bomb goes off in the one that you were raised in.

I've read that you want your music to influence more Asian-Americans to be in music, and was wondering if you could speak to that.

I was really lucky that the first tour I went on was with Mitski and Jay Som, so it was three Asian-American frontwomen going on a tour together and selling out venues across the country. For a lot of people and for us, it was very surprising. I don't know if it was surprising for Mitski, but it was surprising for Jay Som and I. I've only ever occupied the body that I've occupied, and sometimes I forget that's a thing. I know so many Asian-American musicians that don't have the same platform as me, so I want to use my platform to encourage people to do it. There's no secret as to why I'm here and someone else isn't.

I think the younger generation finds it important to push marginalized voices to the front in a new way. I've always been Asian-American, but it wasn't until this project that I got any level of success, so I don't know if it was the shifting landscape of people finding it important to highlight new voices or if it was just dumb luck that it got in the right press and label hands. The younger generation talks about it a lot more because of the internet. People are discovering new identities in music they weren't able to before, and it feels like something important in a way I didn't think about growing up. 

And, because I can't help but ask, what's your favorite breakfast food?

I like a Korean breakfast: rice with a poached egg that has a really runny yolk that gushes over my rice, and a kimchi or soybean stew.

That sounds heavy!

I like a heavy breakfast! I wake up with a real hunger.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Stream Japanese Breakfast's Soft Sounds From Another Planet here.

Ebru Yildiz


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