Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner Is Creating Her Own Joy

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Photo credit: Tonje Thilesen
Photo credit: Tonje Thilesen

Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is a song better when it really happened to you? These questions, which 15-year-old music journalist William Miller asks when he finally bags his big interview in the 2000 film Almost Famous are on my mind when I sit down to talk to Michelle Zauner.

For Zauner, a 32-year-old musician who writes and performs as Japanese Breakfast, tragedy has been a bitter source of professional success. Her band’s first two albums, 2016’s Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet, catalogue the disorienting feeling of loss after the death of her mother in 2014 and brought her unexpected critical acclaim. Around the same time, Zauner also won Glamour’s 2016 essay contest with the seed of the story that would become the best seller Crying in H Mart, her moving memoir debut about daughterhood, cross-cultural identity, and the burden of grief published this April (and whose titular chapter also appeared as a viral New Yorker essay in 2018).

But with her third album as Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee, which dropped on June 4, Zauner has made a piece of art about what it feels like to come out of the stasis of grief. It’s a rich and complex record that opens up her sonic world beyond the shoegaze indie rock of her previous work. Anchored by her bright voice, elastic melodies, and sweeping, horn-and-string-laden arrangements, the project was coproduced by Zauner and her longtime collaborator, Craig Hendrix, and features a cast of players from her days working in Philadelphia’s indie music scene.

The death of a loved one can color your whole worldview. As she sings on the brooding, eclectic second single, “Posing in Bondage,” it creates a rupture, dividing the world “into two people / Those who have felt pain and those who have yet to.” But across 10 tracks, Jubilee’s bigger argument may be that there exists a third category: those who are ready to find joy again. From the pizzicato-plucked strings and vintage balladry of “Kokomo, IN” to the high-energy, ’80s-pop grooves of “Be Sweet,” Zauner is coloring outside her grief, asking difficult questions about love after loss, and offering no easy answers beyond the catharsis of her brilliant songs.

Here, Zauner talks about reminding herself to enjoy the rush of the present, the way an instrument can speak emotional truths when words fail, and how her collaborators and colleagues in the music industry have become a chosen family.

People often talk about writing a song the same way they talk about happiness: that these are lightning-in-a-bottle moments that are out of our control. But your work seems to reject that idea, both in the way you’re not shy about retooling your older songs like “Boyish” or “Posing in Bondage,” the latter of which appears on the new album, and in the way you write about the work it takes to build and sustain love and happiness on Jubilee. So, in the vein of William Miller: Do you have to be joyful to write a joyous song, or is cultivating joy on the way to writing it as much of the end goal?

I will say that I am always trying to chase that sort of lightning-in-a-bottle moment. There are so many different things that lend themselves to what makes a song magical, that go beyond just the lyrics or the composition. But arrangement and production and performance have such huge stakes in what makes that sort of lightning-in-a-bottle moment. So in going back to those songs, it sometimes feels like one of those elements is working, but not all of them are. If I don't feel like I've gotten it right, I think that I had to go back in for a song like “Boyish” or “Posing in Bondage” in order to get those other elements as magical as what I believed the composition already had, or deserved, that it didn’t quite get to.

Human beings are multifaceted people. I’m at this place in my life where, for the most part, I do feel pretty happy. I have lived a very charmed life in the wake of my mother’s loss. And I don't think I was really able to embrace that in this way until now, because the thoughts that dogged me were all-consuming things that I needed to let go of first. I think I needed to write my memoir and these two records [2016’s Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet] about that experience that was such a monumental part of my life in order to kind of let it go and move on.

Photo credit: Tonje Thilesen
Photo credit: Tonje Thilesen

You seem to be grappling with your role as a performer and an artist on the opening track of Jubilee, “Paprika.” You conclude “it’s a rush” to be in a position to impact strangers like this, but are you ever tired of being this vessel for emotion for other people—and negative emotion in particular? Does it feel like Jubilee is an effort to rethink that relationship?

Yeah, I think that it’s certainly unexpected for someone who has this sort of “grief girl” narrative and is also a part of this genre that’s kind of known for this “sad girl” stereotype. I felt like this theme of joy was really the most unexpected and surprising place I could go [with my record]. I was definitely cognizant of that.

But for a song like “Paprika,” I typically feel like I need to experience anguish a lot of the time to feel like I’ve put in enough hard work. If I finish a music video shoot, or a session, or something after eight hours and I don’t feel like I’m going to collapse, I often question, “Did I do a good job?” I think that “Paprika” is a sort of reminder that that isn’t entirely necessary.

Basically, what I do for a living is professional play, and I’m afraid that someday I’m just going to wake up and it’ll have all passed me by and I won’t have had the time to enjoy it, because I’m so focused on not messing it up, and I’m so focused on working as hard as I can that I can’t actually enjoy what I built. I can’t enjoy the rush of how magical of an experience it is to have people listen to you, and relate to you, and have this type of attention and understanding. So I feel like that song is a real reminder to not be so driven by anguish all the time.

You say this is an album about joy, or the journey to it, and I hear that so much in the production choices. The total effect for me is simultaneously sweet and sort of melancholic. How did you go about creating the sonic world that was meant to induce and express joy?

I think we went into the third album just wanting to be confident and bombastic and ambitious and almost theatrical. We had a large palette to pull from; nothing was limited. And so I think that the arrangements are larger, they’re warmer, they’re more vibrant, there are more strings and horns. I’m always just chasing this kind of lift in music. And I felt much more comfortable and confident using different types of instruments to get there.

Are there any songs that you love because they do something aurally addictive and that you looked to for inspiration while creating the album?

There’s an artist called Susumu Hirasawa who did this track called “Parade” for the Satoshi Kon movie Paprika. That song begins with a surreal dream, and that scene [in the film] is like this surreal parade that happens. I was really inspired by the chaotic nature of that song.

Wilco’s “At Least That’s What You Said” was also a big inspiration for my song “Posing for Cars.” I felt like it had a similar sonic narrative in a way. It’s a scene between two people who are struggling to communicate with one another; there’s a lot that’s not being said between them. It starts with this understated acoustic guitar, and it grows into this ripping, long guitar solo. For me, that song [“At Least That’s What You Said”] always feels like Jeff Tweedy is saying everything that can’t be said with his guitar. I wanted to do something similar with the song “Posing for Cars.”

Photo credit: Tonje Thilesen
Photo credit: Tonje Thilesen

You invited a handful of the peers you met through your many years in the Philadelphia music scene to play on Jubilee: (Sandy) Alex G, Landlady’s Adam Schatz, Rubblebucket’s Adam Dotson, Molly Germer, who played on Frances Quinlan’s solo debut. And Mannequin Pussy’s Marisa Dabice appeared in the “Be Sweet” music video. How are collaborations and relationships like these part of your work toward maintaining happiness?

As someone whose family was obliterated by a disease, my collaborators are very much a chosen family. I think when you’re a professional musician or when you’re a touring musician, it’s just really nice to have this community of people who know what your weird lifestyle is like and it’s not this kooky, goofy thing that you spend a lot of time talking about. I really love having that in my life. Everyone can be really critical, and it’s really hard to relate to people, and so it’s nice having people [who understand].

I confide in Missy [Dabice] all the time if someone’s being mean to me on the Internet. [Laughs.] I can’t say anything back. And she’ll do the same. I’ve texted with SASAMI and Mitski, and they’re always really supportive, just about little things that other people can’t really relate to—asshole sound guys, shitty green rooms, you know what I mean? Just stupid, mundane stuff like that. It’s our lives. It’s nice getting to chat with people like that about your similar situations.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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