Michelle Zauner is juggling two major rollouts at once: one for her memoirs Crying in H Mart, a coming-of-age story of adolescent rebellion and reconciliation with her lineage as an Asian American. The other is about her next album as Japanese Breakfast, entitled Jubilee, Zauner’s most sonically ambitious work to date. Though she admits the many Zoom conversations and interviews are starting to eat away at her sanity, she relishes in throwing herself at her work. After all, that visible grind is precisely why Japanese Breakfast has become a household name to begin with.
Written by: Jasper Willems
Illustrations: Frann de Bruin
In the year 2016, women of Asian descent changed the face of indie rock for the better. Mitski’s elegant, mysterious songs can make the achingly personal sound impressionistic. Jay Som’s ingenious, daredevil mastery of sound and production present a potent echo chamber for her introverted personality. Then there’s Japanese Breakfast, the scrappy, outgoing world-builder whose biggest superpower is her stubborn imagination, a trait stretched across myriad disciplines and skills. Out of these three former road mates, Michelle Zauner’s outfit feels like the most grounded. By comparison, Mitski’s songwriting and Jay Som’s productions often gleam like gifts from the divine. Everything orbiting Japanese Breakfast, meanwhile, feels well-earned, attained through defiant, dogged fortitude and toughness.
“There was a time where all I could think about was my mom’s death and what I’d been through. For the last six years, that’s all I could think of.”
On her new album Jubilee, Zauner doubles down on joy, and concurrently, taking that very joy at face value. The woozy, murky sonics of Psychopomp and sepia-toned symphonics of Soft Sounds From Another Planet make way for a widescreen, technicolor sound palette that embraces more of Zauner’s influences than ever before. Sonic touchstones such as Björk’s Homogenic, Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love and The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ shimmer through . “I think so much of that came from having the opportunity to tour professionally for at least three years and meeting a lot of other musicians. Like Molly Germer, who played violin on the record, and Adam Schatz, who played saxophone on the record. And of course Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing. They all come with a network of string and brass players. Part of it was about getting comfortable with working with other people, inviting new collaborators who can bring new things. On Soft Sounds I was just so worried about the sophomore slump. On this record I had more confidence, more ambition to invite different people into the project than I had before.”
“Paprika” is a vibrant orchestral song , a parade of marching drums and resplendent horns, signifying the release from years of tension. Once again her cutting sense of humor pierces through, citing the hackneyed “How does it feel?”-questionnaire as if she’s interviewing herself. “Projecting your visions to strangers who feel it, who listen, who linger on every word / Oh it’s a rush!”, she sings triumphantly. The most moving part however, is when the fanfare simmers down, and Zauner contemplates the blowback after the plunge: “But alone it feels like dying / All alone I feel so much”.
In the nineteenth chapter of Crying In H Mart, Kimchi Fridge, Zauner recalls the time she learned how to ferment kimchi as a form of therapy, initially remarking in the book that fermentation is actually a form of “controlled death”. But death would mean the remains of the cabbage would wither away permanently and rot. But by storing cabbages, their building blocks can transform into something new, albeit different in taste and texture. Zauner’s fridge at one point was filled with kimchi fermenting at various stages, too much for her to consume by herself. So eventually, she shared them with friends and loved ones.
Whether it’s playing guitar or cooking breakfast, work became another way of sharing for Zauner, which also means sharing the courage and effort she had to summon to overcome her toughest trials, such as the turbulent relationship with her deceased mother. Joy may not be the absolute, everlasting thing sold in movies and storybooks, but perhaps a valuable resource to store, harvest and share with others.
“There was a time where all I could think about was my mom’s death and what I’d been through. For the last six years, that’s all I could think of. I couldn’t really think about anything else than what I had to write about, because I had to clear the clouds. And part of that was like compartmentalising that into work. A lot of work lies in the figuring out: how do I feel about that? And how do I try to make peace with it? A lot about making things work is simply about making peace with different parts of my life.”
Due to Japanese Breakfast’s steadily growing popularity, Zauner’s story has gotten out of hand in the most positive sense. What started as a personal tale of a Korean-American woman growing up displaced in a small Pacific Northwest town, mushroomed into a more comprehensive discussion: how the marriage between food and migration can expand traditions into new culinary forms. In a series of video reports produced by Vice, Zauner visited different restaurants that apply some form of fusion cooking, unique amalgamations of dishes rooted in different cultures. Watching these shows makes one appreciate food as a true art form; music for your taste buds. In music, populations seem much more open to letting styles coalesce in interesting ways, but going by Zauner’s own perspective, it appears to strike more of a nerve in the realm of cuisine. As the host, she herself became a lightning rod for a lot of food purists in the comment sections.
“I honestly hated that experience,” she confesses. “Meeting those people at the restaurants was wonderful, but everything else…” She stops herself from finishing the sentence, treading her words carefully. “We shot like five episodes. The feedback from their demographic, the YouTube comments were pretty degrading and difficult to deal with. And not something I’d like to think about in my life. I think the one thing that’s hard to deal with: people don’t like grey areas, and a lot of the mixed race experience is those grey areas. It hits on a personal level when people make you feel less a part of something. That’s something I realised from a lot of the negative comments that we got from that series. Largely on the Korean episode, it was like I was like a non-Korean girl with a Korean woman. When it's more like “No we’re both Korean” , but just Korean in different ways. I think that was hard to handle and it just gave me a lot of anxiety before approaching Crying in H Mart. Anxiety that was maybe a little unfounded, because you get to fully explain who you are on your terms through a book. I think that goes a lot better than when it’s edited onto a YouTube clip.”
Crying in H Mart covers a great deal of that complicated search for identity between two vastly different cultures: a four-year scramble that leaves no stone unturned. Zauner, who studied creative writing in college, documents the relationship with her dying mother and her own heritage with such rich – sometimes graphic – detail, it pierces through some of the more esoteric subject matter, such as the intricacies of Korean food. For uninitiated souls of the Korean cuisine wishing to learn more, the book might be a bit overwhelming at first: Zauner introduces you to a miscellany of dishes and delicacies you're inclined to write down and research.. The overarching theme of the book, however, cross-examines the ways food serves as a means for mending grief, preserving memory and upholding family ties.
The Japanese Breakfast project, on the other hand, started as an acute coping mechanism for Zauner, an outlet for the suppressed feelings of a woman in her prime having to become a caretaker for her family. For a record that’s such a raw extension of this life-altering experience, debut LP Psychopomp permeated with levity. “In Heaven''uses the panting of her dog as a hi-hat, as it’s sniffing her mother’s empty room. In the video for “Everyone Wants To Love You” Zauner is dressed in her mother’s hanbok and going on a bender. Reading Crying in H Mart, there were these frequent “aha”-moments where the origins of certain Psychopomp songs finally ‘arrive’ in their proper context. They often welled up like needle drops in a feature film.
Writing a book forced Zauner to ground herself in reality, because unlike a record, there was no escape hatch. “Absolutely, “ she says. “There are a lot more limitations. I think that coming up with a through-line was definitely a challenge that was very new to me. An album can be very impressionistic, and express all these fragments of feeling that you’re not allowed to have in a book. But the thing that’s nice about writing a book: there are built-in pockets of perspective in a way. I feel like I sent a pretty shitty rough draft to my editor to a point where she was going to send a lot of bullet points. But I did get to a point where I couldn’t see (the book) anymore because I was stuck in it so intensely. I’m someone who is never shy to show the edges.”
Having told her story on her own terms, Zauner felt like a weight had been lifted off of her shoulders. “Even after the first two records I felt there was so much of the story left to tell, the story of the book. So much happened in the six months I lived in Eugene as a caretaker. I really needed to release all of that. Now I was able to literally close the book on it, and move on into another theme and topic in my life.”
Tension and release
On second album Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Zauner was still stricken with grief but eager to move on to the next phase. She originally intended to write a more conceptual, escapist record imbued with sci-fi themes and cosmic musings. Nevertheless, the process again floundered in an endearing way, as the reckoning with her own mortality once again snuck back into the songs.
“Nothing is completely clean, nothing is black and white,” she explains when reflecting back on that record. “Part of you as an artist always wants to present things in this perfect way, with perfect themes that are all neatly tied up. But I think that’s unrealistic. I think I tried to do that on Soft Sounds, making this sci-fi concept record. I figured I had already written this whole record about my mom. But in the end you just need to let it happen, even when that tongue starts to feel constricting. You have to be receptive to that.”
Zauner has mentioned multiple times how the death of her mother and her aunt – both to cancer – created this heightened awareness of her own death. Crying in H Mart acutely captures her knee jerk attempts to make every second worthwhile, to recover the Korean side of her heritage through food, culture and language. The H Mart supermarkets, like the bookstores, confine many scarce essentials. It’s easy to picture Zauner zealously skipping around with a shopping cart, just grabbing anything she encounters, all the nutritious treats anchoring that mother-daughter bond.
It’s a bittersweet explosion of tastes and impressions, compressed together with the density of dark matter. Zauner’s many zingers summon these lightspeed bursts of feeling. One of my favorite Japanese Breakfast lyrics comes from ‘Essentially’ a song she wrote on the Indonesian island of Bali: “Love me sexually / love me like someone elses wife”. She delivers it prosaically like an offhand joke – to great comedic effect – as the underlying coarseness and honesty linger. There’s a messiness to it that somehow makes it very joyous and relatable. It summarizes what makes Zauner’s writing so distinct.
The engrossing ‘Posing In Bondage’ almost acts like the dark cousin of ‘Paprika’, its nocturnal synths swirling like water going down a drain in slow motion. It’s a song of heavy yearning: the unnamed protagonist seems bereft of intimacy and in her loneliness, she beckons her long-distance love interest with risque pictures in bondage gear. In a time of isolation and lockdown, these types of situations are less of a taboo, and all the more humanizing and accessible, and “Posing In Bondage” pulls at that thread timely and accordingly by culminating into a cinematic ecstasy-filled, mid tempo club romp. This time, the release takes over from the tension.
Though joyous and playful in its execution, Zauner self-examines her faults and fears on Jubilee in a plainspoken, unflinching fashion. Nevertheless, the sonic breadth of the album brings a certain relish and flexibility to filter the more complicated feelings through surrealism and fictional characters. No longer timid, Zauner often swings for the fences in trying to create interesting contrasts. Despite its chipmunk vocal choirs and cheesy anime-style guitars, Alex G co-produced 'Savage Good Boy’ might be the darkest song on Jubilee, or any Japanese Breakfast record for that matter. Lyrically, Zauner superimposes the grey areas of human thought, underscoring that this songwriting approach isn’t all that novel to her.
“I actually started doing that early on. ‘Savage Good Boy’ reminds me of a Little Big League (her old Philadelphia-based band) song called ‘Lindsey’. which is told from this toxic male perspective. But in the case of “Lindsey” it’s told from the perspective of this jealous, possessive man whereas on “Savage Good Boy”, it’s from a wealthy billionaire who is coaxing a woman to live in his bunker. The fun thing about an album is how you can incorporate both fiction and non-fiction into your work seamlessly. Or different parts of the human condition. Some things feel like they are best explored through fiction. But sometimes it feels more fitting to do that through non-fiction.”