Saved by a debut album produced between grief and writer’s block, Michelle Zauner, aka JAPANESE BREAKFAST, talks about the healing, redemptive power of art – and its limitations.
Words by Tom Revell
A year ago, Michelle Zauner had given up on the road and given up on her dreams. After a rough time marked by loss and disillusionment, Zauner had moved on from her music, the studio and an unsustainable life of gigs and album cycles with Little Big League, the Philly indie band she had fronted for years.
Set for nine to five drudgery in a sales job she hated, Zauner put the finishing touches to Psychopomp, her debut solo record, and let it free into the world. However, the album was not done with her, and an unexpected rapturous reception pulled Zauner – under the stage name Japanese Breakfast – out of retirement.
Zauner now speaks while between shows on a first UK tour, having starred at Hackney’s Visions festival.
“Last night, the gig - was great,” she says. “It was unreal to play to that many people, and unreal coming to London for the first time.
“It’s amazing performing this record live, because not long ago I was focusing on getting a real nine to five job, selling advertising space, which I did for about nine months. I really thought it was going to be my last album.”
In 2014, Zauner’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. Zauner quit Little Big League’s latest tour and moved back to Oregon – her family home – to be with her. After her mother passed away, Zauner contemplated her future.
“I had been in a DIY punk band for years before, and we’d been doing a lot of tours, which is never a sustainable lifestyle,” she says. “And then when my mom passed away, I just didn’t feel like that lifestyle was healthy for me, emotionally.
“To be away from your support system for such a long period of time… Even though I still felt passionate about the music, I felt I couldn’t do it any longer.”
Zauner retreated and in doing so felt compelled to revisit her music, to old tracks and ideas that had been many years in the making.
“I wanted to put out a solo record because I was just stuck out in Oregon and I was away from my band,” she says. “It was a really quiet, sad time, and I wanted to do something productive.
"I looked at my back catalogue of songs, some that I felt weren’t recorded as well as they could have been, some I wanted to rearrange, and some I felt just hadn’t got enough attention for what they were. I started revamping these songs – some of which were five or six years old – just because I felt like they were good songs.
At this time, Zauner also started writing new material – half of the tracks on the album are new. She compiled the tracks, recorded a first effort at a full record in a friend’s bedroom studio, and proceeded to tear it all up.
“It was too straightforward, I didn’t like the way it was sounding,” she says.
Working with co-producer Ned Eisenberg, Zauner fleshed out the album into something more unique, employing synths and samples in a departure from the DIY, punk-tinged sound of her previous bands.
The final product is truly compelling. It is defined most of all by a sense of loss that is not just evident in Zauner’s lyrics and fraught, powerful vocals – the cover is an old photo of Zauner’s mother and the title Psychopomp is taken from spirit guides who lead the departed to the afterlife, in Greek mythology.
“I didn’t set out to write an album about loss,” Zauner says. “It just kind of happened.
“I felt very quiet. I was in shock. That wasn’t like me. This album was a way of working out my feelings. I felt very unable to communicate with anyone during that time period, and the album was my way of saying what I wanted to say to other people, and what I wanted other people to say to me.”
Did her art, then, offer catharsis?
“I don’t know if catharsis… I don’t know if that’s the right word,” says Zauner.
“It was therapeutic when I wrote the record, it was something to keep my mind focused on. But for me, catharsis seems very full. I don’t think that’s what I feel. I don’t feel like a full release of emotions. It’s more like a chipping away.”
It is worth stressing, however, that Psychopomp is not an album ruled by darkness. Musically, there is light, even playfulness.
“That’s true, but I think that wasn’t intentional,” says Zauner. “I feel like the songs are pretty uplifting and upbeat, maybe just because that is what I like to hear and what makes me feel better.
“The lyrics are all quite dark, and the music is what felt natural for me to create, in contrast to those.”
With the album wrapped up, Zauner told her label that she wasn’t going back on tour.
“I was happy that people were just going to hear the music, and was ready to get on with my life,” she says.
“But a year passed, the record did well. I felt in a better condition to get back out there, and we got some amazing tour offers.”
Saved from sales quotas, Zauner now enthuses about the opportunities Psychopomp has given her – but in particular about the beauty of London, about a visit to Dalston Superstore (“…there’s been a lot of drinking”) and early hours spent embracing the British tradition of stumbling home with a box of fried chicken.
As a visitor to London, Zauner has picked up on post Brexit-vote tensions and the widespread disillusionment, parallel to the bizarre rise of Donald Trump in the US.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of internal fretting,” she says. “It feels sort of unreal. Like we’re on the edge of the roller coaster, going upwards and wondering if is this really happening.”
Half Korean on her mothers side but raised in rural Oregon from an early age, Zauner has talked in the past about her experiences growing up in a very white area. Of being treated differently because of her heritage. Does it feel like America is regressing to a suspicion of cultures that aren’t white, and male?
“I think it certainly seems that way sometimes, but there’s more going on than that,” she says. “It’s also like we’re now opening our eyes to systematic oppression in general.
“There’s a lot of long-held emotions, that are being uprooted and discovered for the first time. A lot of it is just a complete backlash – against progress. It’s revealed there’s still a lot of hatred.
“I think at least for the Asian-American community there’s still a lot of fighting for representation and visibility. For the African-American community it’s very different – they face some of the same struggles, but there are so many issues that they are facing. It’s truly horrifying.”
Though evidently passionate about these issues, the next Japanese Breakfast record is unlikely to feature a protest song.
“I’ve never really written a literal song, so I’d be surprised if that happens,” she says. “But I’m sure those feelings will make their way into my work.”
Besides a new solo album, Zauner – evidently a perceptive writer – is also penning memoirs. Her voice is one to listen out for, and her experiences an illuminating and poignant story of the redemptive power of art.