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Japanese Breakfast isn’t the artist she used to be

How indie artist and Crying in H Mart author Michelle Zauner wrote an album about joy and a memoir about loss.

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Michelle Zauner, the musical artist known as Japanese Breakfast, sits in a puffy pink top and looks directly at the camera.
“My artistic narrative has been so rooted in grief and loss that to write an album about joy feels like a real departure,” says Zauner.
Tonje Thilesen

“This sounds really bad,” warns Michelle Zauner, the musical artist and writer best known by her alias Japanese Breakfast. We’re discussing what she’s looking forward to most in the near future, and there’s a lot to choose from: the release of her new album Jubilee; her upcoming transcontinental tour; the adoring critical reception for her new memoir Crying in H Mart; the tentative return to “living life and being around people” after over a year of social distancing.

“I’m really excited to mentally check out and just go through the motions of touring. I’m supposed to be on a bus for the first time in forever, and I’m so excited to see what that’s like.”

Jubilee dropped on June 4. Her third studio album and her first album in four years marks a moment of catharsis for Zauner on both a personal and pandemic level. The album was originally supposed to be released in 2020, but it was postponed again and again due to Covid-19 restrictions that interfered with her band’s touring plans. Now, Jubilee coincides with the onset of summer and widespread vaccinations in the US, freeing Zauner to finally perform live again. And perhaps more significantly, Jubilee is also the first Japanese Breakfast record that isn’t predominantly focused on the death of Zauner’s mother, who passed away in 2014. Aligning with the debut of Crying in H Mart — Zauner’s homage to her mother and the Korean food that binds them together — the album ushers in a new, brighter era for Japanese Breakfast.

“My artistic narrative has been so rooted in grief and loss that to write an album about joy feels like a real departure,” says Zauner. Later, she adds, “To finally let go of the album I’ve been sitting on for so long — it’s going to feel like such an overwhelming release.”

The tricky nature of turning pain into art

Zauner’s artistic career didn’t start with her mom’s death, although her music dedicated to grief quickly became what resonated with fans the most. She’s now 32, but before debuting as Japanese Breakfast five years ago, Zauner spent her early 20s waiting tables and trying to get her music hustle off the ground. She threw herself into writing and performing in Little Big League, a Philadelphia-based rock band she asserts was “underrated.”

“I still don’t understand sometimes why Japanese Breakfast has so much more popularity,” she says. “Some of my best lyrics are still from that project.” The early 2010s indie music scene, however, didn’t agree. Little Big League struggled to stay afloat, and the band was sidelined when Zauner learned her mother was sick and moved back home to Eugene, Oregon, to take care of her.

When she was 25, Zauner lost her mother to cancer, a few years after losing her aunt, also to cancer. After nearly a year as her mom’s caretaker, Zauner returned to the East Coast with her husband/bandmate to, as she describes in her memoir, “finally commit to the transition to normal adulthood.”

“I’d essentially spent the last year as an unpaid nurse and cleaner and the five years before that failing to make it as a musician,” Zauner writes, reflecting on the aftermath of her mom’s death. “I needed to commit myself to some kind of career as soon as possible.”

But just as she settled down in Brooklyn with a new job (marketing assistant), an album she recorded shortly after her mother died began to amass a following. Her first release under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, 2016’s Psychopomp, established Zauner, for better or worse, as an artist subsumed by grief.

Rife with echoey screams and lyrics like “home’s the rope that’s wrapped around your neck,” Psychopomp is an exploration of how grief can render life stagnant and brittle. Psychopomp is also what launched Zauner’s music career into a full-time occupation. Shortly after the album’s release, Zauner signed with indie label Dead Oceans. She was asked to tour with Mitski and Porches. Pitchfork called Psychopomp “at once cosmically huge and acutely personal,” declaring “long may [Zauner] keep at this music thing.”

The problem with blowing up for an album you wrote about the recent death of your mom is that suddenly everyone wants to hear about the recent death of your mom. “It was definitely a challenge to spend the last five years unpacking trauma for everyone in every interview,” Zauner says.

“I go so back and forth [on how much to share] because I really love people who are so blunt and unapologetically themselves, and there’s a part of me that desires to be that fully. But then the consequences of that can be so overwhelming that I get frightened by them.”

Since the release of Psychopomp, Zauner’s career has moved at a nonstop pace. Over the past few years, she put out her 2017 sophomore album Soft Sounds From Another Planet, toured the world multiple times, directed music videos, and even hosted a YouTube series on the relationship between food and migration. Critics have heralded Japanese Breakfast a refreshing game changer within indie music; the AV Club went so far as to call Zauner an “expansive overachiever.” Japanese Breakfast has raked in millions of streams on Spotify and Apple Music, and Soft Sounds has charted on Billboard’s HeatSeekers list — a rare feat for emo indie artists.

Just a few months prior to dropping Jubilee, Zauner published Crying in H Mart, a bracingly candid narrative of the life of her mother through the lens of her death. The book debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction Best Sellers list and launched Zauner into a new stratosphere of public attention.

Though Zauner says the writing process for her music and memoir “felt pretty separate,” it’s hard not to see Crying in H Mart as a companion piece to Japanese Breakfast. The book builds heavily on Psychopomp and Soft Sounds’ themes of loss, and it’s sprinkled with discreet callbacks to Zauner’s own songs. Twin references to “snowing” her mother with painkillers appear in both the memoir and Jubilee. A fleeting Psychopomp lyric about “death as a wedding ring” balloons into a book chapter about Zauner receiving her late mom’s ring as a gift from her dad. Expressions of grief as sung by Japanese Breakfast are abstract, but in Crying in H Mart, they’re devastating in their precision.

For someone who’s spent most of her adult life publicly documenting her grief, Zauner remains optimistic about the value of oversharing. “The majority of the time, sharing a very honest part of your life can touch people,” she says, explaining that her bigger challenge is learning to draw boundaries between her personal and public life.

Michelle Zauner sits directly across from the camera in a draping strapless floral gown.
“It’s hard talking with journalists because I have a really difficult time keeping things private,” Zauner admits. “That’s actually what’s more difficult for me.”
Tonje Thilesen

All artists grapple with the competing demands of privacy and transparency, but for Zauner, this tension is compounded by being a woman of color in a disproportionately white industry. As a biracial Korean American, Zauner is one of the very few Asian indie artists to reach her level of acclaim and recognition. Whether she likes it or not, she’s become a lens through which people can imagine a new type of rockstar — and for many East Asian women, a new type of representation.

It’s a responsibility Zauner takes seriously, though it often feels more like a burden than an honor. When asked how it feels to constantly be questioned about her experience of making music while Asian, Zauner replies, “There are so many incredible nonwhite people making music. I would love to never have to answer that question again.”

Still, she acknowledges, “In some ways, I’ve done it to myself with this book, and it is a part of my life. There’s a part of me that understands why these conversations [about race] have to happen, and hopefully, we’ll get to a place where they don’t have to.”

Zauner’s tempered response sums up the classic catch-22 for artists of color: How do you talk about your lived experiences without talking about your heritage? How can you make art that won’t be labeled “race conscious” or “political” when race is a core part of your identity?

There’s a moment in Crying in H Mart where Zauner mentions how much Karen O, the half-Korean frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, impacted her decision to make music. She “was the first icon of the music world I worshipped who looked like me,” Zauner writes. “Karen O made music feel more accessible, made me believe it was possible that someone like me could one day make something that meant something to other people.” Now, while Zauner waits for her industry to catch up, she’s continuing the tradition of empowering people who “look like her” to be themselves.

A new album and a new outlook

Michelle Zauner crouches in a chartreuse and tangerine gown. Direct light hits just her face as she stares at the camera.
Zauner describes her earlier music as “reflective of who I was and what I felt at those times. Those things will never change,” she says.
Tonje Thilesen

Like Crying in H Mart, Soft Sounds and Psychopomp are meditations on memory: The way a once-happy moment splinters into a reminder of loss, the way old and mundane routines crystallize into glowy nostalgia.

Jubilee, in contrast, surrenders itself to the momentum of the present. Across the album, Zauner employs fuller, lusher instrumentals, and there’s a groove to her singles “Be Sweet” and “Savage Good Boy” that swerves significantly from her older, more sparse music.

“In some ways, through purging everything I needed to for Crying in H Mart, I was able to begin this new chapter. I had written two albums about grief, and I still felt like there was so much left to say about that experience,” she says. “And I finally feel like I’ve said everything I need to say about loss and grief and my mom in this way. I felt ready to tackle a new scene.”

“Savage Good Boy” is perhaps the biggest creative leap from Japanese Breakfast’s earlier sound. It’s a giddy track that eschews grief altogether and instead explores what Zauner calls a “menacing reality of our times” — a billionaire with a doomsday bunker. “Savage Good Boy” is one of the first Japanese Breakfast songs that I can earnestly categorize as a bop, and it’s a delightful reminder that Zauner’s fiction is just as powerful as her more familiar confessional songwriting.

Even Jubilee’s somber tracks are imbued with traces of lightness. On “In Hell” — which recalls Zauner’s merciful attempts to dull her mother’s pain with opioids — floaty synth notes and horns dissolve the song’s crushing grief into something kinder. “There’s nothing left to fear,” Zauner cries out. “At least, there’s that.”

She likens her discography as an “archive,” and with her tour for Jubilee set to kick off this month, she muses that “songs take on different lives after you play them for a while. It’ll be really cathartic to get to play certain songs again.”

On previous Japanese Breakfast records, the passage of time was a source of pain and regret. But with Jubilee, transience becomes a gift. Music swells, crescendos, and then it ends — opening the door for something new.