In prose and in song, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner searches for connection and meaning
Seven years ago, when Michelle Zauner was a 25-year-old indie rocker finding her way in the Philadelphia DIY scene — working three part-time jobs to afford her $300-a-month rent and save for self-booked tours — her bassist delivered heart-rending news: He was leaving her scrappy four-piece, Little Big League, for another band that was certain to become, in his words, “Jimmy Fallon big.”
Riffing on this blow, Zauner wrote a somber synth song called “Jimmy Fallon Big!” and included it on her second full-length under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, 2017’s “Soft Sounds From Another Planet.” This summer, celebrating the release of her shining third record, “Jubilee” — which arrived only two weeks after her devastating memoir of grief, food and Korean American identity, “Crying in H Mart,” debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list — she proved “Jimmy Fallon Big!” to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Are we ‘Jimmy Fallon Big’?” joked the Roots, before Zauner and her band eased into the track — performing it on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
“I think it’s a very Korean part of me, that my feelings of greatest success are rooted in some type of revenge narrative,” Zauner notes with a laugh.
She has in many respects already exceeded that fantasy. With the ornate dream-pop of “Jubilee,” Japanese Breakfast is nominated for two Grammys — for best new artist and alternative music album. When I reached her by phone last week, she was in the Adirondacks, on a writing retreat with her husband, where she was working on the screenplay for “Crying in H Mart,” which was recently optioned for the big screen.
“I felt like I had a one in a thousand chance,” she recalls of nomination day. “I saw it and I just freaked out — I yelled so loudly.”
For Zauner, it was particularly meaningful that one of her nominations was announced by K-pop megastars BTS and that she got to send the video to her Aunt Nami, whom she writes about extensively in her memoir.
“Even my sixtysomething-year-old aunt in Seoul, Korea, knows the Grammys,” she says. “It was a perfect scenario for me.”
‘Colbert’ bandleader Jon Batiste leads the field with 11 nominations; Tony Bennett, Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat, Justin Bieber and H.E.R. will vie for top prizes.
In “Crying in H Mart,” Zauner charts a shattering emotional journey, exploring how Korean food kept her attuned to her heritage as her mother was dying of cancer in 2014, and how cooking has ever since. But it is also an unflinching look at how death makes us reevaluate our dreams and pushes our relationships, ambitions and sacrifices into stark relief. As Zauner chronicles high school suburban ennui and her months as caretaker to her mother during chemotherapy, she expands on piercing details of her lyrics to bracing early songs like “In Heaven” and “Rugged Country.” When Zauner writes, “I might be the closest thing [my mother] had to leaving a piece of herself behind,” it is hard to not hear notes of tribute ringing out in every “Jubilee” song.
“It felt like the world had divided into two different types of people: those who had felt pain and those who had yet to,” she wrote of her and her aunt’s shared grieving in “H Mart,” a sentiment echoed almost verbatim in the lyrics to the simmering, shadowcast “Jubilee” highlight, “Posing in Bondage.”
Zauner began playing guitar as a teenager in Eugene, Ore., writing earnest songs — galvanized by “all of the 2000s indie heroes” like Elliott Smith, Ben Gibbard, Jenny Lewis and Phil Elverum — in a string of promising bands that never quite took flight. She moved east to study creative writing at the all-female Bryn Mawr College and started Japanese Breakfast in 2013 with a song-a-day project called “June.” “I was working three jobs, so there were times when I had 20 minutes to write and record a song,” she recounts. “I realized that so much of work as an artist is showing up everyday and putting yourself out there, and not just waiting for things to happen. So much of my success has come from being unembarrassed to be bad, and learning from that, and trying my best to get better.”
On the Bandcamp page for her 2014 “Where Is My Great Big Feeling?” EP, she wrote, “I hope anyone else who lost or is struggling with a family member or friend with cancer can maybe find some comfort in these s— lo fi songs.” A banner across the top now reads, heroically, “2x Grammy Nominee.”
Zauner originally saw Japanese Breakfast’s 2016 debut LP, “Psychopomp,” as her swan song. “I’d gone through three big band breakups. There is so much struggle in being a DIY musician — so many uncomfortable nights breaking out in hives because the floor you’re sleeping on is covered in cat hair or watching your $10,000 van getting towed away — and to have a band finally call it quits is so disheartening. I thought, ‘At what point do you give this up?’” When “Psychopomp” took off — anchored by the sparkling ache of “The Woman That Loves You,” a ballad inspired by Wong Kar-wai’s film “Happy Together” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs” — she took nothing for granted. “I treated success as such a precious gift,” she says. “It was not something that ever came easily to me.
“After my mom passed away, I became really fixated on my work as a way to grieve and stay afloat mentally,” Zauner adds. “I put all my stock into ambition, because I was afraid if I didn’t stay afloat I would never be able to escape that emotional darkness.”
Evoking the clarion indie-pop hooks of Rilo Kiley and, at times, the undertow of shoegaze, “Jubilee” was recorded at a freezing Philadelphia warehouse studio with her co-producer, Craig Hendrix, a Berklee-schooled multi-instrumentalist with whom she has collaborated since her Little Big League days. The duo played every instrument on 2017’s “Soft Sounds” but enlisted others, like Alex G (Zauner’s “favorite contemporary musician”), for “Jubilee.”
The isolated process of writing “Crying in H Mart” was perspective-giving, renewing Zauner’s love for creating music. Longing to push herself and grow as a musician, she studied music theory and took guitar lessons to expand her possibilities on “Jubilee.” She brought “Beatles math” to songs like the bittersweet “Kokomo, IL” (covered by Jeff Tweedy this summer), took on string and horn arrangements, and looked to art-pop iconoclasts with expansive palettes for inspiration. “I was really concerned with, what did Kate Bush do? What did Björk do? I realized I could be weird.
“Music gave me the confidence to write the book — it gave me the confidence to do everything I’m doing now,” she adds.
As Zauner’s audience swells larger than she ever anticipated, she sees the through-line of her work — which, after dozens of songs and hundreds of pages dealing in grief, finds a more joyous way forward in “Jubilee” — as a lifelong interest in storytelling.
“It comes from being a really sensitive person, being very moved by ordinary human experiences and relationships,” Zauner says. “It comes from wanting to be understood, or wanting people to feel what you feel so desperately, and a search for some kind of permanent meaning.”
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