by Jasper Willems June 5th, 2017
“This thing’s like my Michael Jackson-glove,” Michelle Zauner jokes, as she wraps a black brace around her wrist, perfectly matching her stylish all-black attire. As the creative voice of Japanese Breakfast, she has been touring across the US with Slowdive this past month. During that bout, her drummer sustained a back injury, prompting Zauner to carry a heavier load than usual. She herself injured her right wrist hauling around massive amps and gear across venues.
Zauner is a hustling, hands-on individual, someone who feels a great deal of responsibility and likes to wear a lot of hats. She handles a large chunk of the tour managing, correspondence, and logistics on her own. Creatively with Japanese Breakfast, she involves herself with more than just the music and production: she designs her own merch and cover art, and she directs music videos with her creative compadre Adam Kolodny. “All that stuff is important to me. I love being involved with the merch we sell, the album design, the pre-order packaging…any bonus material we might put out down the road. I really like being very involved in those things.”
Wearing a lot of hats also has an inherent pitfall: to stretch yourself thin. Sometimes too thin. And while something as innocent as a wrist contusion won’t shake Zauner’s resolve as an artist, tending to your terminally ill mother shifts priorities drastically. In 2014, Zauner had to put her former band, Philly power pop outfit Little Big League, on hold and travel back to Eugene, Oregon to, well, wear a lot of hats again. Growing up was suddenly a grave undertaking; becoming a caretaker for her mother, a beacon of strength for her grieving father. It required a sacrifice: putting her own feelings secondary. On ‘The Body Is A Blade’, one of the centerpieces on her forthcoming album Soft Sounds From Another Planet, she sings: “Try your best to slowly withdraw / From the darkest impulses of your heart / Try your best to feel and receive / Your body is a blade that cuts a path from day to day”.
“I think a lot of the songs on Soft Sounds are about longing to be somewhere else. But also disassociating from your life because you’re very afraid of confronting things.” As we sit on a terrace admiring a bright river canopy in Amsterdam, Zauner’s spirit is high. She’s an eager and willing talker. Her inherently chirpy voice has an uplifting quality in itself, one that allows her music to soar even when her lyrics take a darker turn. “I think I’ve always been someone who gets depressed very easily, and I’ve always erred on the negative, darker side of things. I was so afraid that after my mom died, I was going to fall into a deep depression after that experience. And that once I fell into it, I would never get out. So I propelled myself by staying busy, by being productive. To stick to some kind of routine, to robotically pushing myself through the days. I feel a lot of songs on Soft Sounds reflect that train of thought of being resilient and strong.”
During our conversation, strong winds repeatedly knock down the salt and pepper shakers stationed next to us on the table. We joke that it’s actually ghosts messing with us. “I actually had a friend who lost her mother to cancer as well. Something that really helped her is seeing a medium — speaking of ghosts — in Portland. And that was a really fulfilling experience for her. Sometimes you need to do something wacky like that.” She feels that at certain times, you have to try and “believe in something that isn’t real to get from one point to another.” Most of Zauner’s inner circle of friends are atheists, but the contraptions of science felt too rigid. After her mother’s passing, when it was time to take care of her own feelings, she needed something soft, some form of benevolence. “Exactly. That’s basically what Psychopomp was about. The older generation of family members and friends would tell me my mom was in heaven and ‘it’s all okay’. Whereas the younger generation had nothing to say at all, it was about worshipping science and progress and those things are very cold when something mysterious happens in your life.”
Psychopomp is the term for creatures, often deities or spiritual people, who escort the deceased to the afterlife. A dramatic definition for such a quirky word, and congruently, an apt description for Zauner’s personality. Her quirkiness often springs up in her music videos: the one for ‘Everybody Wants To Love You’ finds her poking fun at her heritage, fumbling around in a traditional Korean garb.’ As a counterbalance to embracing the spiritual, the fantastic Anime-inspired ‘Machinist’ finds Zauner playing a scientist stranded alone in space, trying to build the perfect robot lover. As the video progresses, she becomes more deranged and manic in her quest: sucking out rocket fuel, writing schematics and pulling out power lines. The video ends with the robot turning on her, tangling and embracing her limbs in electric wires. Zauner’s incredulous look through her helm visor completely sells it.
Zauner tells me she deliberately wanted the video to be open-ended: was it real, a dream or a hallucination? Sung in autotune, but climaxing with a luscious sax solo, a physical emotive instrument originally designed to emulate a human voice, ‘Machinist’ explores a concept that Zauner’s idol Björk often did as well: the relationship between humanity and machinery. The video’s storyboard jestingly ties into terminating her initial idea of making Soft Sounds an ambitious concept album.
“The song ‘Machinist’ was the first I wrote for this record, and that’s about a woman who falls in love with a machine. I initially wanted Soft Sounds to be this heavy-handed concept record, this sci-fi space musical about a woman who falls in love with a machine and realizes that’s a love that cannot be. And then decides to enlist in this MARS One project and leave the planet. But then doing so, I realized I still had so much personal stuff left to say. I really needed to deal with that, so that theme and my personal life kind of fused what the record has become now. I’m really fascinated by that idea: it sounds really silly to say you write songs about falling in love with robots. But I feel that’s something that can map onto human relationships very easily.”
She tells me about her lifelong tendency of partners whose personalities contrast with her own. Zauner is a dreamer, whereas her husband Peter Bradley tends to look at things more pragmatically. “Sometimes there’s a really struggle in being sensitive because you want to bring out so much more out of them. They just express love in radically different ways. On the flipside, I can relate to feeling like a machine, because this past year I felt so shut off from my emotions. I had to stifle them a lot when I was a caretaker for my mother because I had to swallow so many of my feelings, I couldn’t indulge in my own emotions. I had to be this source of comfort and positivity. It was really hard to undo all that this past year. And for a large part, I had trouble reconnecting with my own emotions. So I identify with both sides of that. Human beings become closer to machines every day.”
Fortuitously, by being more analytical and thinking more out of the box, Bradley was able to find a way for Zauner to indulge her feelings of grief for her mother in a healthy way. He suggested Zauner to see a Jungian analyst, someone who helped in ironing out some of the wrinkles. “I saw my analyst back in Eugene but once we moved to New York I couldn’t see her anymore. It was hard to replace her with another therapist. New York is quite expensive, and I had too much time occupied on my schedule to go. So instead, I started to see a normal therapist. At the same time, I wanted to take Skype lessons with a Korean tutor. And I found that so much more fulfilling to take lessons, I felt I was gaining knowledge; for a long time I could only remember my mom as a sick person. It was such a short part of our relationship and her life, but it was hard to just unsee that part of her. It was so ugly and sad. It really haunted me. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore.”
In all the interviews during the Psychopomp cycle, the last days of her mother’s life came up so many times. Obviously, it became clear for Zauner that she needed a shift in perspective. Her tutor is a girl from Heidelberg, Germany, a person who Zauner became very close friends with. “We would try to talk to each other and she’d teach me Korean words. We were very open with each other. We became very close friends. It was so helpful for me. The sessions would fill me with so many happy memories again, memories I thought I had lost access to. So it was important to do those Skype lessons because they unlocked memories I blocked out. We’d learn different words and verbs, just the comfort of having accessed that was so valuable to me. But also, I don’t even have any Korean friends, you know? It was just helpful to talk to another Korean person about things like how you’re supposed to be eating seaweed soup on your birthday. I was like, ‘Omigod, I remember my mom telling me that… but it was a long time ago!’ Just little things like that, small reminders.”
Reminders Zauner keeps closely with her. Her left arm has a tattoo of Kewpie, the cutesy mascot of a Japanese mayonnaise brand. “My mom used to make raw scallop with mayonnaise, a fish dish that was really good. I’ve always been fond of (Kewpie).” Her mother died two weeks after she got married. When Zauner allowed herself to grieve, she embraced cooking guru Maangchi, and wrote a fantastic essay about how it lifted her spirits. “Well, the creative Korean cooking thing was about a lot of guilt that I had. I was taking care if my mom but I didn’t know what Korean food to prepare for her when she was sick. She didn’t want to eat food that I knew how to cook. That’s why I felt a tremendous amount of guilt, that I wasn’t able to provide for her. Because my mother fed me my whole life till I was eighteen years old. And now it was my time to give that back, and I didn’t know how to do that. I knew some Korean dishes, but the daily things of what you enjoy taste different for what a sick person wants to eat. My mom had all of these sores on her mouth. Everything was painful to eat. So finding something neutral that she could stomach, that she could have on her tongue was so challenging. I did the best that I could, but I always kept this guilt that I couldn’t do more. The Korean cooking lessons are for me learning how to do it, if I ever have to do it again.”
She lets out a deep, wistful sigh: oftentimes it’s those seemingly banal images, tastes, and objects that hold valuable memories. It’s no surprise Zauner immediately knows what type of image or video complements or juxtaposes her songs, like in the ‘Machinist’ video, once she writes them. Growing up in the “small college town” of Eugene, with not a lot of cultural diversity, a lack of Korean friends immediately made her an outlier. Her lunch boxes would smell ‘funny’ to other white kids because her mom would give her Korean food to bring to school. So naturally, she turned inward and allowed her imagination to run rampant.
“Being an only child, I lived somewhere outside of the city, a 20-minute drive into the woods. There was no public transportation and I didn’t have any neighbours growing up. So I spent a lot of time alone. My parents were pretty strict, I was only allowed to socialize one day a week. But I remember growing up and being so jealous that my friends could walk to a convenience store. That seems like the ultimate freedom, to walk to the 7-Eleven and get a slurpee. Where I lived you couldn’t walk anywhere. So I had to make my own entertainment. I think that’s part of why I identify being a creative person, because entertainers often create their own worlds feeling comfortable being alone a lot. Because you have no one else to hang out with.”
It’s a conundrum she still deals with today. However you want to romanticize Soft Sounds From Another Planet , the album transpires like the classic superheroes origin story. The titular character is always driven to action by something missing. Superman wants to conform to his fragile humanity, Batman uses his own fears to avenge the death of his parents, Spider-Man’s maxim ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ urges that balancing act of sorting your own life with having compassion and concern for others. It’s not surprising to hear Zauner reveal she used to work at a comic book store: she mentions Wonder Woman and Akira among her favorites. Another tattoo on her left arm, right above Kewpie, is an image of Winsor McCay’s archaic Little Nemo in Slumberland, an art nouveau comic series about a little boy who embarks in surrealistic, swashbuckling tales.
At the turn of the 20th Century, those charming Little Nemo comics became more light-hearted. Soft Sounds From Another Planet is a bit like that too: Zauner doesn’t crash course her way through these big emotions, but wants to explore them, understand them like a scientist would do. To quote Björk: “Emotions weren’t created to just lie around. You should experience things to the full. I’ve got a sense of the clock ticking. We have to feel all those things to the maximum. Like, I don’t eat a lot but I really love eating. And I like being precise and particular.”
Zauner is now comfortable with emotions she didn’t sympathize with before, but are still somehow useful. The wistful, gorgeous baroque pop gleamer ‘Boyish’ for instance was originally an older Little Big League song. The words she sings may still be the same, but the intent and delivery isn’t. “‘Boyish’ was written when my husband and I first started dating. For one reason or another, my husband didn’t want to date me for a long time. I was really in what they call the friend zone. When we started dating each other I felt like he wasn’t attracted to me. I felt so jealous and ugly and insecure. I wrote ‘Boyish’ about four years ago. In retrospect what really happened; I just imagined this whole affair, this flirtation, and blew it up in my mind. It was so rooted in my own feelings of ugliness and jealousy.”
“I remember I didn’t like the way we arranged the song as Little Big League. I felt that song needed to breathe a bit more, and move with these melodramatic gestures. We wanted this big lush arrangement, like a Phil Spector production, or a Roy Orbison ballad. Looking back, I think that song is less about being upset with someone for being unfaithful.The melodrama in your head howling these insecurities when you first start being with someone. The jealousy of imagining this affair. To feel not good enough for somebody. I feel the arrangements of the song were more appropriate to convey that feeling of heartbreak.”
At their very core, all songs on Soft Sounds From Another Planet are love songs. But guilt and shame tend to act as shadows of love, and Zauner seems to totally own up to that. Even on the album cover art, she appears to stare straight into the sun as her shadow lingers next to her. The darker emotions can empower someone like the sun powers Superman and Supergirl and being that heroic, resilient person for audiences as an artist was new territory for Japanese Breakfast. That much-publicized tour with Mitski and Jay Som was empowering and identifying to a lot of audience members who loved indie rock but didn’t feel connected to its predominantly white demographic.
“I learned that a lot touring this past year, how kids came up to me after shows and told me they lost parents or had a friend that was going through chemotherapy,” Zauner recollects. “Maybe that’s why I initially wanted to do this sci-fi music concept, I thought to myself: Who was I going to help? I felt like I had so much left to say, I wanted to help people so much more. That’s relatively new for me about doing my work. I really do feel like I helped some people, and in the end, this is a positive thing.”
Being a leading light or caretaker was a familiar prospect, however, in the sense that Zauner was always missing something, or someone, herself in her headstrong quest to help others. It wasn’t loss that propelled her creative whims this time, but an absence, a void. Being away for longer periods on tour meant being in a different time zone from the man she loves most. And that aching void becomes more aching with the realization of your own mortality. The yearning Carpenters-like torch song ‘Till Death’ fills that void with a ton of emotional debris. She sings about “celebrities dying” and “cruel men winning”, but also about her lover “reassuring me the way you only can” and “Your shape in the dark / Out of state, licensed to me”.
That last line is particularly moving because it talks about expressing love as being this wholly selfish act of clinging closest to people in times of crisis. Zauner initially wondered if the song wasn’t “too cheesy”, but was eventually encouraged by co-producer Craig Hendrix to just roll with it: “The sad thing about enduring a lot of pain is, you realize who’s willing to stand by your through all of that. My husband married me two weeks before my mom died. But he did a lot more for me, he also left his job, his family and his friends to move to Oregon with me for a few months… he made huge sacrifices to support me emotionally. I was really shut off for a good year, and that took a lot of sticking by me through some ugly times. I was very angry and upset, with my father, with the world. I was very jealous of other people’s happiness, I had a lot of insecurities. Fear of dying. Fear of genetic disease. I lost both my aunt and my mother to cancer, so I know that blood runs through me. That’s something I live in fear of a lot now. I wrote a lot of love songs for my husband, because I’m so grateful to have someone like that by my side. I finally realized what love meant. It’s about enduring so much stuff, seeing the ugly parts of someone but still sticking by their side. That’s what ‘Till Death’ is very much about: this long list of really ugly, awful things next to a lot of sweet things that come with having a partner.”
At their wedding Bradley and Zauner danced to [‘Rainy Days And Mondays’] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjFoQxjgbrs) by The Carpenters, not the happiest of songs, but graphic and apt nevertheless, considering the circumstances. Like Zauner, Karen Carpenter’s voice can make the more irrepressible feelings unfurl into something soft and easy to digest. ”’Rainy Days and Mondays’ is a perfect example of that. I think that’s the theme of life in general: nothing is purely happy or purely sad. It’s funny that you mention that ‘Till Death’ sounded like a Carpenters song, because to me that song is a love song. But such a sad love song, with a list of really horrible things you endured in life. And those things can be bearable’ by the person who is standing beside you. You can survive that because of that person, be impressed by that person for standing by you through all that.”
“How can I fight the kingdom of your demons?” is the first thing Zauner asks on ‘Machinist’. Perhaps her biggest demon could be the prospect of dying too young to embrace it all. But instead of swallowing her feelings she now indulges in them fervently and unapologetically. On Instagram she once posted a photo of herself in the aftermath of hearing Mount Eerie’s ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ for the first time, an album that documents the harsh and harrowing realism of losing someone who compliments you like no other person possibly could.
“I’ve been putting off listening to that album for quite some time because of that. It felt so personal to me. We both lost really important people, literally in the same year; his wife had stage four cancer for six months, it was a really quick battle. She was also his lover and the mother of his child. I can’t think of a sadder thing than to lose that. I think many feel this way about Phil Elverum. His career is probably one I admire the most, it feels like he’s making exactly what he wants to make at all time. I’ve been listening to Phil since I was like fifteen years old, he is one of the few artists I feel really really close to. Hearing that album felt like an offense on me personally. Like the world was personally offending us.”
The crow on Mount Eerie’s album is an ominous signifier, unlike maybe that black crow in the Joni Mitchell song, being a searcher of love and music, a rover, diving for every shiny thing. If ‘Till Death’ is her Carpenters song, the effervescent slow-burner ‘Diving Woman’ could be considered the female counterpart to Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’: heroic, unapologetic, cheeky, and vulnerable at the same time. A song about what it means to be every woman, even when most of the times, you have to sacrifice and be just one at a time. Zauner isn’t resigning to that: “I want it all”, she whispers, as she allows her voice to be washed away by the songs hypnotic current. A lover, a hero, a friend, a dreamer. Maybe even a mother someday.
And why not? With Bradley now joining her on guitar during Japanese Breakfast’s forthcoming tour, she can be all those things just that little bit more. “You realize that life’s so short, and the one thing about my career, as much as I love it, it’s difficult to be happy when you’re away from your partner. We did two tours in Europe, and as an American artist, that’s so exciting. But I remember the first time I went to Sweden and Denmark I felt miserable because I’ve been away from my partner for two months. I felt our marriage was going to fall apart, I felt so sad that I didn’t have that support system. Here I am in beautiful Sweden eating at a five-star restaurant, feeling empty in so many ways.”
No matter the perks, surrendering to life isolated in space is a cold, empty existence. On her Soft Sounds From Another Planet Japanese Breakfast counterbalances the cosmic with something a little more grounded. Why not draw from one of those silly earthly things instead, something benevolent, cartoonish and innocent? One of Zauner’s lyrics mentions a “Miller Moon”, a cheesy reference to the beer brand championing “the Miller highlife”. She tells us her father had a “man room” with a pool table, with all these beer logo’s hanging around. Zauner: “One of them was the Miller Moon Woman. That’s the first time I had seen a scandalous woman, a beautiful and sexy woman.”
The slogan reads: ‘The champagne of bottle beer’. A sentiment Zauner would toast to: “Here’s to the night! A lullaby a-creeping. A song, to win your love”.
Soft Sounds From Another Planet is out on 14 July via Dead Oceans. For more information about the artist, please click here.
Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz