Japanese Breakfast
Photo: Peter Ash Lee / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast and the Chase of Joy

Following a bestselling memoir about grief, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast turns the page with a meditation on sweetness and light via her new album, Jubilee.

Japanese Breakfast
Dead Oceans
4 June 2021

After contemplating the cosmos, Michelle Zauner is coming back to earth. The 32-year-old creative force behind the Philadelphia-born, shoegaze-inspired outfit Japanese Breakfast follows up her celestial Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017) with a new record called Jubilee. The album spins a more organic take on the band’s decadent bath of synthesizers and processed guitars that have earned a devoted and growing international fanbase over the past five years.

Zauner’s signature sonic framework is still in place on Jubilee, but here she trades the galactic scale of her last record for “memories of peaches, the sun on my neck.” This return to the world is underscored by lush string and brass arrangements, building a sound that feels at once familiar and new. From the open-hearted snare roll of album kickoff “Paprika” to the epic intimacy of closer “Posing for Cars”, her latest under the Japanese Breakfast moniker finds an artist in pursuit of something warmer than the far reaches of outer space.

The album comes on the heels of Zauner’s first book, Crying in H Mart (2021), a New York Times-bestselling memoir exploring grief and identity through the Korean foodways passed down by her late mother. This loss has colored Zauner’s work as Japanese Breakfast since her melancholic 2016 debut, Psychopomp, which put the band on the map with its singular blend of indie-pop sweetness, confessional lyrics, and new wave cool.

With Jubilee, Zauner seeks to turn the page in a long-running story on grief with a record she describes as being “about joy.” Without turning away from the ache of living, the new album trades a narrative of loss for something that sounds like a celebration. Still, as Zauner writes in her memoir and sings on her new record: “The world divides into two people: those who have felt pain, and those who have yet to.”

PopMatters spoke with Zauner about the bonds formed in grief, writing from other perspectives and expanding her sound on the band’s excellent new LP.

I’m curious about how this media cycle has been for you. What’s it like promoting your first book — especially something like a memoir — on top of a new record from your band? Does it feel more personal?

I’m so deep in “Memoir World” that it’s hard even to parse out what is for the record anymore because they’re so in conversation with one another, coming out on top of each other in this way. I don’t know what I was expecting. When a book is released, a lot of the coverage comes after it’s out. It takes time to read a book and get a response to it. Maybe it has a longer life afterward, whereas a lot of music press comes beforehand because there’s so much lead-up to a record. That’s different from a book: you’re not releasing singles from a memoir, you know?

But yeah, to your question, it’s been really bizarre. I feel like my work has always been pretty personal, and my narrative has been so rooted in grief and loss in this way, so I’m pretty used to talking about that element. But I feel like, in some ways, the relief I had kind of built up for myself was releasing Jubilee, since this is an album that’s totally not about that. It got kind of washed over by the book, so I’m still caught in the cycle of having to talk about those things. [laughs]

Are you sick of talking about grief?

Yes, in a way. I mean, it’s such a huge part of my life, so it’s been somewhat therapeutic at times to talk about it so much. It’s been really fun to talk about the record, though, because there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t super personal. It’s more built-in, crafty kind of stuff. There are a lot of fictionalized perspectives and broader themes that are exciting and new for me to talk about, and I’m kind of lamenting not being able to focus solely on that. But also, how can I complain? I mean, the book has just developed such long legs. I think I’m going to be talking about grief for a while.

Well, one more piece on that topic before we move on. My mom died around the same time as yours, and I’ve found myself, over the years forming stronger bonds with people who’ve also experienced that loss. Hanif Abdurraqib calls it “a cohort of unbeknownst siblings.” I imagine a lot of people feel especially bonded to you as an artist for that reason. Have listeners and readers who’ve lost parents been reaching out to you?

Oh, yeah. Definitely. It’s very sad to realize this has happened to so many people and that we’re really connected in this way. There’s a line that’s on the new record and also in the book: “The world divides into two people: those who have felt pain, and those who have yet to.” That’s sort of aligned with this idea of “grief siblings.” I feel like the world really opens up to you, in a way — the aches of it, which you were once ignorant to — and you kind of cross over in this way. It’s such a lonely, isolating, singular experience when you’re going through it. It’s been wild to see this sort of world open up to others who lost their parents around the same time. I feel like I have a deeper understanding of those people.

Japanese Breakfast
Photo: Peter Ash Lee / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

You anticipated my next question, which is about that great “two people” line. It hits different if you’ve experienced that loss.

Totally. That line comes from a bigger idea that didn’t actually make its way to the book. I just reached my wit’s end with it. But I remember sitting at a table with my mother-in-law and my grandmother-in-law — and my mother-in-law lost her brother when she was a teenager in college. He fell off a balcony. That was my grandmother-in-law’s son. I remember her saying, you know, ‘I used to just cry in the car on the way to work, and then cry in the car on the way back.’ That pain felt so palpable to me, in this way I had never experienced before — that sort of compassion for another person, after having endured what I went through. I also feel like there was this weird thing happening, where they maybe wouldn’t have shared that part of their lives with me if they didn’t know I had also gone through this.

It is strange to have relationships with people who haven’t experienced that part of life and don’t know what it holds for them. It’s just been a thought that has stuck with me for quite some time, and that’s why it exists in two mediums.

Well, let’s get into the record. I like third albums because it feels like an artist is really building a catalog. How do you see the new release fitting alongside Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet? What’s different about it, in your view, and what’s not so different?

I’ve always been preoccupied by similar types of feelings, I guess. I think part of what makes me an artist is this specific type of sensitivity that finds meaning in the same way I’ve always found meaning. And I think people might not realize that I’ve incorporated fiction and nonfiction in my work for a while now. It’s maybe just more visible on this record because there isn’t a broad personal theme, in a way. But I think I’ve just become a much better producer and composer over the last ten years of making music. I think it’s my best work, and I think it sounds very mature and ambitious in a way that I wouldn’t have known how to handle when I was younger.

You took theory lessons and studied piano in earnest for the first time in the lead-up to Jubilee. What did that open up for you?

I mean, this is really boring, but it basically taught me how to use minor-fourth chords and how to incorporate some new keys and more interesting chord changes. I’ve always been someone who’s willfully ignorant of music theory, but over the course of touring for the last five years, I’ve met so many people who have this incredible musical education from [places like] the Conservatory and Berkeley. So I found myself getting really envious and wanting to up my chops — to feel like I belong in this industry and deserve to be here.

I think it’s a great thing for any artist to invest in their education that way, to make sure that they don’t plateau. I felt like that’s what happened to my skill set as a musician, so I wanted to improve on that. That’s why a song like “Kokomo, IN” has a fuck ton of chord changes. It almost has this classic Beatles sort of feel because when you’re taking guitar lessons, you learn a lot of fucking Beatles songs. [laughs] So I think that’s part of it. It also helped me get the courage to write string and brass arrangements for the first time, and I wrote a lot more on the piano, which was new for me.

You’ve said that Jubilee is about joy — but there’s darkness here too, right? How does a song like “In Hell”, which deals with the physical realities of death, fit into an album about happiness?

That song is definitely an outlier. It’s maybe the saddest song I’ve ever written. I think I just needed it to be on the album because I felt like it deserved a home somewhere. It used to be a Japanese bonus track on Soft Sounds, and I just felt like it was this hauntingly beautiful song that deserved a longer life than that. And I think, in a way, it broadly fits into the theme. It’s maybe the most devastating song I’ve ever written, but in a way, it’s representative of where I came from. It’s a really potent thing to realize you can still experience joy after going through that type of experience.

You’ve touched on this a little already, but you write from other perspectives on Jubilee. I’m thinking of songs like “Savage Good Boy” and “Kokomo, IN”. This might not be the first time you’ve slipped into a fictional gear, but as someone better known for writing autobiographically, what’s challenging or rewarding about writing in that mode?

One thing that’s great about songwriting, or putting together an album, is you can sort of flip between nonfiction and fiction in this way, and it can work. I think parts of the human experience are sometimes best explored through nonfiction, and sometimes it’s stronger to do it through fiction. There were certain ideas I just found to be heightened or more romantic through a fictional lens. I think both come pretty naturally to me in songwriting. Because, in a way, great fiction is rooted in something that feels very real to you.

I’ve never been a billionaire [like the speaker in “Savage Good Boy”]. I’ve never owned a bunker. [Yet] I know what it feels like to grapple with personal greed or feel like you have to protect yourself and your family by keeping more than absolutely necessary. With a song like “Kokomo”, I’ve never been a teenage boy in rural Indiana, but I’ve been a teenage girl in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve said goodbye to a young lover before I wanted to. I’ve experienced those types of emotions, and I think they’re all parts of the human experience that we can relate to in some ways, but sometimes they are better told through different perspectives.

Let’s talk about the album cover. Are those persimmons?

They are persimmons, yes!

Why persimmons?

I saw a picture of hanging persimmons, and I was thinking about the context of the record. I wanted to do a very warm palette because Psychopomp is this sort of melancholic, blue sky color and Soft Sounds is really dark red and black. So I wanted to see yellows and oranges and warmer tones on the next record. I knew I was going to be wearing yellow, and then when I saw these hanging persimmons, I thought it was so beautiful and was a pretty apt metaphor. It’s a fruit that starts out very bitter and hard and unpalatable; then, time allows it to mature into something sweet. As someone whose narrative is so rooted and in grief and loss, it felt fitting to be embracing sweetness in this way.

Japanese Breakfast
Photo: Peter Ash Lee / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

Hearing you say that makes me think of the different associations of the word “jubilee.” I’m thinking now about dessert, like Cherries Jubilee.

[laughs] Yeah, yeah. That’s funny.

I’m also thinking about its context in Black history: Jubilee Day (Juneteenth). That strikes me as intersecting with some of your themes about bondage and freedom.

I’m honestly not too familiar with that context, but Biblically it’s about a year of release. It’s been described as a trumpet blast of victory, which seemed like a fitting title because there’s a lot of horns on the album. It feels like you’re emerging from something, and I feel like, in some ways, I’m emerging from the bondage of these themes of grief and loss. And hopefully, the timing of all this coincides with the release from our own pandemic prison. I also feel like it’s fitting in that way.

It feels very organic and earthbound after taking us to “another planet” on your last album. Was that intentional?

Yeah, I think, in a way. Soft Sounds from Another Planet is very much a record about disassociating and using space as a kind of metaphor for that. And I think I was ready to embrace the feeling. I felt like I was sort of able to give myself permission to experience joy. I was mentally ready to embrace feeling in this way again. I think there’s a very grounding element to that.

You’ve said Jubilee is about pushing yourself to care, and you have a great quote about that in the press release: “If you want change, in anything, you need to go to war for it.” What are you going to war for?

That’s a great question. I think every day, we’re all just fighting to find joy in our lives. Like, that’s the reason why we continue to exist — to carve out those rare moments of joy for ourselves in a world that’s full of hardship, suffering, trauma, and hurt feelings. I had to so actively push through my grief, and I feel like we have to actively fight against these enormous institutions that feel so impossible to overcome. It’s really hard to keep caring, and it’s really hard to actively feel something all the time, especially when you’re bombarded with so much information about how the world is suffering and aching in so many different ways. I don’t really have any advice about how to do that, but I definitely think so much of this time period is about [having] all this knowledge and not knowing what to do with it. It’s really difficult to continue to be active in this way, but it’s so clearly necessary.