Japanese Breakfast Is Bringing Joy to the “Fringes of Society”
JAPANESE BREAKFAST LEADER MICHELLE ZAUNER GREW UP STUCK BETWEEN TWO WORLDS. The only child of a Jewish-American father and Korean mother, her upbringing in Eugene, OR, found her straddling both cultures, cultivating her music taste to bridge the gap.
“Nothing was as vital as music, the only comfort for my existential dread,” writes Zauner in her recent memoir, Crying in H Mart. “I spent my days downloading songs one at a time off LimeWire and getting into heated discussions on AIM about whether the Foo Fighters’ acoustic version of ‘Everlong’ was better than the original.”
It’s a sentiment she expresses in conversation with Exclaim! “Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of people to relate to or [who] felt the same kind of experiences that I had,” says Zauner. “So it was a real surprise and a real joy to get to find that sense of community. I feel like we grow up feeling like we’re on the fringes of society and that no one is ever going to be able to relate to these very niche stories about our upbringing.
“I think that that’s just what white supremacy does.” Zauner explores this and more in Crying in H Mart, which poetically and poignantly tells the story of Zauner’s mother’s death from gastrointestinal cancer in 2014. In the book that debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times Best Seller list, she describes in graphic detail the workings and failings of a sick body, and reveals how her mother raised her to love food and how this in turn helped her to not only process grief, but also reckon with her Korean-American identity.
In her music and prose, she is always acutely aware of herself, her singular situation, and her position in whatever space she occupies. For many people of colour, this is just a byproduct of the lack of a great many privileges. With her awareness, though, Zauner is creating art that teaches us — children of immigrants, immigrants ourselves — how to be.
Just watching Japanese Breakfast’s music videos is a lesson in strength. Zauner has directed most of the group’s videos — especially those for the singles off the band’s latest album, Jubilee, out now via Dead Oceans — and wields them as opportunities to be unapologetically herself, showing us that she is a force to be reckoned with. She shows that everyone who grew up in the margins of the dominant culture, like her, can be a force to be reckoned with, too.
While Japanese Breakfast’s first two studio albums, 2016’s Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet, explored the heaviness of Zauner’s mother’s death and mapped grief onto the vastness of space, Jubilee is an invocation to rejoice — to celebrate without qualification, without judgement, with laughter, with tears.
“Jubilee is like a really fun summer record that makes you want to embrace feeling and release,” Zauner says. The first two albums — along with her memoir — offered catharsis, helping audiences to feel dark emotions or work their way through numbness. Jubilee is distinct because it is a celebration of the ability to feel. “The record [helps you release] teenage kinds of emotions,” she says.
Zauner says that, while working on Jubilee, she looked at the third albums of the musicians she loves. “Kate Bush was a big [inspiration],” she says, also citing albums by Björk, Wilco and Randy Newman. Albums full of ambitious feeling and bombastic theatricality fed her imagination as she worked on this record, she says — and you can tell.
Each track contains a vivid story — either one that Zauner lifted directly from her life, or expanded from an idea that she found compelling. She does the latter on “Savage Good Boy,” a fun track through which Zauner imagines the rationalizations of a wealthy man who hoards his riches, parading around selfishness under the name of self-preservation. Her lilting voice is front and centre on each track: clear and sweet, relaxed and waxen, so full you can almost touch it, for it certainly touches you.
“I think that’s a feeling that I’m always chasing in music,” Zauner says. “[It’s] this moment where the song lifts and you can feel your heart jump with it, soar.” With her music, she wants listeners to get goosebumps, she says. “And if a song doesn’t [accomplish] that, then it’s not working.”
While she certainly hopes her listeners, regardless of who they are, react viscerally and meaningfully to her art, Zauner feels that the only way she can achieve this is by focusing on her unique, particular self, rather than what she thinks people want to hear, or what the spirit of the times demands.
“If you think at all about other people, people can smell it,” she says. “It’s like they can feel when you’re beginning to pander to them. And so the best thing that you can do as an artist is to just not think about other people at all.”
She continues, “I don’t think about other people at all. I try not to anyway. It’s all what feels intuitively good and right to me. And I think that’s just who you are as an artist. You just have to hope for the best, that other people will like it too. But I think I’ve been kind of lucky in that I’m a pretty simple-minded person in that way, where I don’t feel like what I do is too complicated. I like things to sound good, I like things to sound catchy and poppy and fun. And luckily, those are things that the majority of people can enjoy. And I just like to try to do those things really well.”
Jubilee reminds listeners that sometimes you have to work and struggle to feel happy — something Zauner has certainly learned since her mother’s passing. In translating her mind’s intricate workings into music and memoir, Zauner has created a space for herself on a world stage — simultaneously allowing those of us who never saw ourselves on this stage to imagine ourselves in the same place.
“I THINK THAT’S A FEELING THAT I’M ALWAYS CHASING IN MUSIC... THIS MOMENT WHERE THE SONG LIFTS AND YOU CAN FEEL YOUR HEART JUMP WITH IT, SOAR.”