After years as the lead singer of emo-indie outfit Little Big League, Michelle Zauner stepped out on her own with 2016’s Psychopomp. She followed it with last year’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet, an acclaimed LP filled with lush guitars, dreamy celestial effects and some heavy ’90s nostalgia, ultimately landing her a gig at this year’s Coachella festival. We phoned up Zauner ahead of her Vegas date to talk video games, diversity and getting hitched in Vegas.
You have a really fun “quest” game on your website that I’ve been playing recently. Why did you decide to make a Japanese Breakfast video game? For the first record, my husband [Peter Bradley], who plays guitar in the band now, made MIDI versions of all the songs, and we put them on a cassette for bonus material. When we signed to Dead Oceans, we made another one for Soft Sounds from Another Planet and they were like, “This sounds like video game music; you should make a video game.” I played RPGs since I was a kid; since I was like 3 years old I had a Super Nintendo and played a lot of the Final Fantasy games and Secret of Mana with my dad. I partnered with this woman named Elaine Fath, who did all of the game development, and I sort of wrote a large part of the script. We worked on it back and forth for six months or so. It turned out really well, I think.
Your latest album references sci-fi themes as well. Have you always been interested in outer space? I think I started getting into it maybe two years ago when I started writing [Soft Sounds]. I like sci-fi movies and stuff like that, but I started getting into it because my friend and I had a pretty intense conversation about aliens and the Mars One project. I started getting into it then and started writing this record that had a lot of space themes. I think it’s a natural place to think about when you’re tired of your reality, or unsatisfied with your reality.
When you were on tour with Mitski, you mentioned that the crowds were more diverse than when you were in Little Big League. Do you feel like you’re helping carve out space for other women of color in the music industry? I don’t think I realized that kind of responsibility until this project a couple years ago, largely on that Mitski tour. I never played to an audience like that before—I never even really had much of a platform or audience to begin with in my previous band. I’ve written music since I was 16 years old, and I don’t think I had plans then to represent anything. I was just doing something that felt natural to me; it was a creative release for me, and then slowly it developed into this different thing. There’s a lot of young women of color who look up to me and thank me for representing them. I think in the last couple of years I started incorporating that kind of thing into my art a little bit more than I ever had, but it’s definitely a new thing and I want to do a good job at it.
You won a Glamour essay contest a few years back for a story on how you dealt with grief by learning to cook Korean food. Outside of music, have you always been a writer? When I was in college I studied creative writing. In high school I thought I was going to be a journalist, and then quickly realized I didn’t like rules. I’ve always gravitated toward art forms where I can do whatever interests me. When my mother passed away and I wrote Psychopomp, I also wrote that piece for Glamour. I didn’t have Glamour in mind, I just sent it off to whoever would read it and any contest that didn’t have an entry fee. The album was rejected from every small label I sent it to, and the essay was rejected from every small publication and contest—and then six months later, I got an mail from Glamour saying I won their essay of the year contest. It’s a good lesson. You just have to face a lot of rejection before something hits. In the last year, I started writing more and I think I’m going to be releasing a lot more essays, but right now music is the focus.
You recently covered The Cranberries’ “Dreams” for a Spotify session. Were you a big fan? Yeah, in middle school I listened to a lot of The Cranberries with my two best friends in Eugene, Oregon. That was around the time we were obsessed with the show My So Called Life. For me, that song was like my childhood. We had covered that song before Dolores O’Riordan had died, and when she died it was just so sad, and we got invited to play the Spotify thing, and we asked to do a cover and it felt fitting to do that one.
You have some synthy, almost shoegazey elements to your music. How does your live show differ from the recordings? I wrote Psychopomp without thinking about a live band, so I ended up with a ton of synth and I could only afford to bring three people along. So we started as a three piece and I mixed backing tracks to run through a sampler that went to a click track for the drummer to play along to. For the next record, I co-produced the next album with our live drummer Craig Hendrix, so it was much easier because I had someone to work with me and he mixed the tracks to be played live, and we got to add another member. It’s a bit longer of a process, but I like being able to tackle that because I think it’s important to have a different live show from the album, though I think we do a pretty good job of replicating it.
Have you ever been to Las Vegas? I have. Shamir booked us a show at Tivoli Village and there was like no one there and we had to play really quietly and they were like, can you turn it down? And I was like, my amp is at one, I literally don’t know what you want me to do. It was a disaster, so I’m excited to play a real show in Las Vegas. But we had a ton of fun when we went on that tour, and my dad actually flew out to hang out with us and my husband and I were actually legally married in Las Vegas. We got an Elvis wedding.
Japanese Breakfast with Sonia Barcelona, DJ Ladyfingers. June 21, 9 p.m., $13-$15. Bunkhouse Saloon, 702-982-1764.