Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner talks sonic joy and turning fussy songs into favorites

Michelle Zauner
Photo: Tonje Thilesen / Courtesy

Michelle Zauner’s having a great year. The frontwoman of indie rock outfit Japanese Breakfast released her third studio album (Jubilee), published her first book (Crying in H Mart: A Memoir) and composed an original soundtrack for the video game Sable— all within a few months’ time. Now she’s steering Japanese Breakfast’s first tour since the pandemic.

We caught up with the singer in advance of the October 5 show at Brooklyn Bowl.

So many of your projects have landed during the past five months. Have you had a chance to soak it all in yet? I’m in this space right now where I feel like an empty nester. It’s an exciting feeling to let go of your little babies—you know that they’re doing the work out in the world that you’ve raised them to do. There’s also some loneliness and fear of, like, what do I do with my life now? What’s next for me? But there’s also the excitement of a new chapter, just being a blank slate to figure out what’s next. I gotta discover a new hobby or go on vacation.

You could always play Sable. How did you end up composing a soundtrack for a video game? I was actually approached in 2017 by Daniel Feinberg, one of the developers. At the time, they just had a couple of gifs out there, and the art was so striking. They were in search of a composer who was outside of the game world and could bring a different sound. But they also wanted someone who enjoyed gaming and had a passion for it and respect for it, I think.

It’s a really good fit, and I’ve been really lucky that I’ve had the chance to be involved from a really early stage. I’ve spent the last four years adding more and more music as the world came together.

I read that you used to play Final Fantasy as a kid. Yes, I was a big Final Fantasy nerd.

Those games are known for having beautiful soundtracks as well. Could this be your new calling—soundtrack composer? I would love to do it again. I had so much fun doing it, and I think I had a very charmed first experience. I don’t know if it’s always this way, but I really hope that I get to do it again if the right project comes along. Let’s put that out into the world.

You’ve stated that one of your goals with June album Jubilee was to explore more joy. On this record, there’s horns, brass, strings … Did you go into it consciously looking for musical ways to convey that emotion? Absolutely. For the sophomore record, there was so much pressure to avoid the sophomore slump. It was a very insular project of trying to keep in step with the same sort of thing. I felt like a third album should be really bombastic and full of confidence.

I learned so much from my co-producer, Craig Hendrix, who’s also our live drummer. … He has a real skill for arrangements. I think he gave me the courage and confidence to bring on these new instruments that we had sort of dipped the toe in the water of using before. I knew I wanted to have that all over the record, that the sky was the limit and that we had the capability of adding those things.

A jubilee is a trumpet blast of victory. I wanted that to be a major element of this record.

It definitely feels like a celebration. Thank you. My artistic narrative is so rooted in songs about grief and loss. And after I wrote [the book] Crying in H Mart, I just really felt like it was time to move on and explore something else creatively. I had said everything I wanted to say about that experience. And it is like a celebration to get to a place in your life where, of course, you hold grief with you, but it is also possible to move on with your life and not have it be this all-consuming weight on you all the time.

In Crying in H Mart, you detail some of your mother’s last moments and explore how Korean food reconnected you to her. So many people who’ve read it seem to have connected to that. Did you anticipate that impact on readers? I certainly hoped it would happen, [but] I did not anticipate this reaction (laughs). I was like, maybe I can be No. 15 New York Times’ Bestseller for the first week if we work really, really hard. And the book has been on the list for 19 weeks, with almost entirely positive reviews.

I’m very, very confused (laughs). I felt like it was pretty good, but honestly, it’s such a personal story. I was writing something that I really needed to work through. I tried to not really think about other people … [but] it’s been a real joy to see the response to the book. It’s gone far beyond what I ever thought it was.

The book was incredibly touching, but also made readers very hungry. Has it ever crossed your mind to open a restaurant or even sell food at your shows like a supper club? (Laughs) I did one event that was so fun in New York with Tables of Contents [reading series], an amazing reading event at a Brooklyn restaurant called Insa. These amazing Korean chefs made a little Korean lunchbox, inspired by the book, and people came and ate dinner and listened to me read. I would love to do more stuff like that.

I’m in this place in my life where I’ve just planted a lot of seeds, not expecting them all to have grown to the level that they have, and I’m just trying to maintain those. But I think in another life, or maybe when I’m older and have more time, I would love to do a Korean pop-up or something. I think that amount of labor and grit actually really agrees with me.

I’m about to announce an ice cream collaboration. There’s this Korean woman who owns a boutique ice cream company called Noona’s Ice Cream, and the two of us are coming out with a collab on a persimmon flavor. ... You’re the first person I have told that!

Are there any comfort foods you particularly love? It’s mostly Korean food. I love kimchi-jjigae, which is this kimchi stew. My favorite thing that I love to eat is egg on rice—just a poached, super runny egg on top of white rice. That is my go-to comfort food.

Which was your favorite song to write on Jubilee, and which do you enjoy playing live most? It’s funny, because my least-favorite song to write is “Slide Tackle.” It was such a little bitch of a song. Usually my favorite songs happen really quickly. They just know exactly what they want to be, and things fall into place. “Slide Tackle” was this really fussy baby, where there were many times I wanted to abandon it. I thought it was too simple. So I would add and add and add and add, and nothing ever felt like enough. And eventually I just gave up on it, and it was what it was. But it’s my favorite song to play live. It became such a special live number that I really love that song now. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record.

In terms of writing, I think “Kokomo, IN” has a really special place in my heart because that was a really easy song. I was writing it as we were recording in the studio, and it came together really quickly. It’s a very sweet song, a very new direction for me.

What can we expect from your show this time? We are a much bigger band and a very different band now, a six-piece. We’ve added Molly Germer on keys and violin and Adam Schatz on saxophone and keys. We have a lighting designer, so we have this incredible light show, and production from this company based out of New York called Smooth Technology that does a lot of really cool stuff. They made these LED circles that hang in the back that are supposed to be reminiscent of the persimmons hanging on the album cover. We’re just a bigger, better band. And I’m really excited to bring that to Las Vegas.

Japanese Breakfast October 5, 7:30 p.m. $20-30. Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695, brooklynbowl.com.

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Amber Sampson

Amber Sampson is a Staff Writer for Las Vegas Weekly. She got her start in journalism as an intern at ...

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