Garnering praise from basically every corner of the music press universe, Michelle Zauner’s stunning debut under the Japanese Breakfast moniker, Psychopomp, manages to feel like the dramatic otherworldly pop Bjork traffics in one moment and then like a dear friend confessing something deeply personal with her head in her hands the next.
A large reason for that dichotomy is that Psychopomp—although absolutely fluid when taken as a whole—is taken from different years and phases of Zauner’s life. Zauner and co-producer Ned Eisenberg deserve praise for turning the songs into a whole so cohesive the record sounds cinematic. Grief, life, death, abusive relationships, sex, and fucking—and the difference between the two—are all on display through the album’s nine songs.
The enthralling record was partially inspired by Zauner’s (who also fronted Little Big League) time spent away from her Brooklyn home visiting Oregon during her mother’s battle with cancer that eventually took her life. Zauner spent the weeks after her mother’s death struggling with how a modern young woman deals with losing her mother so unexpectedly without succumbing to sentimentality. Seeking something deeper than the things we worship in our daily lives—but at the same time being angry at herself for doing something as saccharine as taking flowers to her mother’s grave—Zauner dove into her deeply personal solo project and emerged on the other side a more fully formed artist and person.
Seeing Japanese Breakfast live only reinforces the feeling that we’re watching the next interesting “pop” talent develop before our eyes, as Zauner strips her songs of their delicateness and performs with a searing abandon that hints at someone barely able to keep their soul in her body while she’s on stage. While she climbed on speakers, danced through the crowd and sang so poignantly I was drenched in goosebumps more than once, I was reminded of Karen O’s fearlessness fronting the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s—although Zauner is onto something all her own.
We spoke with Zauner at the end of her five-week tour with Mitski and Jay Som about her process, how she deals with such a personal document being out in the world and what’s next for the Japanese Breakfast project. You can catch Zauner this Thursday October 6th at Baby’s All Right.
Play Too Much: Little Big League was great band and you guys had a very good run, but how rewarding has it been having so much success on your own? It has to feel validating to have such a personal project do so well—especially with Japanese Breakfast sounding totally different.
Michelle: Yeah definitely, I think that in some ways it makes sense because when there’s a single focused voice it makes it more comprehensible or whatever, so I think that there’s that. Also in the band (Little Big League) I was by far the one the most into pop music, and so there was a lot less negotiating different genres of music and a more focused sound in that sense. And I think that part of what makes Little Big League really interesting is those four voices colliding and compromising with one another—so we’d end up with something more complicated than pop music—that’s just what I like to make.
Play Too Much: The June project (where Michelle recorded 30 songs in 30 days) is a cool concept—when it was done it had to be motivating. My friend was sort of in a rut and over-thinking things and I told him about the album to get him motivated and going.
Michelle: Oh cool! Yeah it definitely helped me learn how to trust myself and forgive myself creatively. I think that it was also just a really good way to approach music as work or creativity as work and how to… generate creativity in an environment where you really work. [Laughs]
Play Too Much: No I totally feel you — don’t treat it like a normal job, but definitely treat it as work.
Michelle: Yeah! I didn’t go to art school but I’ve had a lot of people tell me they talk about that. I took Creative Writing in college and I guess in that sense it really helps start to create a good type of routine and schedule around your work. It’s not a normal job, but if you treat it like it’s a normal job there’s going to be a certain amount of output that happens. I guess for me it was really helpful because it helped me not freeze up or worry too much about the album creation process. Because it’s like I created this enormous body of work and if I have a session, do a lot of rough draft outlining, I can go back and change some things. I wrote and recorded those thirty songs and I would say I really only hate… two of them. [Laughs] I was worried but they’re really not so bad.
Play Too Much: It’s sketching with music.
Michelle: Exactly, yeah. It’s a great way to create raw material you can build on.
Play Too Much: It seems like we’re at a point in culture that’s becoming less “white” and there are a lot more faces of color popping up everywhere in the arts, and obviously race is in the national conversation once again for a variety of reasons. Do you feel like that’s true and does race affect your work at all?
Michelle: I think that we’re entering into a really interesting time in cultural landscape because I feel like for the first time it’s not chill to have no diversity in a show or something.
Play Too Much: The cast of Friends basically…
Michelle: Right. I think now we’re living in a culture that allows us to call that out and I think that’s really positive. There’s obviously a lot of work to still be done but I feel like we’re headed in the right direction. I don’t feel like there’s really an opening for me in a way I hadn’t felt before—I’d been in bands for five years before working on this project and I’d never been asked about my heritage so it didn’t seem like a big deal. I don’t really talk about it at all—it’s not in the press release “this is an Asian American woman!” or something. I don’t know if it’s because it’s pictures of me and I’m solo as opposed to four people.
But it’s cool you know, we just finished a tour of bands with three Asian American front women and we sold out 21 of 27 shows which is really cool. So I guess it’s cool to know it doesn’t have to be a niche market ya know…
Play Too Much: Ha! Yeah that’s comforting.
Michelle: But I’m not sure if or how much my heritage informs my music. I don’t use any traditional Asian instruments or anything. [Laughs] And my mom’s voice is on it, my mom’s picture is on it and I think maybe a part of me wanted the name to reflect my heritage a bit I guess, so there’s that element of it. And with the album cover I definitely wanted to put a face you don’t normally see on album covers—at least indie rock ones.
Play Too Much: Well part of the reason I asked about that is what’s going on with Mr. Trump. Does the political climate motivate your writing at all?
Michelle: On this one I was too involved with what was going on in my own life to be too worried about the political landscape. I’m not so much of a political writer; I think there are some everyday mistreatments of people that inform my general feeling of anger that I may have placed in some lyrics though. I honestly feel very quiet at times like this… I feel very lost and terrified. I guess we’ll see if that rears its head on the next record.
Play Too Much: Has writing and performing such personal songs been cathartic in the wake of your mom’s passing? Is it hard revisiting those emotions on stage each night and getting asked about these songs all the time? It has to be cool that it’s resonating with so many people.
Michelle: I’m actually really surprised that that narrative has been such a force behind this record. We wrote the press release and then just kind of put it out there and I’m an open person and it’s definitely in the work but… I wasn’t aware that it was going to be so explicit for people. I’m not really sure how it cycled into “this is a record about grief and my mom passing”, that wasn’t something I was pushing. But then it started to come up more in interviews and everything kind of cycled in that way. But yeah I don’t know, you have to learn to shut off some things in your everyday personal life—you can’t just cry all the time—and you have to keep moving forward. People in your everyday life are going to ask you about it and you learn how to shut off a part of yourself in order to keep moving. It’s also something you have to do in your professional life when you’re writing about something so personal. A lot of people ask me if it’s difficult to perform those songs every night and I think that I’ve learned how to shut off certain emotions about such a painful topic in everyday life, that’s just what you have to do when you’re performing as well.
I think that it becomes really hard when I have a lot of kids coming up to me that are much younger than me who have lost parents or friends their same age. That’s really heavy—trying to understand what kind of position they want me to have in that moment. Because I feel like I relate to them so much—but I’m at a loss as to what to say or how to comfort them when they come to me with this kind of stuff. It’s really crazy as an artist to see how many people want to unload this really heavy part of themselves onto you, and I’m trying to figure out how to handle that graciously. I really think that’s the most challenging part of putting something so personal into the work.
Play Too Much: Wow that is super heavy. I read that you said some songs on Psychopomp are dealing with your spirituality or lack thereof. Did your mother’s illness alter your beliefs at all?
Michelle: I pretty much have always been an atheist and I found myself getting really angry and I wanted some kind of spiritual guidance of some sort. Even little things like if I left flowers at my mom’s grave I’d find myself getting very angry with myself like, “Why am I doing this? I don’t even believe in this thing”, and there was a very cold part of me that emerged. I started seeing an analyst while I was in Eugene and she said, “You know your anger against any type of spirituality is just as much a fundamentalism as anything else,” and that really helped me.
“In Heaven” in particular is about being frustrated with how many people, especially in the older age generation who’d come up to you when someone dies and says, “Oh you know, at least they’re in a better place. They’re in heaven.” And it’s hard not to get really angry when people say that kind of thing. I guess it was just kind of like when people who don’t have any religion or spirituality, when they experience something dark it’s really hard to turn to the same things that you normally turn.
You know, I feel like our whole generation worships things like progress and technology and science, and those things are cold and not comforting when you have to go through grief. So I think that I was kind of going through this time where I felt like, “Well I don’t want to have to turn to religion, but I am interested in say: what happened to mythology? And what happened to psychological practice? What are these private spiritual guidelines that I can allow myself to believe in quietly to sort of help get through this painful and mysterious part of life?” That was my way of kind of working my way through those ideas on this record.
Play Too Much: That’s how I hope I’d respond. I wanted to ask you about some of the sexual imagery in the lyrics in the lyrics and song titles. Is there any link between sex and grief for you on the record and in general or is that just what came out?
Michelle: I’d say about half are actually about grief itself and illness. But yeah I think I just enjoy writing in that sort of tongue and cheek style… I don’t know, I don’t know why I feel that way. [Laughs]
Play Too Much: Yeah there certainly doesn’t need to be a link, I just think the lyrics are so fascinating and well presented. I’ve been playing the record for tons of people and they invariably mention the lyrics standing out.
Michelle: That’s awesome. That’s really cool. I don’t know, I guess I just really like innuendo! Playing with it, you know? I think it’s just something that I’ve always done in my writing.
Play Too Much: It’s almost mischievous.
Michelle: Yeah. I feel like people are… dirty minded or whatever, so if you have a lyric with some innuendo people are maybe more likely to pay attention and then get locked into the other nuances.
Play Too Much: The live show was great; I loved the way the songs were presented and arranged. I was also really blown away by that last song where you were dancing in the crowd and jumping on the speakers. It had a great vibe and was very different from your previous material.
Michelle: Cool thanks! I’m excited about the new stuff! It’s going to on the second record a new song called “Machinist”.
Play Too Much: Cool. Is that indicative of a new direction?
Michelle: Yeah we’ve had four demos recorded and I’m excited to have… Psychopomp took awhile you know? And since it was kind of a compilation record in terms of composition and then it was arranged and then rearranged and then reproduced and then sat on for a while and I think the whole process took a year and a half. This will be way more focused, it’s going to be set writing days and the set production days and it’s going be a much more smaller and focused team.
Play Too Much: Are you recording in Brooklyn?
Michelle: I’m recording in Philadelphia actually with Craig Hendricks at Agave Recording Company. I’m very excited about the four demos and I think that I’m going to just try to—I don’t know, I have some ideas that I feel like every time I try to lay down what I want a record to be I get stuck. So I’m trying not to “fix” anything. As of right now it’s definitely more dance-y material, but I definitely don’t try to force a cohesive thought on anything.
Play Too Much: Even though Psychopomp is a compilation in a sense because the songs are from different periods it really works as a cohesive whole. It’s very easy to put it on and get lost…
Michelle: Oh that’s so good to hear! [Laughs]
Play Too Much: Ha, right? What about your process helped it work so well do you think?
Michelle: I think the only thing I can really think of is there wasn’t really time to overthink anything. Or maybe I just had so much space to decide kind of what songs needed or I thought were the best in the catalogue and that I wanted to delve deeper with. I’d heard a lot of the songs with like 3 or 4 different arrangements and I had the room to decide and be a bit more cutthroat about what worked and what didn’t work.
“The Woman That Loves You” I recorded I think 4 years ago in my bedroom in Philadelphia with my co-producer Ned Eisenberg. I wrote the song in a day and he helped me produce it and I always thought it was great song that never got the attention that it deserved. And I sat on it for 2-3 years and I loved the song so I wanted to redo it. I arranged it with a full band with live drums, bass, guitar and synth and completely rerecorded the song. And then I sat on it for a few more months and then brought it back it Ned Eisenberg so we could do the mix together and we just completely scrapped it and said, “Fuck this—this doesn’t sound as good as the original.” So the version of “The Woman That Loves You” on the record is the one we recorded four years ago. And “Triple 7” started as a song I recorded solo, then rearranged with a full band and we scrapped that completely and added a piano and that was the final version. So I was very cutthroat and like I said I had a lot of breathing room and time to decide if I liked the songs from three years ago… and I knew I wanted a vinyl.
That was kind of my thing: I didn’t expect to tour and I didn’t expect this record to do anything. I just wanted to fool a record label into putting it out and giving me a vinyl. So with Yellow K it was “Haha I fooled you, I’m not touring! I tricked you into making h investment!” [Laughs] But then the record did really well and it put me back on the road and I’m so glad it did.