Michelle Zauner has never had an issue opening up. As the mind behind Japanese Breakfast, she’s created soundscapes of sparkling guitars and synths to carry lyrics about death, the afterlife and how the human experience fits into a cosmic narrative on albums like Psychopomp (2014) and Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017). But recently she’s peeled back the layers even further.
With her book Crying in H Mart, released April 20, 2021, she writes about her mother’s death from cancer and the journey through grief, and the search for identity, she’s been on since. Ultimately she’s found some form of acceptance and with her latest album, Jubilee, Zauner is ready to chase something new: happiness.
The album, released June 4, 2021 on Dead Oceans, finds Zauner exploring maximalistic arrangements like on album opener “Paprika” as well as disco and Prince nods on the single “Be Sweet.”
Japanese Breakfast will be headlining the Maha Music Festival this year on July 31. The Reader sat down with her ahead of the festival to talk about the pandemic, the value of creativity in the internet age and how this album stands out amongst her catalogue.
This interview has been edited slightly for brevity.
You probably get this question a lot, but what has your pandemic been like? It seems like solitude would be good for working on an album and a book. But at the same time you’re working on these personal projects that are going out into the world when you can’t go out into the world yourself.
Oh, that’s tough because I finished the record in December of 2019. The album was completely done. And I wasn’t really able to move on to another project until that was released. So I was kind of going crazy figuring out what to focus my time on. I did finish my final draft of my book in probably like July of 2020. So I think that the book definitely benefited from more time that it maybe wouldn’t have had which I think was really necessary. And [I spent] the other time largely working on the soundtrack to this indie video game called Sable and practicing piano. It was much less busy than it usually is.
It seems like the book and the album go together really well. You’re not really an artist that’s closed off. But these sort of took it to another level. My favorite song on the album, “Paprika,” seems to be about the false promise that there’s value, or an end goal in giving a lot of yourself to the world.
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a type of self mythologizing that is not ever going to be 100% true. But it is certainly mostly true. And sometimes I feel like I’ve created this narrative for myself, and it’s helped me feel that way. [The book and the album] weren’t supposed to be released so close to each other. The album was actually supposed to come out before the book. But I think that it’s much nicer this way. Someone said to me Jubilee brought them comfort, because even though they’re not there with their grief yet, it gives them great hope that there is joy after you endure something like this. They were really looking forward to the moment when they got to have that in their life again. So in a way, you know, writing this book, felt like a real closing of that chapter for me, where I don’t really need to share any more about my grief and this loss and that experience, because it’s been said at this point in two albums and a book, and Jubilee feels like this sort of beginning of a new chapter where I can write about other things.
I was also curious about the recording process of the album. How did this differ from what you were doing in the past? Especially when you include so much diverse instrumentation.
Yeah, I think that I felt the most confident about this album and who I am as a composer and a musician than I ever have. And part of that is having the benefit of touring professionally for the last five years and surrounding myself with really talented people, many of whom have gone to music schools and conservatories, and wanting to constantly push myself to be better and feel like I deserve this incredible job. Whereas the records that came before it, especially Soft Sounds from Another Planet, I was so nervous. I was really afraid of the sophomore slump, and it was a very insular private record. And I think that there was maybe more just confidence and ambition about this album. There’s clarity that comes from that, I think.
I could see that in your Jimmy Kimmel performance. When you bang that gong I literally made an audible noise. It feels like letting go and letting the music be whatever it wants to be. That shows up in the diversity of tracks, like “Paprika” which almost feels like a Beirut song and then “Be Sweet” feels like a disco song. What sort of stuff were you listening to that inspired these songs?
I was really into Kate Bush for this album, particularly “Paprika.” I was trying to lean into the more surreal types of songwriting and bizarre production choices that I think make Kate Bush so incredible. I mean, she’s this amazing pop artist that has mass appeal, and yet she’s so bizarre and unparalleled. I love Randy Newman, and certainly a lot of the string arrangements were inspired by him. I know that for “Kokomo, Indiana” we really felt like we wanted like the elegance of Wilco’s, “Jesus, etc.” I just like love how perfect and tight that arrangement is and how warm it sounds. “Posing for Cars” was also inspired by the Wilco song “At Least That’s What You Said.” And this kind of like, quiet moment between two people that erupts into this long guitar solo where it feels like sonically you’re saying everything that can’t be said.
This is a really random question, but what inspired the name “Kokomo, Indiana?” I wondered if it was like a Beach Boys reference, juxtaposing the tropical setting of Kokomo with the Midwest.
I was taking Guitar Lessons again to kind of brush up on my chops. And I was learning a lot of Beatles songs as guitar teachers are known to assign, and just trying to incorporate more kind of classic interesting chord changes and came up with this progression that felt like this very classic, old timey kind of Beatles song. And you know I wanted to write a very classic love song about sort of teenage longing and decided it was about a small town boy saying goodbye to his high school sweetheart as she goes off to a study abroad program in Australia and how sweet it would be if you could just feel at that age, like, she’s gonna show off to the world all the parts I fell for. It would be selfish to even want her to stay. And that’s kind of really beautiful to feel when you’re young. And so there’s a line about being from a flyover state and my drummer and producer Craig Hendrix, were saying, “Oh, it’s like, it’s like your fanfiction about Evan,” who’s our project manager at our label [Dead Oceans] based out of Bloomington, Indiana.
[Brief Zoom crash]
Anyway, I think you were telling me about “Kokomo, Indiana.”
So my drummer made a joke that I had written a fanfiction about our label manager, Evan. And I texted him and I was like, “I wrote a fanfiction about your childhood in Bloomington” and he was like, “I’m not from Bloomington, I’m from Kokomo,” and I was like, that’s even better.
I felt like t’s just such a cute name. And there’s that Beach Boys song that’s called “Kokomo.” That’s about a very different thing, but it felt like such a classic kind of Beach Boys song where, you know, it’s about sort of like wishing you were older and loves last and yeah, so that’s how that name came to be.
I guess that’s a good segue into talking about Omaha. Are there any things that stick out to you when you play in Omaha? I know, you came to Milk Run, a DIY venue, in Omaha in 2016 with Porches and there were like 30 people there. And now you’re headlining our little big music festival.
I had probably one of like, the worst shows I’ve ever played in Omaha. There was like no one there. And I remember it was our second support tour. And porches were like, [laughs] this is really revealing, but they asked if we would take a lesser guarantee because they had lost so much money on this show. We were like, “What the fuck? Like, no,” it’s not like they were paying us extra if the show sold out. So like, why? That’s part of what a guarantee is. But yeah, it’s funny. I am really looking forward to the festival. It’s actually kind of funny because, yeah, I mean, I just associated Omaha so much with like Saddle Creek. I’m thinking of it as like such a musical place and, and then to have a show where you play to like 30 people in an empty gallery is very sad, but I’m looking forward to playing a proper festival there.
Yeah, playing to nobody here can be a very common occurrence. So I’m glad that you weren’t totally burned from ever playing in Omaha again. How does the stage presentation compare with past tours? Just going off the Jimmy Kimmel performance, I’m expecting you to come out in like this beautiful white dress and I’m expecting a gong to be there. Was there a lot more thought into the theatrics than maybe in the past?
Well, we are going to be a six-piece band for the first time. So we’ll have a violin player and a sax player live and then we’ll have the gong. We are having a [lighting director] for the first time. Working with an LD can really bring the show to life, I think and I’ve never had the chance to do that. So I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’s gonna be a spectacular show. I don’t know if I’m gonna wear like formal wear all the time. But I’m sure I will do it up to a certain extent.
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