Japanese Breakfast Interview: From Grief to “Soft Sounds From Another Planet”

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Michelle Zauner, also known as Japanese Breakfast, live at The Echo in Los Angeles, CA. 9/20/2017. (Photo: Ken Ben Raymundo | @welcometotheigloo)

Following the release of her debut album, which was inspired by her mother’s loss to cancer, Michelle Zauner — better known as Japanese Breakfast — wasn’t sure how to approach her second record.

“It’s a very scary thing to all of a sudden go into a second record knowing people listened to the first and have something to compare it to,” Zauner said to me over the phone. “I was really conscious about staying true to myself and not ponder on what I thought people wanted, but focus on what felt real and good to me.”

Zauner’s follow-up to 2016’s Psychopomp culminated in this summer’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet — a sonically exciting and meditative record that focuses on healing from the grief told in her first record. With the instrumentation to match, the record is full of hazy electronics, fuzzy shoegaze synths and electronic pop that shows Zauner facing her music with more intent.

As Japanese Breakfast embarked on her first headlining tour this fall to play a slate of sold-out shows in California, Zauner was happy to talk about her new record, touring with Mitski and what’s next for Japanese Breakfast.

This is your first headlining tour and it’s been a bit of a long time coming. How does it feel?

It’s been crazy and a slow build. We played Starline Social Club in Oakland and that was the first place we played in as support for Mitski and first time we’ve ever played in Oakland. It really feels full circle that a year and a half later we can come back and sell it out as a headliner. It’s like playing in front of your friends because they know your story and know your songs and who you are.

You just released your second album Soft Sounds From Another Planet this summer. What would you say makes this album different from last year’s Psychopomp?

Psychopomp was kind of an accident. I made the record out of necessity and it felt like this very private art project that I had used to focus myself therapeutically. With this record, I went in with a lot more intention. I had built an audience, had a label and a budget and was able to focus a lot of time in a real studio. So I think sonically, lyrically and thematically, I went in with a lot more structure and intent.

Your last record was inspired a lot by your mother. What kind of headspace were you in when approaching writing for Soft Sounds?

Soft Sounds kind of takes a few steps back and looks at humanity behind grief and understanding your grief in relation to other people’s grief, and how to move forward from that. I think it’s really easy to become very angry or scared after you go through something like [your mother’s death]. A lot of the record was trying to instruct myself and other people to take that pain and practice being wary of the trappings that come with those feelings. Don’t allow yourself to fall into a deep depression or become so scared to the fact that you can’t move or you become angry at everyone who has happiness.

I think I was struggling with becoming a person that was very shut off, and I really wanted to stay a passionate and emotional person. I was relearning how to feel those things and setting fire to the really negative parts of being a human.

What are some of the standout singles on this album that you love playing or are especially important to you?

Sonically, I was really excited by the direction that “Road Head” took because it’s a little out of my comfort zone. Craig Hendrix co-produced the record and we experimented with electronic drums for the first time — that was something that I really wanted, to experiment more with keyboards and sampling and electronic drums. Craig and I work really well together and the song ended up being a really cool, almost trip-hop song. Singing on it, I feel like a much more confident singer and pushed myself — a lot of that was Craig helping me and lifting up my confidence. It helps to have a good collaborator that is able to push you and encourage you to go in a direction that maybe seems a little strange to you.

“Till Death” was another big influence on Craig’s part and feels almost like baroque pop, classical and kind of took a ‘50s pop direction. Those are also some of my favorite lyrics that I’ve written. A true honest love song.

I read somewhere that your marriage played a big part in this album. What parts of marriage and love were you able to learn and put into this record?

It will be three years [for my husband and I] on October 4th. We were married two weeks before my mom died, but I never really thought much about marriage [beforehand]. I wanted something good to come out of all the shit that went through my mom’s illness. It felt like we kept losing and losing and I wanted some lightness and something to direct the conversation away from symptoms and medications and timelines.

“Till Death” is about marriage and a long list of things that I had endured. I really felt that I couldn’t have made it through that year if I didn’t have my partner going through that. My life would be very different and much more difficult, but there’s not much you can really do but just sit there and be there for someone. That’s how I kind of felt being with my mom — I can’t really do anything except sit here and be here with you. So it’s an interesting experience sitting there for my mom and then having a partner be there for me in a different way.

Japanese Breakfast performing live at The Echo in Los Angeles, CA. 9/20/2017. (Photo: Ken Ben Raymundo | @welcometotheigloo)

Anything we can look forward to from you in the next year?

I have a couple more music videos coming out that I really loved working on and am excited to share. I’m actually going to be staying in Korea for awhile after [my Asia tour] to start writing so I’m really excited to eat great Korean food and have some time off tour to focus more on learning Korean and writing and spending time with family.

You can purchase “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” on Zauner’s Bandcamp. Keep up with Japanese Breakfast and all their tour dates on Facebook at facebook.com/japanesebreakfast.


This article was featured on kore.am.

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