At her last Portland show, Japanese Breakfast frontwoman Michelle Zauner actualized a teenage dream. From the stage of the Crystal Ballroom, Zauner—who was opening for Parquet Courts at Sabertooth Micro Fest—paused between songs to share memories of being 16 years old and traveling from her hometown of Eugene to attend concerts in Portland.
"I saw two important shows in my teenage years,” she tells me over the phone. “I saw Built to Spill play the Crystal Ballroom, and this band called Denali opened, which was the first show I'd ever gone to where a woman was fronting a band. After that I saw Death Cab for Cutie on the Transatlanticism tour and they were co-headlining, weirdly, with Ben Kweller, who I also really loved at the time."
Zauner has been playing music for more than a decade, most recently with Philadelphia indie rock band Little Big League, but her first release under the Japanese Breakfast moniker was her 2016 breakthrough single “Everybody Wants to Love You”—an explosively catchy technicolor pop song she’d written years earlier in a trailer in Oakland, Oregon, with members of the Portland band And And And. Zauner co-directed the music video, in which she wears her mother’s wedding dress (a traditional Korean hanbok) while shotgunning beers, playing pool, smoking on the back of a motorcycle, and shredding the electric guitar atop the hood of a big rig.
“Everybody Wants to Love You” is a blinding burst of euphoria in the middle of Japanese Breakfast’s debut LP, Psychopomp, which Zauner wrote in the months after her mother’s death from cancer. With airtight melodies and lyrics that contemplate hospital rooms, hereditary diseases, and heaven, the record seems to absorb the impact of this gigantic loss while periodically spiraling into Zauner's own existential dread. Psychopomps are creatures whose responsibility is to escort souls to the afterlife, but the album takes its name from the dream theories of Carl Jung, who used the term psychopomp to describe something that mediates between the conscious and unconscious. Throughout her debut, Zauner herself seems to swing between the conscious and unconscious, sounding alternately dazed and completely gutted, her ambling trains of thought interrupted by paralytic lightning bolts of grief.
Inspired by science fiction and topics like virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and her friend’s rejection from the Mars One project, the experimental compositions on Japanese Breakfast’s sophomore album, 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet, sound like they’re expanding endlessly into the cosmos, transcending terrestrial limitations (especially thanks to orchestral elements on songs like “Boyish”). The record’s standout, the shimmering electro-pop track “Machinist”—which includes Auto-Tuned vocals and ends with an unexpected saxophone solo—tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a machine. Though it’s largely fiction, Zauner says the narrative relates to her own struggle to connect with people again following her mother’s death.
“I think that's honestly a lot of what Soft Sounds from Another Planet is about,” she explains. “It's about relearning how to feel, because to cope with trauma and grief, I shut off an emotional part of me. That's something that's always been a special part of my identity—that I am a very feeling person and I’m very sensitive. It wasn't something I wanted to lose. But, similar to what antidepressants do, your brain knows to block off the bad with the good. And I was trying to learn, like, now that a year has passed, how do I reconnect to the good parts of having emotions while keeping the bad ones at bay or under control?”
Zauner’s writing isn’t limited to songs—she studied creative writing in college and won a Glamour magazine essay contest in 2016 for her piece “Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi,” which describes how she learned to cook the meals she was raised on while grieving. Zauner continued to explore the relationship between Korean food and memories of her mom with the personal essay “Crying in H Mart,” which was recently published in the New Yorker.
“Writing the record and tackling those topics was also difficult, but there was so much else to focus on that doesn't involve colliding headfirst with the content,” she explains. “The core of a song can tackle those things, but there's a whole other part of arranging and producing it, and it covers up or uplifts moments that can be really sad. Writing nonfiction was challenging in a very different way.”
The poet Fanny Howe once said “the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.” What’s consistent throughout Psychopomp, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, and Zauner’s nonfiction writing is her contagious resilience and profound ability to illustrate how, even though life can absolutely destroy you and is ultimately meaningless, it’s still worth living. Her work finds staggeringly creative ways to communicate this message, whether she’s writing about familiar smells conjuring old memories or unleashing powerful guitar solos on songs like “12 Steps.”
When asked what’s on the horizon for Japanese Breakfast, Zauner has some new dreams: "I have this fantasy that the next record is going to be an industrial record," she says. "I want to push myself to do something really epic and weird."