by Julia Leiby
After the life-altering, tragic loss of her mother, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast wrote a beautiful record. I interviewed her on the phone recently and she was talkative and effervescent. In the wake of her mother’s death, she said, “I didn’t go to much therapy. Writing music was my therapy. I have a busy mind and a busy body, and to pour it into creative work is soothing.” On April 1, Zauner will release that record, Psychopomp, her first full length LP of songs as Japanese Breakfast, an indie pop project based in Brooklyn.
Zauner was born in Seoul, Korea, and moved to the US as a child. She grew up in Eugene, Oregon and went to college at Bryn Mawr, where she fronted the Philadelphia emo band Little Big League. Her first guitar was a $100 Yamaha acoustic, and she started playing at age 15. As a young woman, she loved bands like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Built to Spill, Joanna Newsom, and Bjork, and cites Phil Elverum (of the Microphones and Mount Eerie) as a major influence. For Zauner, these groups hold special significance because they “are simple yet deep and profound, and don’t need to overcomplicate things to make them beautiful. It’s important to be exposed to artists who aren’t afraid of scaling back.” One can see the comparison between Elverum’s sweet and simple, yet dark melodies and Zauner’s bright and often moody songs. She told me, “I’m inspired by female vocalists with left-of-center, nontraditional not-‘diva’ voices. I used to be really self-conscious about my voice and listening to them made me more comfortable with it.” When asked about the differences between Little Big League and Japanese Breakfast, she said, “Little Big League was four people with a vision, and we structurally formed the songs together. It was a democracy. Now, though Japanese Breakfast has some help from friends, there are no negotiating things and I am the dictator.”
Zauner’s mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and Zauner disbanded Little Big League and moved back to her hometown of Eugene for about a year. Her aunt had passed from cancer two years before, and after two rounds of chemo, her mother also succumbed. Zauner, an only child, married her husband a week before her mother’s passing and stayed in Eugene to support her father as he dealt with the death of his partner of 32 years. Most songs on the record directly or indirectly reference these events. Though the melodies are buoyant and poppy, the lyrics are dark. Explaining this juxtaposition, Zauner relays that the record spanned six years of writing, and some riffs were developed “during a happier time,” and others she revisited “when I was going through a hard time.” Songs like the opening track ‘Heaven’ are euphoric, gorgeous, and healing pop gems, as Zauner works through the absence of the most significant person in her life. She sings, “I’m trying to believe / when I sleep it’s really you/ visiting my dreams / like they say that angels do.”
Later in the record, the instrumentation changes as tunes like ‘Heft’ are driven by guitar while others feature electronic flourishes and shimmering strings. 'Heft' was written right before her mother was diagnosed, and after her mother had called her up and told her they needed to talk. In the song, she repeats the phrase, “the same dark coming.” In a song called ‘Dark Matter’ she wrote with Little Big League, Zauner also references the ‘dark’, which she explained represents her fear that the cancer that took her aunt’s life would take her mother’s as well. Earlier on the album, “Everybody Wants To Love You” is a confident and goofy ode to feeling sexually empowered. Zauner sings, “Can I get your number / can I get you into bed / when we wake up in the morning / will you give me lots of head?” Zauner says she wrote it when she was “feeling cocky, really on top of the world. It’s a boastful over exaggeration of the feeling.”
Zauner’s songs are intricate, vulnerable and confessional, and the overall tone of the record is light and hopeful despite its heavy subject matter. Psychopomp as a whole is bewitching and as Zauner mends from her loss, the listener feels as emotionally restored as she does. Zauner recently spent time in Texas for SXSW and played showcases for Secretly Group, Bayonet Records, Stereogum, Portals, and She Shreds, and in the future she is planning a possible tour in June.