Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Michelle Zauner (Photos: Peter Ash Lee)

Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner: “So much of my joy comes from vengeance”

Michelle Zauner (Photos: Peter Ash Lee)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Michelle Zauner first introduced the world to Japanese Breakfast, her solo musical project, with 2016’s Psychopomp, an album that detailed her mother’s cancer diagnosis and death. Zauner further delved into her grief and fear of dying on sophomore album Soft Sounds From Another Planet; most recently, her memoir about her mother’s death, Crying In H-Mart, became a New York Times bestseller. But for her latest Japanese Breakfast record, Jubilee, Zauner wanted to try something different: pulling the narrative away from herself.

“It’s been six years since my mom passed away, and [grief] transforms in so many different ways; it’s not as much of a gaping wound as it is a smaller thorn. It’s something I’ll live with forever, but it isn’t something that will consume my life as entirely as it did for the past five years,” says Zauner over a Zoom conversation with The A.V. Club. “I think that also having written these two records that largely focused around that time period of grief and suffering, and then writing a full book about it, I just felt really ready to move on.

“I’m still capable of joy, and it was a really bittersweet past six years where I experienced a lot of joy after my mom passed away, because I also was being recognized as an artist for the first time. I also had just gotten married and had a very secure, wonderful love in my life. There are certain songs on the record that dive more into those types of feelings. And it’s just more interesting to write about teenage feelings of love and longing, rather than like, stability and marital success.”

The characters she introduces on Jubilee are far removed from Zauner herself. There’s the teenage boy eagerly waiting for his girlfriend while she’s abroad; the greedy billionaire who promises his partner all the world’s riches; the woman in bondage waiting for her lover to come home and ravage her, but he never does. It’s not the first time Zauner’s written from a fictional standpoint in her music. Her 2020 project, Bumper, featured “Ballad 0”—a song she subsequently cited on Twitter when not many people realized it was a murder ballad. And there’s “Machinist” off Soft Sounds, a song about a woman who falls in love with a robot. But Zauner notes that new track “Savage Good Boy” is reminiscent of a kind of storytelling she did in one of her previous bands—the energetic indie-rock outfit Little Big League.

“I think there’s a lot of parallels in that song with the Little Big League song ‘Lindsey’: They’re both these kind of villainous male characters that are coaxing women to love them, and I’ve just always been really interested in taking on villainy, and seeing it from that perspective,” she says. “I think what’s really interesting about it is that it starts with a seed that exists in all human beings. All human beings have maybe done something that is greedy—like, how did things get rationalized to that extent at such a high level, is what’s really interesting to me in writing that song. It’s easy to just say billionaires are pure evil, but they’re not. They have rationalized to themselves at a very high level a number of excuses for their poor behavior, so I wanted to put that on display in this sort of narrative.” The song drives this idea further by disguising itself as a love song. It’s cutesy and bright, with a catchy chorus that vows to give her a “billion dollar bunker for two.”

In turn, “Kokomo, IN” is a sweet, sincere love song, with a summery essence. “I was taking a lot of guitar lessons at the time, so I was writing [with] a lot of, like, major 7 chords and major 4ths, and I had this kind of Beatles-y classic song, or like a Beach Boys song, so I think that’s what took it that direction lyrically, of, ‘What’s this classic longing kind of feeling?’ And this young 18-year-old boy in Kokomo, Indiana came to me for that one,” she explains.

But just because this album introduces joy, that doesn’t mean that Zauner is done exploring grief and pain in her music. One of the most solemn songs in Jubilee is “Sit.” While many of the record’s tracks feel breezy and bright, “Sit” sounds dark and intense, a sensation that’s magnified as Zauner sings about being “caught in the idea of someone, caught in the idea of you, that’s gone too soon.” It’s the one song whose meaning Zauner doesn’t want to share, saying it’s “intentionally kind of vague,” because “it’s so personal and secret.” Then there’s “In Hell,” originally a bonus track for the Japanese deluxe edition of Soft Sounds, and a song that she refers to as “definitely the saddest song I’ve ever written.” And that isn’t exaggeration: Zauner sings about euthanizing her dog, drawing parallels between that experience and her mom’s slow death.

On Jubilee, Zauner allows songs about joy and sadness to coexist. In some ways, it hearkens back to “Everybody Wants To Love You,” a jubilant track about sexual desire that made it onto Psychopomp despite the overarching subject of the loss of her mother. But with Zauner entering a more optimistic era in her songwriting, she still deals with the inappropriate questions presented about her process of grief. “I think that there’s this new narrative now that makes me a little uncomfortable like, ‘So you’re over it, right? This is you getting over your mom’s death?’ I’m like, ‘I just met you!’ Like, what?” she says. “It makes me very uncomfortable because that narrative is not real. There’s never a full moment when a chapter is completely closed on this part of your life, and grief is something that I’m going to live with forever. I’m always going to think about my mom, and it’s always going to make me very sad that she’s not here, but I do have the mental space to take on something new, and I’m really excited about that, and excited to share it with other people.”

She sums up the crux of Jubilee, explaining, “They’re not 10 happy songs; it’s about joy in the sense that there are songs about fighting to obtain joy, preserving joy, wrestling with mental health in order to feel joy. There are all these different parts of joy that I think it’s about. Like anything, we all want to create this perfect narrative where I’m the poster face of grief or joy or whatever, and I think that’s just not human. We feel those things at varying levels at all points throughout the day.” The coexistence of newfound hope and success with the sadness of grief is something Zauner explores in opening track “Paprika,” and it’s a sensation that manifests in both her personal and professional lives.

Japanese Breakfast is now at a point where the project’s gaining plenty of recognition. Maybe the most symbolic example of that success involves Soft Sounds’ “Jimmy Fallon Big,” a song about her current Japanese Breakfast bandmate Deven Craige quitting Little Big League when his other band seemed big enough to be on the late night show. Instead, Zauner has now become Jimmy Fallon big herself, playing the NBC program in March. While introducing the band—which ended up playing “Jimmy Fallon Big” as well as “Be Sweet” on The Tonight Show—Fallon told the story behind the song. Zauner jokes that she wasn’t expecting Fallon to go on so long about the band and that she doesn’t think he explained it all “super well,” but remarks that it was a “very sweet” moment.

Zauner has been vocal about celebrating her victories. After recently seeing Japanese Breakfast’s latest awarded the “Best New Music” title on Pitchfork, she tweeted, “I have to say. I used to date a really toxic person who got BNM. The status inflated his ego and played a role in validating the shitty way he treated me, making me feel like I wasn’t good enough to make it as a musician.” She freely and publicly calls out the challenges she’s faced, and the many hurdles she’s overcome to get to her current position.

“I tweeted recently that so much of my joy comes from vengeance. All of my success has felt so much more in the face of whatever shitty person was in my way. It makes it all the more gratifying to me, so it’s something I often share with other people. The joy of any narrative is that full-circle moment,” she says. “Also because I feel like such a late bloomer in our industry, in some ways. I’m in my 30s, which in our industry is ancient. It took me a really long time to get to where I’m at, and I know I’m really lucky, and I’m very cognizant of that, like I’m very aware that people come and go in this genre and this industry.”

Zauner recalls losing hope at 25, finding plenty of roadblocks at the beginning of her career—but, thankfully, that didn’t deter her from trying to succeed. “‘Crying In H-Mart,’ the [New Yorker] essay that came before Crying In H-Mart, I tried to give that essay away for free to so many food publications, and applied to maybe like 50 literary contests without an entry fee, and no one wanted it, and I was rejected so much. And same with Psychopomp. I sent it to every small label. Even friends of mine! I sent it to [former LVL UP members and Zauner associates’ label] Double Double Whammy and they were like, ‘Sorry, we can’t put it out.’ I was rejected from like 20 different labels, and I think it’s just an important reminder that sometimes it’s not that what you’ve done is bad; it’s not the right time for it, or it’s not the right person that it’s gotten in the hands of.”

But now seems to be the time for Japanese Breakfast to thrive. With the massive success of her debut memoir—and the new fans who’ve discovered her music through it—Zauner is getting the recognition she deserves. If her past is anything to go by, it’ll only keep growing from here.