Michelle Zauner has been on a ROLL.
Her memoir “Crying in H Mart” dropped on April 20.
The album she released under her musical moniker Japanese Breakfast, called Jubilee, landed on June 4, and the video game soundtrack she scored for ‘Sable’ hits on Sept 23.
I’m here to talk about the album, but really, you can’t mention one without the others. This triad of creative projects, all growing concurrently over the last few years, have intertwined, impacting each other in myriad ways.
Take, for instance, the string arrangements on the dreamy album track “Kokomo, IN.” Composed with co-producer Craig Hendricks, the epic swoon elevates the chorus to state of warm, almost ecstatic reminiscence.
Zauner found herself at ease composing these lines, because she’d been exploring sample libraries and notation software to a granular degree, part of her gig making music for the open world video game ‘Sable.’
“It’s been a really new and exciting thing for me to try to compose a soundtrack,” she told me in an interview. “And because I had so much time on my hands this year, I could really, really go into it and ended up composing almost two hours of original music for it.”
Zauner’s third full-length as Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee, is an album about joy, and it definitely manages to churn up that emotion, particularly during the lead single “Be Sweet.” This 2018 co-write with Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing, was originally intended to pitch to other artists, but Zauner found it too compelling to give away. Her crystalline vocal cuts perfectly though the synth-pop production, delivering the kind of yearning that would be at home in a John Hughes film.
Japanese Breakfast’s previous albums, Psychopomp and Soft Sounds From Another Planet, delved deep into grief, particularly as it related to the passing of Zauners mother. Making those albums and writing “Crying in H Mart” provided Zauner the space to process heavy feelings.
“After writing the book, I was able to spend so much time unpacking everything that was confusing to me,” she said. “Also just the nature of time. It’s been six years since my mom passed away and I felt really ready to, like, allow myself to feel this joy, and embrace feeling in this way. A lot of really great stuff has happened in the past six years. I’ve had this really wonderful career as a as an artist that I’ve always wanted, and I feel really ready to make space for joy in this way. I feel like it’s a good album for the times. It’s hopefully a year of release for us all, and taking care of our personal joy has been very essential during these times.”
In “Savage Good Boy,” a cutting exploration of the mind of a tech wunderkind, Zauner demonstrates her considerable wit. The track closes with appropriate excess, a wall of harmonized, 80’s-style overdriven guitars, fist pumping the point home.
Zauner is not one to deny that Joy can be fleeting, and that while the darker sides of life exist, its presence can be a catalyst for moving towards freedom.
During “Posing in Bondage,” a moody meditation on monogamy, Zauner contemplates a time “when the world divides into two people, those who have felt pain, and those who have yet to.” At moments like that, she acknowledges that we will all face the dark, but it may just lead us to joy.
On The Record: A Q&A With Japanese Breakfast
Adam Culver: In addition to Jubilee and your book “Crying in H Mart,” I saw that you’re also working on the soundtrack for a video game called “Sable.” Can you tell us about that?
Michelle Zauner: Yeah, that’s been super fun. This company called Shedworks, that’s largely run by two guys in London, they reached out to me maybe three years ago and asked if I would be interested in doing the soundtrack for their games. I grew up playing a lot of video games as a kid, so I was delighted to find this gorgeous art, this coming-of-age story about a girl named Sable who’s exploring this desert planet and visiting different villages and learning about different clans and deciding what she wants to wind up being. The art style is very much in line with Moebius and Studio Ghibli. It’s been a really new and exciting thing for me to try to compose a soundtrack. And because I had so much time on my hands this year, I could really, really go into it and ended up composing almost two hours of original music for it.
AC: We’ve been spinning “Be Sweet” a ton on the station. It’s such an effortless and perfect-feeling pop song. How much of your music-making is getting out of the way of the song, because this thing just feels like it arrived intact? Are songs like that really the result of painstaking work?
MZ: “Be Sweet” came together pretty quickly. It was like one of those charming, effortless little babies. I wrote the song in 2018 in Los Angeles with Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing. It was the first song that I did as a co-write. It helps that Jack Tatum is just a sonic wizard. He has such a tremendous knowledge and understanding of tone. I remember he had this synth line and things just really came into place. I showed him this Korean pop group called the Bunny Girls. I was like, “I really want this bassline to be really plucky and just bouncing and have this ’80s kind of feel.” And he came out with the funkiest bass line I’ve ever heard, maybe. It just ended up being so fun. We were actually writing it for someone else. We had no one in mind. We were like, “Let’s write a pop song to sell to someone.” And I ended up falling in love with it so much that I kept it as a sort of back pocket single for a really long time.
AC: Are you somebody that sees what your music video will look like or what your stage show will look like in advance?
MZ: Not immediately. I’m not one of those artists that’s going to proclaim an experience of synesthesia. But I do love bringing a visual element to our projects and I’ve always really admired artists that really bring that into their canon. I knew very early on that I wanted Japanese Breakfast to have a huge visual world to accompany it. That’s very important to me, for sure.
AC: When you’re imagining the world of the new record Jubilee, is there anything out of bounds? It sounds to me like you really did a lot of things sonically.
MZ: Yeah, we actually maxed out our Pro Tools session with the first track, which I didn’t even know was possible. I think I’ve just gotten bolder and bolder with each record, not to toot my own horn, but it’s really paid off for me to not think so much about the live show until it’s time to, and just use every tool in the box to bring a song to life, and then figure out how to make it have a new life in the live arena later on. So that was definitely something that we we explored to the fullest extent on this record in particular. The arrangements are even larger than they were before. We we worked a lot with strings and horns for the first time. And yeah, I’m really, really proud of we came up with.
AC: The strings and horns are incredible. I saw that you did the arrangements on those. Was this the first record where you’re handling things like that?
MZ: Yeah, I did the arrangements with my co-producer, Craig Hendricks. We wrote those together, I think, also because I had been working on ‘Sable’ and producing it and working with a lot of string and brass plugins. I became a lot more confident. Having someone like Craig, who is an incredible musician and collaborator, sort of give me the courage to take that on. That was also helpful. We’ve also toured a lot before the pandemic, toured a lot for the past three years. The luxury of that is you get to meet a lot of really phenomenal musicians, like Molly Germer, who played violin on the record, and Adam Schatz of the band Landlady who played saxophone. I think having those people in our Rolodex also was helpful to imagine a larger sonic world.
AC: When the sax comes in on “Slide Tackle,” that moment is really transcendent. Did you get to have a moment where you’re seeing that take go down?
MZ: I will say that Adam Schatz is one of the most fantastic saxophone players I’ve had the privilege to work with. It started as a keyboard line, and then Craig was like, “I think it should be on saxophone.” Then we went to Midi sax, which sounds pretty awful. I have a video that I’ve shared on Instagram before. It was really fun to watch him play that solo. He’s going to be joining us for a lot of live dates, and I can’t wait to watch him rip that sax solo every night.
AC: Do you feel like making like Psychopomp and Soft Sounds, processing the events of your life through those, enabled you to make Jubilee?
MZ: After writing the book, I was able to spend so much time unpacking everything that was confusing to me. Also just the nature of time; it’s been six years since my mom passed away, and I felt really ready to allow myself to feel this joy, and embrace feeling in this way. Also a lot of really great stuff has happened in the past six years. I’ve had this really wonderful career as an artist that I’ve always wanted. And I feel really ready to make space for joy in this way, and I feel like it’s a it’s a good album for the times. It’s hopefully a year of release for us all, and taking care of our personal joy has been very essential during these times.
AC: I wanted to ask you about the book, “Crying In H Mart.” You talk about how your mom’s nagging, which was pretty regular, was really an expression of love. What was your interaction like with her about your music?
MZ: She was not a fan. It’s unfortunate because my mom, like many a parent, was concerned that this was going to be a phase that I grew out of and it was something to protect me from. It’s a real lottery ticket, if you can make it as a musician, especially these days. And so I think that she just wanted to protect me from the harsh financial reality she felt like I was in for. Also a lot of like the mental strain that it takes to go through all the rejection and whatnot. One of the lines in the book is my mom told me, “I just never met someone like you.” It was a really strange thing to hear from your mother, but I think it was her way of saying, “I get it now and I didn’t get it before, and I’m going to give you the space that you need to pursue what you want.” And unfortunately, she never got to see me become a successful musician. My first record that really sort of got the attention of the public was this record that I wrote about her passing. And I feel like I was able to write from this really raw, honest place. In some way, even though I’m not a very spiritual, religious person, I feel like she was looking out for me in this way and that she knows somehow that I have had the success in the wake of her loss.
AC: Is writing a book at all similar to writing a record?
MZ: I think they’re related in the way that so much of being an artist is just being a really incredibly sensitive person. The same sort of stuff that you search for meaning in is the same kind of thing that you search for in prose. I feel like my job as a musician and as a writer is to look at a really ordinary moment or relationship or experience and find depth and meaning and sort of extrapolate that. So in that way, I think that they are pretty similar.
AC: On “Savage Good Boy,” that guitar harmony section, I hear it like Queen, but also some ’80s rock, like “Top Gun” soundtrack sort of stuff. What were you feeling as you did that?
MZ: I don’t know. I’ve certainly never written guitarmonies before that part. I love the idea of having this sort of butt rock type of outro. I don’t know what possessed me to do that, but it felt it felt right.
AC: The album closer “Posing for Cars” is striking and it ends with a wild guitar solo moment. Do you do anything in particular to put yourself in a space to take that kind of lead?
MZ: I was really inspired by the Wilco song “At Least That’s What You Said.” I feel like Wilco writes some of the greatest guitar solos. I think what makes a great guitar solo is that it feels like a narrative, and it has this sort of escalation and it has a climax and it has a sort of denouement. And so that was what I was after. I feel like the song “At Least That’s What You Said” is really rooted in a scene of two people with a lot left unsaid. Jeff Tweedy rips this solo that feels like he’s saying everything that can’t be said. And so I really wanted to do that same kind of thing on the song. “Posing for Cars” is a song about how two people can love each other in very different ways, how one person has a need to express it all the time and one person is maybe a little bit more reserved or emotionally withholding. And I wanted to sort of say all the things that couldn’t be said in that moment in the same way.