Music that speaks to human experience and tragedy is something most can relate to, and Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast has plenty to say. Her music speaks to loss and love and much more in between. In light of her future stop to Madison on Oct. 3, The Badger Herald spoke with her about her musical journey.
Perhaps you recognize her name from an older project, a Philadelphia band called Little Big League. Their music was coined as “emo,” but since then Zauner has drifted away from that, channeling more of a lo-fi, indie rock sound.
The ending of Little Big League came stemmed from personal matters that Zauner had to address. Her mother fell ill and she went back home to Oregon to be with her, a time span that covered about a year, she said. Her mother has since passed away, and dealing with her mother’s death became something she expressed through music.
“While I was out in Oregon and had nothing to do but be sad, I started pouring a lot of those feelings into an art project that eventually became an album,” Zauner said.
2016’s Psychopomp is the album in question, in it Zauner has poured out raw, heartfelt lyrics about her personal experiences. For her, that album was meant to be the end of Japanese Breakfast. She said she had been touring for three years prior and needed some sort of routine in her life after her mother’s death. She ended up getting a job unrelated to music for that purpose. But once the album was released she changed her mind — it was gaining a lot of traction. She got signed to a label and tour after tour kept happening. That’s when she realized that she could turn Japanese Breakfast into a real career.
Next came her most recent album, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, released summer 2017. With this album, Zauner said there was a lot more focus and intention. Psychopomp took around six months to record and had contributions from a lot of other people. Soft Sounds from Another Planet was instead recorded over a one month period with just one other person, Craig Hendrix.
For this album her thought was, “We’re gonna make something focused and special.”
And special it is. Touring for this album has been great, she said, and they are heading out of the country to Europe, where they’ve been before, and also to Australia and Asia, where they are going for the first time.
In the end, Japanese Breakfast was somewhat born out of dealing with her mother’s death, but it can’t be restricted to only that either. This solo project was a way for her to step into herself, to have a defined role that she could control. She said that wasn’t necessarily there for her with Little Big League.
“I never understood what my role was until this project. My strengths are in directing projects,” she said. “[It’s] finding people that I trust and are inspired by and having this opportunity to work with them or bring them together with other people.”
She also had more to say after Little Big League came to an end, especially dealing with such a familiar, and at the same time, unfamiliar human experience.
“I think I’ll always have a lot to say. That’s why I do what I do, because I feel like I have a lot to express at all times,” Zauner said.
Making music isn’t the only thing that Zauner does, either. She’s picked up a side project of directing music videos, both for herself and for other artists. She said she’s currently working on her eighth video that will be released in a couple weeks. There’s also a video for the album in the works. For her, breaking into a new medium has been a learning experience, she said.
Madison will soon get to connect with Japanese Breakfast and their music — to hear the human truth, all with a dreamy, indie twist. Look out for the song “Road Head.” Zauner said it’s her favorite to perform live — it’s got an “amazing baseline.”