A little while ago, Michelle Zauner had just finished playing a show with her project Japanese Breakfast, when she was approached about cutting a single for W Records, our recently launched music series. She was excited by the prospect of going to Seattle to record a few songs at one of our Sound Suites. But it wasn’t to be. Yet.
“They didn’t pick me,” she remembers. “It went to my friend Perfume Genius, so I couldn’t be too upset, because I love his work and I think he’s amazing.”
But it turns out she did get picked, just not quite when she was expecting. She recently traveled to the W Bali – Seminyak to record two new songs for W Records, the brand new jam “Essentially” and a sparse cover of Tears For Fears’ classic “Head Over Heels.” (“It’s a bop,” she says. “It’s such an upbeat song, we wanted to see what it looks like, stripped down like that.”)
A few weeks later, back in her Philadelphia apartment, which is strewn with framed records for both Japanese Breakfast and her previous group Little Big Leagues as well as stacks of vinyl and a sprawling bookcase, she still seems a little mystified when recalling the four days she spent in Bali, mostly working but also enjoying herself at the Woobar.
“I remember getting off of the plane and being taken to the hotel and just walking the grounds, and being like, ‘I wish I could bottle this feeling, that my art has brought me here, and what an honor to be able to go to such a nice place and to make music,’” she says. “It’s one of those things that it feels like only pop stars should do: have a retreat in Bali to write and have inspiration, so it was pretty nice.”
Zauner won critical raves and a devoted fanbase for her 2016 debut Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet, which combined ragged guitar hooks, swooning synths and sharply observant lyrics, and became a mainstay on hip indie playlists everywhere. She was originally planning on using her time in Bali to record a song she’d already demoed for next album. But once she arrived, inspiration struck.
“I wanted to make a really upbeat, chill dancey song,” she says. She had recently bought a drum machine called the Native Instruments Maschine, and was experimenting with it in her hotel room while waiting for her Soft Sounds from Another Planet co-producer Craig Hendrix, who arrived on a later flight. “I came up with a drum loop, and when he came in, I said, ‘maybe let’s do a new thing,’’” she says. Working quickly and following her gut has always worked out well for her. “I think that, especially with pop music, sometimes your intuition can be spot-on. I’m someone that can write pretty quickly, and I think that people can get too precious about songs and actually make them worse.”
She’s been making music long enough to know what works for her. Zauner was born in Korea, and grew up in Eugene, Oregon, listening to Pacific Northwest indie rockers such as Modest Mouse and Elliott Smith. She studied creative writing and film at Bryn Mawr College, while filling her extra-curricular time gigging with her band.
“I played in that college band until I knew I wanted to continue pursuing music, even if we were doing something else for our day jobs,” she says. “It seemed like all the odds were against me, but it was something I couldn’t let go of, and I kept working on because it was my whole identity. My friends were all musicians. It was always part of my life.”
She moved to Philadelphia in 2007 and fronted the spunky indie group Little Big League for two albums, but then had to move back to Eugene to take care of her sick mother, writing songs on her own to cope. “I was stuck in Eugene, and this is the way that I expressed myself.”
Thinking she might be done, she then moved to New York to work “as a sales assistant at an advertising company. It was the worst.” The songs she recorded in her time of grief became Psychopomp and earned her a deal with the prestigious indie label Dead Oceans. “When that record started doing well, it was enough to make me feel like maybe it’s not the time for me to hang my hat up, and I should give this another go, so it was good timing.”
She’s kept busy ever since. After directing a few of her own music videos, she recently filmed a Twin Peaks and Eyes Wide Shut-inspired video for Better Oblivion Community Center, the new project by her teenage favorite Conor Oberst and colleague Phoebe Bridgers. In case they’re reading, she’d love to make a video for Carly Rae Jepsen and Rihanna, but until then she’s got a third album to think but not over-think about.
“Every time I have this grand idea of what direction it’s going to take, it completely stifles me. So I’m trying not to think too much. I mean I have ideas,” she says. “In theory, I would like the third record to be a really big, bombastic album, because I feel like that’s what a third album is for a lot of people, when you think of the melodrama and everything firing on all cylinders. So I think that when I get into the studio, I have to just follow my instincts and see what is natural.”
But before that, she needs to finish her memoir. After an essay she wrote for The New Yorker titled “Crying in H Mart” about mourning her mother and connecting with her memory through Korean cuisine went viral, she got a book deal from Knopf. She is currently 500 words away from “being at 70,000 words” in her book, also titled Crying in H Mart.
She’s about to tour Asia, and afterward will stay in Korea “for two weeks to really try to hammer it out,” she says. “I think that part of it was Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet were both records that were really focused on grief. I think that maybe just subconsciously there was part of me that knew that it was this next record, I wanted to approach a different topic; it was time to move on. I think that to have a book that focuses on race and all the other stuff that didn’t get to be put to song, it felt like a way to end that chapter and move on to another topic.”
When she was first starting to make music, she didn’t see many Asian people making rock music besides her hero Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. So one of her goals with Japanese Breakfast is to inspire young Asian-Americans to feel like they can make music, so they can feel more welcome in the scene than she did.
“It’s important to me to try to encourage other people, especially young girls. A lot of Asian-American kids will come to me and say it’s so nice to see someone on the stage; I just got a really nice letter from a student at Cornell. I did a talk there and she wrote me this really sweet letter about how seeing us play and feeling like, she could do that,” she says. “Representation is such a powerful thing, and it feels really important and really lucky to be in this position and know that everyone is capable of doing it.”