A world where you have delicious Korean breakfasts…
Eye opening experiences with electronic sounds…
Dreams of collaborating with Grimes…
Sci-Fi themed tunes…
Interests include writing food memoirs…
Directing beautiful music videos…
Writing about the great beyond…
Creating dreamy pop sounds…
& much more…
The sounds of Japanese Breakfast truly takes me to another world. The dreamy pop that Michelle Zauner created by incorporating electric sounds, catchy guitar riffs and beautiful lyrics, truly opens up anoter world in your mind — painting vibrant pictures reflecting different feelings that many people can relate to. Zauner’s latest album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, explores the great beyond lyrically and musically. This album has a strong electronic influence while focusing and reflecting on the person she’s become after surviving through the pain of her mother’s death. She also explains this album “about longing to be somewhere else. A lot of the songs reflect that train of thought about being resilient and strong.”
Before Japanese Breakfast’s gig at Blue Shell back in October, I got to chat to the queen herself: Michelle Zauner! Constantly bursting with ideas, Zauner successfully kept that same Japanese Breakfast sound while simultaneously expanding her horizons by exploring more electronic influences. Interested in finding out if this was a conscious decision on Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Zauner explained to me how she got more into electronic sounds after Psychopomp.
Zauner: I think that Psychopomp was an accidental record. I was stuck in Eugene, so it is definitely a bedroom record — not intentionally, but just out of my means. So I recorded it in a bedroom in Eugene, and my good friend Nick Hawley-Gamer played the guitar, my husband Peter played bass, and Colin Redmond engineered it and played drums. It was just the people that I knew, which were like three people in the city at the time, who played music. So I would bring these three in to arrange songs that I just had started working on after my mom passed away. It was a personal project for myself to work on while I was stuck in Eugene. After we finished the record, I traveled for a bit and then moved to New York.
After sitting on the record, I didn’t really like the mixes and I felt like it wasn’t finished. So I brought it to Ned Eisenberg, who was just supposed to mix the album, but opened up the songs again and started adding a whole lot of synths, changing the tempos and adding samples. That was a really eye opening experience— when you step outside of your role of just like “I only play guitar and sing,” but instead start to do other things on top of that. Integrating myself more into the arrangement was a really eye opening experience to me, and using samples in a way that Ned does, and it was super weird to just like elevate transitions and stuff like that. So that was a really eye opening experience.
So when the record did quite well, I signed to Dead Oceans and was able to get a recording advance. I was able to just have more intentions with Soft Sounds, and I could actually afford to go to the studio. I could afford to only just work on music for a month, then go and record in a studio for a month. I knew that because I had such a fun time reworking the songs on Psychopomp, and adding keyboards and samples, I wanted to incorporate more electronic drums, samples and keyboards. So I felt like I had more confidence as a producer and that my intuition was sort of right. So that is kind of how that happened.
Sav: You were talking about the transitions in the album, and I really like them a lot in Soft Sounds! The last track, ‘Here Come the Tubular Bells,’ were those recorded live?
Zauner: Yeah! They are real tubular bells. We went to The University of Arts in Philadelphia, and one of the colleges had a set of tubular bells. We were originally going to call the album ‘Here Come the Tubular Bells.’ I don’t know how exactly how it came up. I had written ‘Till Death’ and I was like ‘I want this kind of sound.’ And Craig was like, ‘Oh, you want tubular bells?’ And I was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s so nice. Here come the tubular bells!’ And so we thought it would be really nice to get real tubular bells. Then we kind of wanted to have something reminiscent at the end. An instrumental with tubular bells to kind of showcase it— it’s kind of the ‘Road Head’ riff played on tubular bells.
Zauner’s lyrics are some of my favorite parts of the songs she creates. I closely connect with them because I feel like this is the style of writing that I want to accomplish in my music someday. When we were chatting, she told me that her songs “start with lyrics, but not fully written out.” They usually start as a couplet or idea, then she would come up with a melody, and with all of that develop something together. A creative project that Zauner did to challenge herself back in 2013 was making a song a day for an entire month— she called it June.
Zauner: I don’t know, it was a long time ago — I think 2013/2014 or something — and I was just feeling creatively in a rut and I think I was just putting too much expectation on myself. I would get in these weird thought loops, “No more songs written in the key of G” or “No more songs written in drop D.” It kind of really inhibited me from creative output. So I just decided I would write and record a song a day for the month of June to just come up with a lot of raw source material and exercise creative forgiveness. So sometimes they were really bad, but in retrospect, I like most of the songs. It really fueled a lot of good ideas to just completely follow your intuition and not look back. And then I think you can go back and edit that raw material and turn it into something actually good.
Sav: I’m always trying to do this too with my writing!
Zauner: Yeah, it’s really really helpful!
Sav: Sometimes I’m in the shower saying things out loud and then I’m like “Oh fuck, I need to run out and write that down really fast.”
Zauner: Haha oh my god yes! I really want to have like an Alexa just for those ideas in the shower. It’s like “Can you please write this down?”
Sav: Haha yes. I want like a waterproof white board or something. I was reciting something the other day in the shower and I was like, “Oh my god, this is really good.” Then I ran out of the shower, and already lost my thoughts.
Zauner: How many ideas were forgotten in the shower!? That’s a nice thought actually. I shower everyday— I feel like really rejuvenated after I take a shower, so I do feel like I spend a lot of time in the shower thinking and meditating.
When listening to Soft Sounds From Another Planet, you can definitely hear the out-of-this-world vibe that Zauner has mentioned in other interviews. While she was planning this album, she originally wanted it to be a sci-fi concept album basing it around falling in love with a robot and joining the Mars One project. Intrigued by this idea, I wondered if any sci-fi composers influenced this album.
Zauner: I’m not super familiar with sci-fi composers (I don’t think). I’m really into sci-fi movies and those kind of worlds. So I think that it was more like a lyrical choice to incorporate. Though, the only thing I can think of is in the instrumental, Planetary Ambience, I think that the robot bleeps that I created reminded me of the sounds that Wall-E makes. So that was probably the only sonic inspiration that I could think of specifically that is sci-fi.
Sav: Are there any artists or bands you would want to work with in terms of music?
Zauner: It’s hard to say! We are friends with (Sandy) Alex G, and I’m a really big fan of his work. I could only list people who are a little bit more realistically in my realm. I wouldn’t feel intimidated by Alex, and I feel like I really admire him and I would really enjoy working with him. But then I have plenty of artists that I would just love to watch work, and would be too terrified because I feel like I would have nothing to offer. I would also love to do something with Melina from Jay Som, at some point in time. I would love to work with different producers, people who are able to take on more of that kind of role. I LOVE Grimes, I would love to work with Grimes.
Sav: YES! She is one of my heroes.
Zauner: She just added me on Twitter and I was freaking out.
Sav: I would probably just throw my phone and not think it is real if that happened to me hahaha
Zauner: Yeah I was like, “I’m such a huge fan!” and she was like, “Oh thanks! I’m a fan too. I really like your videos!” And I was like ohhhh my god! I would love to work with her.
Not only is Michelle Zauner the mastermind behind Japanese Breakfast’s music and production, but she also designs her own merch, cover art AND directs her own music videos. Her latest music video, The Body Is A Blade, was very much inspired by Agnès Varda movies that she watched during university. Zauner went on to say,: “So that was kind of the inspiration behind the 35mm photograph cutting— kind of a bit animating of those sort of photographs. She does that a lot in her movie called ‘Salut les Cubains‘.”
Zauner: And for the other videos, Wong Kar-wai is a huge inspiration for me and Adam Kolodny (does all of the cinematography in the videos). We are both huge fans of Wong Kar-wai, so a lot of the color palate is really inspired by his very very intense vibrant use of color.
[Above: Taken from Wong Kar-wai's movie, Fallen Angels]
Sav: I really like your Jay Som video too! I used to live in San Francisco, so it was really nice to see all these spots that I’ve been to.
Zauner: Aww wow thank you so much! Yeah I’m really happy we ended up doing it there because we were originally going to fly her out since I am on the east coast. But they really wanted to do it in the Bay Area, so we did all of this research online for location scouting in Oakland and SF that would be really nice to shoot at. So I’m really glad that it worked out, it was really fun. I love her so much.
Fun fact about Michelle Zauner, the queen herself: She won an essay-writing contest in the magazine, Glamour, about how learning to cook Korean food helped her grieve. Now she dreams of writing a book someday: a food memoir about all of the different Korean food she learns how to cook! I ask her if maybe it will be a food memoir she writes on tour?
Zauner: It’s just that I am so busy because I have been on tour all the time, so I haven’t had much time to work on it. I’ve also just been so busy making videos and doing things for this record. But my plan is to stay in Korea for a month and a half after we play shows in Asia, and start working on my book! I don’t know if I will buckle down and do it though.
I had such an intense relationship with food after my mom passed away. I think a lot of Asian American kids, especially half Asian American kids, connect so strongly to their roots with food since there is little else that they have access to. So after my mom died, cooking felt like such a really direct way of connecting with her. This reawakened memories of her that were happy for a long time. All I could remember was her with her illness, so it was really really hard for me. So yeah, it was kind of the key to unlocking a lot of happy memories that I had of her Korean cooking. So I really wanted to write a memoir about grief and cooking, and I think it would help a lot of people because for me, therapy just was not productive. Cooking was a much more productive way for me to grieve. I was Korean cooking and studying the language!
Sav: That is super awesome! My sister and I do the same thing actually. After our Lola (grandma in Tagalog) had passed, my sister cooked loads of Filipino food. We were always like, “We have to get that taste back that she always put in her adobo!”
Zauner: Haha yes! Chicken adobo!
Sav: All of her sisters couldn’t make it the same way that she could. So my sister was determined to get it right.
Zauner: There is something about that hands taste!
Sav: Last question! What do you eat for breakfast?
Zauner: I usually eat a Korean breakfast when I’m at home! Since I’m on the road so much, I have to eat a lot of food that I don’t normally eat. So I’m most excited to go home and make myself breakfast! I try to eat white rice, a poached egg that is very barely poached so it is super runny, with sesame oil and some kind of Korean soup and radish kimchi.
Sav: Yum that sounds so good! My au pair family mom is 2nd generation Korean! She was always cooking the most amazing Korean food. I never was properly introduced to it until I lived with them, and I helped her make those little dumplings… what are they called?
Zauner: Mondu! Aww that’s so cute, my mom and I used to make mondu together too!
Sav: Aww no way! Yeah it was so fun and so nice to do together. So yeah, now I really like Korean food haha.
Zauner: That’s really sweet!! I could really go for Korean food right now.
It was so fun to step into the Japanese Breakfast world for one evening. Talking to Michelle Zauner was my favorite interview yet, and it was just a pleasure talking about our half Asian American culture and laughing about random things together. Michelle is truly a joy to be around, and it was super inspiring seeing her music brought to life. Be sure to go and listen to her beautiful album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, and catch her live set the next time she is in a city near you! x