Walking backstage at the O2 Forum, Kentish Town, one gets the feeling of being led through a maze. Labyrinthine with its steep, creaking staircases and shadowy corridors, the venue exudes rock & roll claustrophobia. The place vibrates with distortion and amp fuzz, anticipation building through the echoey halls. A queue of enthusiasts has already formed outside the building, more than four hours before Japanese Breakfast are scheduled to go on.
Frontwoman Michelle Zauner enters, coming straight from soundcheck. Unfazed by the weird therapist set-up we’ve come up with in the small production office – a long couch (for her) and a small chair squeezed onto the short end (for NME) – she manoeuvres through the furniture to greet us. She gives a firm handshake with both hands, looking straight at you. Her eye contact is curious and focused – she wants to see you properly.
We have joined Japanese Breakfast on their tail leg of a gruelling, non-stop tour that has taken them across the planet over the last year. Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman, Zauner’s long-time idol and now friend, Karen O recalls seeing a photo of Zauner on Instagram around a year ago and recognising in her a “million-mile stare” – a look of hardened fatigue from spending a prolonged period on the road. Zauner laughs in agreement, still happy to be here.
“It’s been a long labour of love getting here”, she tells NME. “It was such a slog for us to grow to where we are now in the UK. No one here was very interested in us for a long time. It was six years of playing shows and constantly losing money. It finally feels like we’ve built something!”
Talking with Zauner today, she is obviously practised in backstage press and the choreography of touring – she converses with a ready openness, incredibly present in each moment, recognition quickly clicking in her eyes when she grasps the crux of a question.
It’s a dance – to be Michelle Zauner is to walk a tightrope while juggling, to be both conductor and prima donna of an opera. She speaks to NME already dressed in her stage outfit, an elaborate Simone Rocha number with splendid baroque sleeves and utility straps.
When we break to set up cameras, Zauner runs off to ask someone on her team to braid her hair, not letting one moment go to waste. Within minutes she is back on the couch, braid tied.
The braid in Zauner’s hair is important, a reference to the first line of the band’s latest album ‘Jubilee’: “Lucidity came slowly / I awoke from dreams of untying a great knot / It unravelled like a braid”. The act of untying, the feeling of release, the reach for lucidity, is the central project of the album, the driving force behind a personal and artistic era dedicated to liberation from guilt, grief and numbness.
2021’s ‘Jubilee’ follows its grief-stricken predecessors ‘Soft Sounds From Another Planet’ (2017) and ‘Psychopomp’ (2016), both of which – written in the wake of Zauner’s mother’s death – wrestle viscerally with the themes and sonic palettes of mind-bending loss.
Discordant yet psychedelic, shoegaze yet guttural, these albums put Zauner and Japanese Breakfast on the map as a razor sharp, powerfully evocative indie band. Not only that, but one that played in the rarified air of alt acts fronted by an Asian woman, in such exclusive company as peers Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mitski and Leslie Bear.
At the same time, Zauner herself became known for her literary writing and cultural work, sharing deeply personal essays and projects grappling with the loss of her mother and yearning for belonging as a Korean-American woman. Her 2021 memoir, Crying in H Mart, was a New York Times bestseller for more than 60 weeks. Zauner is now working on a film adaptation.
“There’s freedom and creative growth in not having anything to prove”
‘Jubilee’ emerged, in a different turn for the band, as a statement of hope. The record is an ode to joy, a beckoning to feeling, yet still grounded in the recognition that joy can still be painful. “I think people understand the complicated ‘joy’ that ‘Jubilee’ is about. I don’t have any crazy happy people at my shows”, Zauner says, chuckling.
“Very few of the songs are ‘zip-a-dee-doo-dah’. Even in the most joyful songs, there is torture happening”, she adds. “‘Paprika’ is such a thesis statement for that – the song is such joyful fanfare, but it’s about wrestling with the great heights of creative output and the lows and agonies of living as an artist.”
Indeed, despite the brilliantly golden persimmons dangling around Zauner on its cover, ‘Jubilee’ is anything but sugar-sweet. The acid-laced ‘Savage Good Boy’ chronicles love-bombing in the midst of capitalistic apocalypse (“When the city’s underwater / I will wine and dine you in the hollows / On a surplus of freeze dried food”), whilst Zauner croons on the synthy jaunt ‘In Hell’: “With my luck you’ll be dead within the year / I’ve come to expect it / There’s nothing to fear, at least there’s that”.
“When I finished it, I knew in my heart that it was the best thing I could make and I would be OK if people didn’t agree”, Zauner reflects. “The album represented such growth for me. My lyrics and arrangements are the strongest they’ve ever been and my voice is the best it’s ever sounded.”
With the release of ‘Jubilee’ in June 2021, the band seemed to explode into a new stratosphere of critical acclaim and worldwide success. Described by NME as a “personal and musical breakthrough”, ‘Jubilee’ netted the band a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album (and a Best New Artist nom), career-defining performances on hallowed stages like Coachella and SNL, and even comparisons to Machine Gun Kelly (dismissed graciously by both acts before “beef” status could set in). “I’m just delighted”, she says of the album’s reception. “The life it’s enjoyed has been really great.”
Despite today’s great heights, the sobering financial realities of touring are not lost on Zauner. “I live in constant fear of the moment where we plateau or decline and have to scale back”, she shares. “It’s so much easier to bring people on than to scale down. We don’t have our lighting designer for this run, and it feels so sad and different. Their absence is really felt.”
“It’s been a long labour of love getting to this point”
“Our band has had a very charmed experience so far”, she continues. “We’ve had the same core four musicians for over six years, and a lot of our engineers and managers have been the same. Having a family like that on the road – there’s a real, palpable joy in that.”
She lingers on the thought. “But maybe if that moment comes, I will be accepting of it”, she decides. “If things go back to the way they were before, that’s fine. We tasted more than we ever could have anticipated.”
Not that they’re not pulling out all the stops. “We have a really sweet special guest tonight”, Zauner tells NME, her eyes sparkling. “It’s Jürgen from The Great British Bake Off.” Their connection to the beloved German baker, who captured hearts in the 2021 season with his warm demeanour and love of bread, isn’t immediately obvious, but is beautiful once understood. Amidst the relentlessness and isolation of pandemic touring, Zauner and party developed a tradition of watching Bake Off together every Friday. “Jürgen was our favourite. We all rooted for him. It feels so full circle that he’s here, playing trombone with us, on our last leg. We made a home on the road through him.”
Typical of London in late October, the sun outside fades slowly and then all at once, submerging us in shadow. Until someone intervenes to feel around for a light switch, Zauner and NME are almost talking in darkness. Zauner doesn’t seem to mind, though, chatting responsively, making no comment. The big light comes on, bright and harsh, but even out of the shadows Zauner doesn’t waver in her honesty, speaking sincerely and with deadpan pragmatism.
We discuss the past year, in which alongside releasing the band’s most joyful album to date, Zauner simultaneously promoted Crying in H Mart which chronicles, amongst other things, her mother’s difficult battle with cancer. The book became a vessel for profound connection, making Zauner a resonant emotional touchpoint for subjects like family, heritage and grief. Zauner’s humility about this, and her craft, is disarming.
“I think that art is a selfish profession – it’s very narcissistic and self-absorbed. So, to know that your art is doing something for others beyond what it’s doing for you – helps to make me feel less like a monster”, she chuckles wryly. When challenged on this – Zauner has to know how much her work has touched and, often, healed people – she concedes only slightly. “I’m not a doctor, or a climate scientist, or someone who’s helping anyone in a real physical way. A lot of times, especially during the pandemic, I’ve felt very useless in this world. I’m just honoured and relieved to have helped anyone who is moving through grief or struggling with their identity. It makes me feel of use in this world.”
Looking back, there can seem to be an inevitability to the success of a celebrated artist, a wind at their back pushing them towards a rightful destiny. Zauner’s musical beginnings did not feel so predestined. Neither of her parents were big music fans, and she remembers her own musical awakening as less a natural predilection than a conscious decision to “get into music” one day in her pre-teens. “I requested all these ‘classic rock’ CDs for my birthday, like Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan.”
Zauner found a more instinctive calling at 15, in the Pacific Northwest indie rock scene. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, she found herself drawn to “angular, knotty guitar rock bands” like Built To Spill, Modest Mouse and Elliott Smith, and lo-fi, DIY bedroom bands coming out of Washington like the K Records bands and Phil Elverum’s The Microphones and Mount Eerie. “It felt accessible – I think that was what really motivated me to start playing my own music. These musicians didn’t sound like Whitney Houston or like they were recording in these very expensive studios, but there was something so charming and compelling about their sound.”
As a teenager, Zauner played open mics around Eugene under the name Little Girl, Big Spoon. She played in an all-female band in college, but mainly as a hobby – Zauner’s mother did not support her pursuing a music career. The band broke up by graduation, and Zauner moved to nearby Philadelphia where she started an emo band called Little Big League. “That was pretty unsuccessful”, she says wryly. “It was a lot of paying our dues, playing in basements, losing money and getting fired from jobs, living in squalor.”
Zauner moved home to Oregon when her mother fell sick; she passed away six months later. “It felt like a sign that it was time to move on”, Zauner recalls. “If things were still not happening for me at 25, I probably should accept that I needed to find a real job.” So Zauner began working as a sales assistant at an outdoor advertising company in New York.
“Jürgen was our favourite on [The Great British Bake Off]. It feels so full circle that he’s here and playing with us”
It was Zauner’s first 9-to-5 gig, one she hoped would be a welcome break from the tooth and nail wars she waged daily just to survive in music. “I’d always thought that I would be good at the 9-to-5”, she says seriously. “I have a lot of ambition and work ethic. I studied hard in school and actually quite enjoy working within a system, so thought I had what it took to climb the corporate ladder.”
Zauner walked into her year-end review expecting a raise, but ended up walking out, bewildered, with a severance cheque in hand. “They told me that, actually, I was doing terribly, and if I wanted to leave they would give me a huge severance. I think the CEOs felt bad for me – they were these hipster guys who may be related to me in some way or thought I was funny.”
“I shouldn’t have been surprised”, Zauner continues. “A job like that requires all of you, and I couldn’t give them that. I did the hours – I worked late and ate my lunch in front of the computer every day – but when I got home I felt so empty.” By night Zauner worked on her own projects, including re-mixing ‘Psychopomp’, a record she had written whilst helping her father pack up her late mother’s things. “I needed a project to anchor myself through the grief”, Zauner explains. “I thought I would maybe trick a label into pressing 500 copies of ‘Psychopomp’ and we would sell it over the next ten years or something”.
Japanese Breakfast released ‘Psychopomp’ as their first album; it did unexpectedly well. A Pitchfork write up in 2016 attracted immediate label interest, and the band were offered SXSW showcases and a touring slot with Mitski. Around the same time, a personal essay by Zauner was picked up by Glamour Magazine. “Suddenly I had this cheque from the magazine and two months’ severance from my job to fall back on, to allow me to take this one last chance”, Zauner reflects. “It felt very serendipitous.”
It’s a sequence of events that Zauner has been revisiting over the last couple of weeks, as she writes the screenplay for the film adaptation of Crying in H Mart. She is revising the screenplay on the road, finding time between work to work on more work. The first draft is done, and Zauner hopes the film will be ready within the next few years.
Zauner has always been like this – industrious, diligent, fingers in the paperwork. “There are artists I envy a little bit, who are just so good at their craft that they don’t need to be good at anything else”, she shares. “I feel kind of like a phoney sometimes, not being like that. I like figuring out different systems and ‘how to win’ in them. When I started playing my own music at 16, I fell in love with the nerdy ‘admin’ elements too, like booking shows, writing to bloggers, contacting promoters – the things artists aren’t really supposed to be interested in.”
Last year, Zauner found time to also lend vocals on The 1975’s ‘Part of the Band’, an opportunity magicked up by track co-producer Jack Antonoff, whom Zauner met while recording at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. The two had coffee on the studio roof and, over time, became good friends. “He’s a really nice guy. It’s one of those ‘This is why you move to New York’ things”, Zauner jokes.
“Having a family [of performers and technicians] on the road – there’s a real, palpable joy in that”
“I was actually feeling kind of insecure that no one had ever asked me to sing on a project”, Zauner suggests. “I guess I have kind of a weird voice, not an objectively ‘pretty’ one to layer on someone else’s. One day Jack texted me: ‘Do you like The 1975?’ – who are one of my favourite bands. ‘How soon can you be at Electric Lady?’ I was still in my pyjamas, probably hungover. I took a shower and got on the train.”
Zauner is looking forward to loosening the reins of creative control a little more in her own music. “I used to feel like I needed to produce everything myself, that I needed to play the bass on a song just for the bass credit or for people to know that I wrote the bassline… I don’t feel as much that way now”, she muses. “There’s a freedom and creative growth in not having anything to prove. For the next album I think I’ll be more relaxed about collaboration and letting the experts do their thing. I’m happy to take a more directorial, curatorial role.”
For now, though, Zauner plays the captain beautifully. At the show, she commands the space and leads the band with love and strength. Zauner holds herself on stage with a curious theatricality, her movements equal parts measured and restrained as dextrous and energetic. She hops from foot to foot, weaving feather light around the instruments, triumphantly striking the golden gong that’s been placed in the middle of the stage for ‘Paprika’: “How’s it feel to be at the centre of magic / To linger in tones and words?” The utility straps of the Rocha dress dance in the air as she prances, swirling around her in dream-like suspended motion. Jürgen comes out for ‘Slide Tackle’ to rapturous applause, swaying excitedly through his trombone accompaniment.
There’s a moment during the band’s performance of ‘Kokomo, IN’, a gentle and longing song from ‘Jubilee’. Zauner is strumming lightly on the guitar, the stage bathed in a cool purple light. “And though it may not last, just know that I’ll be here always”, she sings, smiling, on the lovely, swooning number. Her bandmate and husband, Peter Bradley, takes off on a small, lilting electric guitar solo, creating a little orb of wonder within the song. The band are relaxed, happy, safe with each other.
Zauner looks around at them, and they meet her gaze. It’s nice seeing her up there, with her family.
Japanese Breakfast’s ‘Jubilee’ is out now
Photography by Min Hyunwoo ( @minhyunwoo_ )
Visual direction by Bah No ( @bah_no )
Hair by Gabe Sin ( @gabe.sin )
Make-Up by Yeonu Jeong (@yonew_)
Styling by Jisoo Kim ( @_je_taime )