Michelle Zauner can still smell the old couches. It’s a reminder of tours the Philadelphia songwriter did with a punk outfit called Little Big League which operated out of the city’s D.I.Y. scene from 2011 to 2014. The band opened for emo favorites like Foxing and The Hotelier along the way, but also found itself in cities where the Little Big League-ers might’ve had to sleep on sofas that someone probably pissed on. The Seoul-born budding indie-rock star thinks about those cushions all the time, and she’s not resting on any laurels now that her current project — Japanese Breakfast — has found some success.
“I do always feel insanely lucky,” Zauner said. “I mean, I’m headlining the venue in Philly that I used to work coat-check at.”
Q&A: Talking Korean comfort food, Kanye West and more with Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner
When CL catches up with her, Zauner’s band is two weeks away from starting a 21-date swing through the U.S. that includes a slot at Coachella. In May, Japanese Breakfast heads to Germany for a 17-stop European leg that bleeds directly into a slot at Sasquatch Music Festival and then more U.S. and Canada dates that keep the band on the road well into the fall. In all, there are more than 80 stops on the itinerary.
Zauner just turned 29, a week before she arrives in Ybor for a sold-out show, and she’s been putting her between-tour energy toward potential scores for a video game while also directing music videos. There are some demos for a follow-up to Japanese Breakfast’s breakout 2017 LP, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, but Zauner doesn’t expect to even be in a studio until the winter.
“We won’t come out with another record until next year, probably,” she said. Which is perfectly fine, because Soft Sounds is a record listeners can stretch out with. The LP opens with “Diving Woman,” a six-minute cut about haenyeo (female divers from a South Korean island called Jeju who can plunge 30 meters and hold their breath for more than three minutes at a time). “Machinist,” a horn-propelled robot love song, bumps into a minute-long instrumental which unfolds into the title track, a painful meditation on self-love and leaving those who launch vicious attacks on our psyches. There’s also that song about using fellatio on the turnpike as a way to desperately save a relationship (“Road Head”). Soft Sounds is a textural and transparent exploration of raw emotion and late-20s confusion — and that’s just the first half.
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Elsewhere, Zauner extols the virtues of her partner (“Till Death”). On “Your Body Is A Blade” she subconsciously revisits the death of her mother, who succumbed to cancer at the age of 57 — just two weeks after Zauner and her partner were married. Psychopomp, Japanese Breakfast’s 2016 debut, was written in the two months after Zauner’s mom passed. The album is the unpacking of emotions associated with having to sift through belongings in her Eugene, Oregon childhood home, all while knowing the place would never be the same again.
“The dog’s confused/She just paces around all day, she’s sniffing at your empty room,” Zauner sings on the upbeat opening track “In Heaven.”
Sonically, Soft Sounds is leaps and bounds ahead of Psychopomp, but the collective, candid expressions of grief on Japanese Breakfast material — coupled with Zauner’s open-book approach to interviewer questions about death, life, love and even Korean food — have earned her a loyal following that identifies with the many, sometimes offbeat, facets of Zauner’s personality.
“I have a wingchick69 persona where I eat chicken wings. It started as a joke, but it’s this weird thing to me that people will reference to me sometimes. It’s just nuts,” she said, adding that social media has allowed fans to randomly get really, really close to her.
“It’s not just the music anymore. It feels like these people know me as a person. Like my weird inside jokes, and my history of my mom, and my love of cooking. It makes me feel like they’ll be with me for longer, so it feels like we’re friends.”
That’s created a precarious situation for Zauner, a notoriously hard worker and planner who admittedly has a backup plan if the music thing doesn’t work out. She doesn’t want to disappoint anyone in the community that’s started to coalesce around Japanese Breakfast, and sounds genuinely distressed when she talks about how some shows on the tour are happening in venues that aren’t all-ages. D.I.Y. touring taught her the importance of being involved in every aspect of bandom, and to always listen to fans, but that gets harder as your project scales up into larger venues with each tour (about half of Japanese Breakfast’s spring U.S. dates sold out before the jaunt even started on April 2).
Japanese Breakfast's Ybor City show is sold-out
“It breaks my heart when there are younger kids who ask me if there is something I can do to get a 16-year-old into an 18-plus venue,” she said. The idea that Zauner has become a reference point for many women, Asian-Americans or 20-and-30-somethings who’ve lost parents is also a bit concerning as the larger conversation continues to move past the songs themselves.
“I’m really grateful that there is a new space for these voices… I just don’t want to be a voice that is just important because I am a part of this movement,” Zauner proffered, adding that she doesn’t think about it too often. Instead, she focuses on staying healthy on the road, the next record and whatever comes after that.
“I don’t think I could ever have somebody be my boss anymore,” Zauner said. “I just want to make music that means something to me as a person.”
Read our full Q&A with Zauner here, and see an interview with Lindsey Jordan of opening band Snail Mail here. Look below for more information on the show.