• About a Band: Japanese Breakfast

    Michelle Zauner creates shoegaze-inflected indie pop that digs into her own personal history. We chatted with Zauner ahead of her second LP to talk about her songwriting craft and what to expect from album number two.
    Photos by CJ Harvey 

    Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? How did Japanese Breakfast get started? 
    I grew up in Eugen, OR. I played in a band called Little Big League out of Philadelphia for about three years, and then my mom got sick and I moved back to Oregon, and she passed away. I wrote Psychopomp, my first record. I was living in Oregon, trying to process those feelings. I was just trying to give myself some structure and routine, so I wrote the record. I eventually moved to New York, and wasn’t happy with the original mixes, so I worked with a co-producer, Ned Eisenberg, to elevate the songs to what they are now. 

    I thought it was going to be my last record, and then it just took off. Of course, that’s the one that does well. I’ve been in DIY bands for years and never had that happen. So I went on some really great tours. I went out with Mitski, and I went out with Porches, and we toured Europe, and we got a deal with Dead Oceans, so I though, “I guess it’s time to do this again.” We just moved back to Philadelphia and I finished our second album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, which is coming out in July. 

    What’s the earliest experience of music you can remember creating? 
    I think I was 15 or 16, I went to a coffee shop in Eugene with my best friend Nicole. We were sophomores in high school, and we saw my friends play an acoustic show at this coffee shop, and I was just like, “Holy shit. This is amazing.” I begged my mom to let me take guitar lessons and to buy me a guitar. She wouldn’t let me take lessons until I was 16 because I had played piano and wasn’t really into it. I really had to beg her. The night I got the guitar, I went home and wrote a song. It was really, really bad. It was three chords and it was about hanging out with my best friend, Nicole. That was the first song ever. 

    What’s your song-writing process like now? Do you start with music first? With words first? 
    It’s changed over time. I have a notebook where I just collect interesting words or thoughts. Recently, I’m into more structured games that I play with myself. I set out some guidelines like, “You have one hour to write and you have to finish it and walk away.” Then, I’ll sit on that for a couple of weeks and go back and re-open it. For a lot of the new record, I did a project where I wrote and recorded songs every day for the month of June. It’s an exercise to get whatever out there and not dwell on it too much. A lot of Psychopomp was actually songs that that I’d just spit out and re-edited. So, this new record is a similar process. 

    You just went on tour with Slowdive, had you met the band prior to that? 
    Yeah, they’re famously a phenomenal live band, it’s definitely the biggest tour we’ve ever gone on. I’d talked to Rachel, I’d done a Talkhouse podcast with her  and she’s so cool. We opened for her band, Minor Victories in Brussels, which is her and Stuart from Mogwai’s side project. I was selling my own t-shirts and both of them came out after the show to sell their own t-shirts and talk to fans and stuff like that. It blew me away that a band like that could still do that. 

    What artists or bands have been particularly influential to you over the years? 
    It’s crazy because we’re also going on tour with Tegan and Sara in July and they were a really influential band for me. In college, I was in a band that, basically our end goal was to open for them. I feel guilty that I’m doing it now. It’s really exciting because they have an amazing career, they’ve maintained so much quality in their music over time and have such a dedicated fan base. And they make great pop music that has substance, that’s really inspiring. 

    And then, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the Pacific Northwest impacted me growing up, that’s what I listened to, Elliot Smith and Grandaddy were huge influences, Built to Spill, Death Cab for Cutie. This tenderloin Pacific Northwest bands that focus on their feelings. It’s a very specific sound that they go after. I think those bands were super influential for me. 

    You mentioned Psychopomp was written back in Eugene. What was the context for writing this new album?
    I think more than anything, a lot of this album was written when I didn’t have a home-base. I was touring a lot this year and that was something I was really afraid of doing, emotionally. It’s really hard to be away from your support system for a long period of time. Especially after something really traumatic happens. I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it, but these bands were so cool, and I felt like I really wanted to share that, and that’s really important. 

    When you’re touring all the time, you’re just focused on taking a day at a time. I had just gone through some really intense shit, so I was really focused on finding a regimen and moving forward with my life. A lot of the album is about human resilience and treating your body like a machine that is meant to move forward. 

    How has your sound changed or progressed on the new record? 
    I think it’s a much more mature record. First of all, it wasn’t recorded in a bedroom, it wasn’t mixed in a bedroom. I worked with a different co-producer and he has interested rooted in a lot of really big arrangements, so there are horns on this record and some baroque pop elements and also some trip-hop elements. I think it sounds like like a much more mature record, but I hope it still maintains the intimacy of what bedroom pop can be.  

    You’d mentioned that you intended for Psychopomp to be the last record you ever made. Was that true at the time? 
    Yeah. I think that… Mount Eerie is another really important artist for me. I think that I always just really admired Phil Elverum’s career, because he doesn’t seem to care what anyone wants from him. I think The Glow Pt. 2 was his biggest record, and then he continued making records doing whatever he wanted. I aspire to not give a shit about what people want from me. I want to be an artist that just maintains a web store in the woods someday, play a few shows in the surrounding area, and just make it off of mailing our records for the rest of my life. 

    I had been in DY bands and done the grind of DIY touring and sleeping on floors and really scraping by. So I think that I just didn’t wan to do it any more. I moved to New York and got a grown-up job, knowing I would excel. But the reality of sitting in an office from 9 to 5 with no creativity whatsoever was just so draining for me in a way that I didn’t even anticipate. I realized that even if I’m not playing music, I have to have some kind of creative outlet or else life is meaningless. I think that the combination of two things happening— the record doing unexpectedly well, and me unexpectedly realizing that I cannot work a normal job— pushed me back out. 

    What’s next for Japanese Breakfast? 
    We have a crazy year of touring coming up. While I’m young, I’m gonna do that for a while. I have a lot of projects that I want to do, it’s just a matter of finding the time to do them. I’m going to tour as much as people want me to, and then when people are over it, maybe I’ll move to the woods.

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