Japanese Breakfast: “There Is Freedom and Creative Growth in The Fact That You Have Nothing to Prove”

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Walking behind the scenes of the O2 Forum in Kentish Town, you get the feeling that you are being led through a maze. A maze with steep creaking stairs and dark corridors, the place exudes rock and roll claustrophobia. The place vibrates from the distortion and fuzz of the amplifier, anticipation grows in the echoing halls. A queue of enthusiasts has already lined up outside the building, more than four hours before the start of the Japanese breakfast.

Vocalist Michelle Zauner enters directly from the soundcheck. Ignoring the therapist’s strange setup that we came up with in a small production office—a long sofa (for her) and a small chair pressed against the short end (for NME)—she maneuvers among the furniture to greet us. She shakes both hands tightly, looking straight at you. Her eye contact is curious and focused — she wants to see you properly.

We joined Japanese Breakfast on the last leg of their grueling, non-stop tour that has taken them all over the planet over the past year. The soloist of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Zauner’s longtime idol, and now a friend, Karen O recalls that about a year ago she saw a photo of Zauner on Instagram and recognized in it a “gaze at a million miles” — a look of hardened fatigue from a long stay on the road. Zauner laughs in agreement, still happy to be here.

“It was a long labor of love,” she tells NME. “It was very difficult for us to grow up to where we are now in the UK. For a long time, no one was particularly interested in us. It was six years of performances and constant loss of money. It finally feels like we’ve built something!”

Talking to Zauner today, she has clearly practiced behind–the-scenes press and tour choreography – she speaks with ready openness, incredibly present at every moment, recognition quickly flashes in her eyes when she grasps the essence of the question.

Japanese Breakfast

It’s a dance — being Michelle Zauner means walking a tightrope, juggling, being both a conductor and a prima donna of an opera. She’s talking to NME, already dressed in her stage costume, an elaborate Simone Rocha number with gorgeous Baroque sleeves and practical straps.

When we stop to set up the cameras, Zauner runs off to ask someone from her team to braid her hair, not missing a minute. A few minutes later, she’s back on the couch with her braid tied.

The braid in Zauner’s hair is important, a reference to the first line of the last album of the group “Jubilee”: “Enlightenment came slowly / I woke up from dreams of untying the great knot / He’s unraveled like a scythe.” The act of unleashing, the feeling of liberation, the desire for clarity is the central project of the album, the driving force of a personal and creative era dedicated to liberation from guilt, grief and stupor.

“Jubilee” 2021 follows its heartbroken predecessors “Soft Sounds from Another Planet” (2017) and “Psychopomp” (2016), both of which — written after the death of Zauner’s mother —intuitively struggle with themes and sound palettes of dizzying loss.

Discordant but psychedelic, shoegaze but guttural, these albums put Zauner and Japanese Breakfast on the map as a razor-sharp, powerfully evocative indie band. Not only that, but also what was playing in the rarefied air of alternative acts led by an Asian woman, in such an exclusive company as peers Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mitski and Leslie Bear.

At the same time, Zauner herself became known for her literary and cultural activities, sharing deeply personal essays and projects related to the loss of her mother and the desire to belong to a Korean-American woman. Her 2021 memoir, Crying at H Mart, has been a New York Times bestseller for over 40 weeks. Zauner is currently working on a film adaptation.

“When there is no need to prove anything, there is freedom and creative growth”

“Jubilee” appeared, in turn, for the group as an expression of hope. The record is an ode to joy, a call to feelings, but still based on the recognition that joy can still be painful. “I think that people understand the complex “joy” that is being discussed in the “Jubilee”. There are no crazy happy people at my concerts,” Zauner says, chuckling.

“Very few of the songs are “zip—a-dee-doo-dah”. Even in the most joyful songs there is torture,” she adds. “Paprika” is such a statement of the thesis for this — the song is such a joyful fanfare, but it is about the struggle with the great heights of creative result and the falls and agonies of the artist’s life.”

Indeed, despite the shiny golden persimmon hanging from the Zauner on the cover, “Jubilee” is not at all sickly sweet. Acidic “Savage Good Boy” tells about love bombing in the middle of a capitalist apocalypse (“When the city goes under water / I will drink and dine with you in the hollows / On an excess of freeze-dried food”), while Zauner sings on the synthetic walk “In Hell”: “Fortunately, you will die within a year / I expected it/ There’s nothing to be afraid of, at least it is.”

“When I finished it, deep down I knew it was the best thing I could do and I’d be fine if people didn’t agree,” Zauner reflects. “The album has become such a growth for me. My lyrics and arrangements are the strongest that have ever existed, and my voice is the best it has 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. Called a “personal and musical breakthrough” by NME, “Jubilee” earned the band a Grammy Award nomination in the category of “Best Alternative Music Album” (and a nomination for “Best New Artist”), career-defining performances on such famous stages as Coachella and SNL, and even comparisons. before Machine Gun Kelly (kindly fired by both acts before the “beef” status could be established). “I’m just thrilled,” she says of the album’s reception. “The life he enjoyed was really wonderful.”

Despite today’s great heights, the sobering financial realities of touring do not escape Zauner’s attention. “I live in constant fear of the moment when we will stall or fall, and we will have to turn off,” she shares. “It’s much easier to attract people than to scale down. We don’t have our own lighting designer for this run, and it seems so sad and unusual. Their absence is really felt.”

“It’s been a long labor of love to get to this point”

“Our group has had a very charming experience so far,” she continues. “We’ve had the same four core musicians for over six years, and many of our engineers and managers have been the same. Having such a family on the road is a real, tangible joy.”

She lingers on the thought. “But maybe if that moment comes, I’ll accept it,” she decides. “If everything goes back to what it was before, that’s fine. We’ve tried more than we could ever have expected.”

It’s not that they don’t stop there. “We have a very nice special guest tonight,” Zauner tells NME, her eyes sparkling. “This is Jurgen from The Great British Bake Off.” Their connection with their beloved German baker, who won hearts in the 2021 season with his warm behavior and love of bread, is not immediately obvious, but it becomes beautiful if you understand it. Amid the ruthlessness and isolation of touring caused by the pandemic, Zauner and the band have developed a tradition of watching Bake Off together every Friday. “Jurgen was our favorite. We were all rooting for him. It seems so insular that he’s here, playing trombone with us, on our last stage. We made a house on the way through it.

It is typical for London at the end of October, when the sun outside the window fades slowly, and then immediately, plunging us into the shade. Until someone intervenes to feel the switch, Zauner and NME are almost talking in the dark. However, Zauner doesn’t seem to mind, chatting back without making any comments. A big light comes on, bright and sharp, but even from the shadows Zauner does not hesitate in his honesty, speaking sincerely and with unflappable pragmatism.

We are discussing last year, in which, in addition to releasing the band’s most joyful album to date, Zauner simultaneously promoted Crying in H Mart, which, among other things, tells about her mother’s difficult struggle with cancer. The book became a vessel for deep connection, making Zauner a resonant emotional point of contact with topics such as family, legacy and grief. Zauner’s humility in this and her skill are disarming.

“I think art is a selfish profession, very narcissistic and self—centered. So, knowing that your art does something for others besides what it does for you helps me feel less like a monster,” she smiles wryly. When challenged—Zauner should know how much her work has affected and often healed people—she is only slightly inferior. “I am not a doctor, not a climatologist and not someone who helps someone really physically. Many times, especially during the pandemic, I felt very useless in this world. I am honored and relieved that I have helped anyone who is going through grief or struggling with their identity. It makes me feel useful in this world.”

Looking back, it may seem that the success of the famous artist is inevitable, the wind in his back pushes him to his rightful fate. Zauner’s musical beginning didn’t seem so predetermined. Neither of her parents was a big fan of music, and she remembers her musical awakening not as a natural addiction, but as a conscious decision one day to “do music” as a teenager. “I ordered all these classic rock CDs for my birthday, like Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan.”

Zauner found a more instinctive vocation at the age of 15 in the indie rock scene of the Pacific Northwest. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, she was drawn to “angular, tangled guitar rock bands” such as Built To Spill, Modest Mouse and Elliott Smith, as well as low-fi homemade bands from Washington, such as K Records and Phil. “Microphones” and “Creepy Mountain” by Elverum. “It seemed affordable — I think that’s what really motivated me to start playing my own music. These musicians didn’t sound like Whitney Houston and didn’t record in these very expensive studios, but there was something charming and convincing about their sound.”

As a teenager, Zauner played with Eugene in an open mic under the name Little Girl, Big Spoon. In college, she played in a girl group, but mostly as a hobby — Zauner’s mother did not support her musical career. The band broke up after graduation, and Zauner moved to nearby Philadelphia, where she founded an emo band called Little Big League. “It was pretty unfortunate,” she says wryly. “There was a lot of paying dues, playing in basements, losing money and being fired from work, living in poverty.”

Zauner moved home to Oregon when her mother became ill; she passed away six months later. “It was like a sign that it was time to move on,” recalls Zauner. “If nothing is happening to me at 25, I probably have to admit that I need to find a real job.” So Zauner started working as a salesman for an outdoor advertising company in New York.

“Jurgen was our favorite on [The Great British Bake Off]. It’s such a vicious circle that he’s here and playing with us.”

It was Zauner’s first concert from 9 to 17, which she hoped would be a welcome break from the tooth and claw war she waged daily, just to survive in music. “I always thought I would work well from 9 to 5,” she says seriously. “I have great ambitions and work ethic. I studied hard at school, and I actually really enjoy working in the system, so I thought I had everything I needed to climb the career ladder.”

Zauner came to her year-end report expecting a raise, but eventually came out, confused, with a severance check in her hand. “They told me I was actually doing a terrible job, and if I wanted to leave, they would give me a huge severance package. I think the CEOs sympathized with me—they were hipsters who might have been connected to me in some way or thought I was funny.”

“I shouldn’t have been surprised,” Zauner continues. “This kind of work requires all of you, and I couldn’t give it to them. I worked for hours—I worked late and had lunch in front of the computer every day — but when I got home, I felt so empty.” At night, Zauner worked on her own projects, including a remix of “Psychopomp,” a record she wrote while helping her father pack her late mother’s things. “I needed a project to get through the grief,” explains Zauner. “I thought maybe I’d trick the label into releasing 500 copies of ‘Psychopomp’ and we’d be selling it for the next ten years or so.”

Japanese Breakfast released “Psychopomp” as their first album; it turned out unexpectedly well. The recording of Pitchfork in 2016 aroused immediate interest from labels, and the band was offered SXSW showcases and touring with Mitski. Around the same time, Glamour magazine published Zauner’s personal essay. “All of a sudden I got this check from a magazine and two months of quitting my job to take advantage of this last chance,” Zauner reflects. “It was very happy.”

This is the sequence of events that Zauner has been returning to over the past couple of weeks when she was writing the script for the film adaptation of Crying in Hey-Mart. She reviews the script on the road, finds time between work to work on a new job. The first draft is ready, and Zauner hopes that the film will be ready in the next few years.

 

Zauner has always been like this — hardworking, diligent, with fingers in paperwork. “There are artists that I envy a little, who are so good at their craft that they don’t need to be good at anything else,” she shares. “Sometimes I feel like a fake without being like that. I like to understand different systems and “how to win” in them. When I started playing my own music at the age of 16, I also fell in love with boring “admin” elements, such as booking concerts, corresponding with bloggers, communicating with promoters — things that artists really shouldn’t be interested in.”

Last year, Zauner found time to also lend vocals for “Part of the Band” from 1975, an opportunity that came up with the track’s co-producer Jack Antonoff, whom Zauner met while recording at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. They had coffee on the roof of the studio and eventually became good friends. “He’s a really nice guy. It’s one of those things: “That’s why you’re moving to New York,” Zauner jokes.

“Being on the road with the family [of performers and technicians] is a real, tangible joy.”

“In fact, I felt insecure because no one had ever asked me to sing in the project,” says Zauner. “I think I have some kind of strange voice, not objectively “beautiful” to layer it on someone else’s. One day Jack wrote to me, “Do you like The 1975?” — one of my favorite bands. “How soon can you be in Electric Lady?” I was still in my pajamas, probably hungover. I took a shower and got on the train.”

Zauner is looking forward to loosening the reins of creative control in his own music a little. “I used to feel like I needed to produce everything myself, that I needed to play bass in a song just to acknowledge the bass or for people to know that I wrote the bass part… I don’t think so now.” , she muses. “There is freedom and creative growth in not proving anything. In the next album, I think I’ll be more relaxed about collaboration and let the experts do their thing. I’m happy to take on a more directorial, curatorial role.”

In the meantime, Zauner plays the captain perfectly. On 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 are as measured and restrained as they are dexterous and energetic. She jumps from one foot to the other, easily intertwining instruments, triumphantly strikes the golden gong placed in the middle of the stage for “Paprika”: “What does it feel like to be in the center of magic / Linger in tones and words?” The functional straps of the Rocha dress dance in the air while she prances, whirl around her in a dreamy suspended movement. Jurgen enters the “Slide Tackle” to rapturous applause, swaying excitedly to the accompaniment of a trombone.

There is a moment during the band’s performance of “Kokomo, IN”, a tender and sad song from “Jubilee”. Zauner strums his guitar lightly, the stage is flooded with cool purple light. “And although it may not last long, just know that I will always be here,” she sings, smiling, in a beautiful, swooning number. Her bandmate and husband, Peter Bradley, performs a small rhythmic solo on an electric guitar, creating a small ball of miracles in the song. The group is relaxed, happy, safe with each other.

Zauner looks back at them, and they meet her eyes. It’s nice to see her up there with her family.

“Jubilee” Japanese breakfast is already on sale

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