Tuesday, December 21st, 2021
Japanese Breakfast – The Under the Radar Cover Story
Untying a Great Knot
Dec 21, 2021
By Matt Fink
Photography by Shervin Lainez (for Under the Radar)
Issue #68 – Japanese Breakfast and HAIM (The Protest Issue)
After four years of almost constant movement, 2020 was the year that Michelle Zauner finally had to sit still. For the past half-decade, she had been a one-woman whirlwind of activity, releasing two highly acclaimed albums as Japanese Breakfast, the second one arriving before she was even done touring for the first one. For much of the band’s history, Zauner served not only as its lead singer and songwriter but also as its manager, tour organizer, and merch person, while somehow also finding time to direct its videos. In simpler times, 2020 would have lined up as the year that Japanese Breakfast released its third full-length release, continued to increase its font size on the bills of bigger and bigger festivals, inspired a handful of think-pieces on the increasing visibility of Korean-American artists, and made stops at All Songs Considered and on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Instead, aside from recording a collaborative EP over email exchanges under the BUMPER moniker with Crying’s Ryan Galloway, she sat at home in her Brooklyn apartment and waited.
For Zauner, even a period of relative inactivity included doing the last edits on her debut novel, Crying in H Mart; writing and recording two hours of soundtrack music for indie video game Sable; and having extra time to obsess over the finishing touches for Jubilee, her highly eclectic, strikingly singular third Japanese Breakfast album. Never before had she created so much new material and had so little certainty about when it would actually be delivered to her audience. When describing the imposed hiatus to Under the Radar in July of 2020, she didn’t mince words. Watching the gears of the music industry grind to a halt was akin to “grieving a loved one that’s in a coma.” Anyone who is familiar with Zauner’s backstory knows that such a reference wasn’t simply a pointed metaphor by a frustrated artist. The last time she was forced to sit still was while she watched her mother die.
The six months Zauner spent caring for her mother, Chongmi, following her terminal cancer diagnosis in 2014, have loomed large over her creative work ever since. There she is, reaching out from the cover of 2016’s Psychopomp, young and vibrant in better times. That’s her voice saying “gwenchanta”—“it’s okay” in Korean—on the album’s title track, taken from a recording of her consoling her daughter on the day she learned of her diagnosis. The songs on Japanese Breakfast’s second album, 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet, continued the exploration of sorrow and loss through a series of songs that posed existential questions and clawed toward an uneasy transcendence. Now, with a novel that tells the story of her mother’s illness in unflinching detail and an album that was designed to explore the pursuit of joy, 2021 is poised to be the year Zauner moves out of the shadow of grief.
“I honestly haven’t thought about it much until this year, when I reflected back on how charmed the last four years were for me and this band,” Zauner says on a gray November afternoon. Still months before she’ll announce the release of her next album, she is careful not to say anything that will preemptively kick off the next press cycle. “Because I was so horse-with-blinders, like, ‘I need to work. I need to work. I need to work. I need to make something incredible. I need to make the best video. I need to play all of the shows. I need to do all of the interviews.’ I enjoyed it, I think, but I didn’t revel in how charmed things were for me. I was just so scared of losing it that I couldn’t go, ‘Whoa, this is working.’”
It must have seemed a cruel plot twist that just as everything in her career was working, the rest of the world shut down. Though Jubilee has been finished for some time—a lyric sheet from her label lists the original release date as October 23, 2020—Zauner says she just couldn’t bear to release the album and then wait a year to tour it. She had zero interest in promoting it by reducing its expansive, multilayered arrangements to solo acoustic livestream performances. It’s celebratory vibe simply wouldn’t translate.
“I knew I wanted to make a jubilant record,” Zauner says a few months later, free to speak about Jubilee for the first time. “I was simultaneously very afraid and uninterested in the third LP being a pop record. I really wanted it to be big but weird. I was really into Kate Bush during this time, and I just wanted it to be bombastic and strange. I didn’t want anyone to say, ‘Oh, this is Japanese Breakfast’s pop record.’ I feel like a lot of bands who hit their stride as an indie band are like, ‘Well, what’s the next step? We want to play arenas as a pop band.’ That was a really gross prospect to me, so I really wanted to make sure that it didn’t go too far in that direction.”
When asked about the prospect of mainstream success—or whatever is the equivalent in a world where indie acts routinely run in the same lane as the artists on Top 40 radio—Zauner only laughs. Whatever success is now, it can’t help but feel a bit diminished. There will be no international press junket to London or Amsterdam. No in-store shows or release party gigs—no shows at all—at least not until enough of the world’s cities are safe enough to make touring possible.
“I had a clear plan, and it’s all so different now,” she says. “I used to have really high expectations, and now I just hope I can play to a room full of people someday again. For the last three years, it felt like I’ve been in some kind of quarantine between working on this book and making this record and doing this soundtrack. So 2021 is slated to be the year that it all comes to a head.”
Channel Something Good
As a student of popular music history, Zauner was particularly annoyed that the 2020 pandemic put a four-year gap on her discography. Legendary among her peers for her single-minded focus and inexhaustible work ethic, she is a throwback to the era when artists made an album a year, writing and recording albums during breaks from touring. “I remember being really heartbroken about it being 2017 and then 2021, and people being like, ‘What a loser. She didn’t release an album for four years,’” she says with a sigh. “Obviously, these kinds of petty things just really aren’t important anymore.”
To this point, her discography features two ambitious if largely overlooked full-length albums with alt-rockers Little Big League, her gauzy lo-fi Japanese Breakfast debut (Psychopomp), and a shoegaze-inflected exercise in Pacific Northwest rock (Soft Sounds from Another Planet). While she was determined not to make a pop album, past tracks such as “Everybody Wants to Love You” and “Machinist” had pointed toward the sort of material she could make if she wanted to push in that direction. At least at the start, she had very different plans.
“When I was conceptualizing this record, I was like, ‘Oh, this is the third LP. I want it to be like [Nine Inch Nails’] Pretty Hate Machine meets [Björk’s] Homogenic,’” she says with a laugh. “But I can’t write like that! I just want to hear that record, but when it comes to sitting down it’s completely paralyzing. It was the same thing with Soft Sounds. I was like, ‘I want to write this sci-fi concept album,’ and I wrote two songs about space, and I stopped, like, ‘I’m not going to write 10 fucking songs about space.’ So I don’t think it sounds anything like Homogenic or Pretty Hate Machine, but I did want it to be an uplifting and big feeling record. And I did feel like it is that.”
Even an uplifting Japanese Breakfast album comes with a fair amount of struggle and self-doubt. When Zauner talks about the album’s thesis, she narrows it down to “striving for joy and fighting for personal happiness,” something that is easier for her now than ever before. Happily married to Peter Bradley, the guitarist in Japanese Breakfast, she has achieved a level of personal and professional stability that can push someone into an entirely different kind of existential crisis.
“I was struggling with really bad writer’s block when I was writing for a while,” she admits. “I actually went to the forest. I hope this doesn’t get blown up in this [press] cycle, because it wasn’t that big of a deal. But I went to the Poconos and took mushrooms to unlock my psyche a little bit. I was like, ‘I don’t know what to write about anymore, because I’ve been writing about grief for so long. What do I turn to now?’ So I was worried, like, do I not feel enough? My life is pretty good. What do I do now?”
Fresh off of tour and feeling burned out, Zauner couldn’t shake the notion that the next Japanese Breakfast album would be expected to represent something bigger, bolder, and better than what had come before. But she also hated the idea that she would allow those expectations to enter her creative process, imposing on her the reality that she needed an album suitable for the bigger venues and larger audiences who would fill them. Perhaps no song represents the album’s thesis more than its very first, “Paprika.”
With pristinely rising and falling melodies over marching band beats and swirling horns and strings, the track is an exercise in maximalist perfection. In what appears to be confrontation between Zauner and her muses, it also serves as perhaps the most acute dissertation on the insecurities inherent in the creative process that has been recorded in recent memory. “How’s it feel to be at the center of magic/To linger in tones and words?” she asks herself, as if she no longer knows the way back to that creative space. “I opened the floodgates and found no water, no current, no river, no rush,” is the rejoinder—effectively capturing the feeling of anyone who has stared at a blank page for hours, waiting for inspiration to strike.
“A lot of that song is a conversation with myself, like, ‘Why are you overanalyzing this? You have the most wonderful opportunity and the most idyllic life of getting to create. Stop. Don’t be a dick about it,’” she explains. “I think a lot of the songs are reminders like that, like, ‘Remember how to feel and don’t overanalyze it into the ground,’ which is something that I do a lot.’”
Having worked with Craig Hendrix, her co-producer for Soft Sounds and drummer in Japanese Breakfast, since her Little Big League days, she determined that she’d add a few more collaborators to the mix, just to make sure that the pair didn’t grow too comfortable. Jubilee would not be a pop album, but she wasn’t afraid to flirt with that aesthetic more than she ever had before. With nine days off in Los Angeles at the end of the 2018
Japanese Breakfast tour, Zauner decided to join the list of indie songwriters who have worked with contemporary pop stars, bolstering their resumes with a high-profile collaboration.
“A lot of labels who own your publishing will do this thing where they basically set you up on blind dates with other writers,” she explains. “And from what I understand they just lie to you and say, ‘So-and-so really wants you to work on their record with them. They need help writing their record.’ And you’re like, ‘Wow! So-and-so wants me? Great!’ And then someone tells so and so, ‘Michelle really needs help writing her record. Will you do a session with her?’ and they’re like ‘Oh, Michelle needs my help? No problem.’ Then you get there and slowly realize that no one needs help writing their record.”
Instead, Zauner found herself paired with Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing, a brilliant songwriter who is in no sense a contemporary pop star. “We were like, ‘Why are we working together?’” Zauner recalls. “Usually, they’ll put a pop singer with an indie artist, so you bring in indie elements, and they bring the pop element. And it’s like ‘pop with heart’ or whatever,” she says, cracking up. “So we were like, ‘We’re two indie artists. Let’s make another indie song.’ And then we were like, ‘Well… maybe we can write a pop song together. It will be really fun, and we’ll try to sell it to someone.’”
The result was “Be Sweet,” a swaggering bit of diva-powered pop that Zauner decided to keep for herself as the first single for Jubilee. Taking inspiration from Raymond Carver’s “Tell the Women We’re Going,” she twists the short story’s title into the lyric “tell the men I’m coming” and explores the sort of self-assured woman who would inhabit such a sentiment. Built on a bed of crackling ’80s dance-pop grooves and funky guitar leads, it’s a testament to Zauner’s skill in bringing to life multifaceted characters with only a few lines.
A far less confident character serves as the protagonist for “Posing in Bondage,” a track that was hastily written and recorded as the B-side to “2024” for a 2017 Polyvinyl 7-inch series. Now remade as a melancholy electronic ballad, the tone is more contemplative than desperate. Describing a woman who hopes to get her husband’s attention by dressing up in bondage gear, waiting alone for hours for him to come home, its wounded protagonist is the exact opposite of the one found in “Be Sweet.”
“It’s a song about longing and disappointment,” she says. “I think it comes from my intense neediness that maybe began from a young age, being an only child with a mom who is a stay-at-home mom. I think in relationships I’m pretty needy and sensitive and dependent on being an artist. I guess ‘Be Sweet’ is like that, too, just wanting not to be ignored and feeling like you put all of yourself out there for someone or many people and it’s not being reciprocated in full. So I thought the image of someone who is all done up and splayed out in bondage, waiting for someone who never comes home, was really sad and the most melodramatic way of expressing the way that it feels to be ignored,” she says with a laugh. “I think it fits the theme that a lot of the album is about: feeling too much, not feeling enough, wanting to feel the most, wishing you could feel less.”
All four of those sentiments turn up in “Kokomo, IN,” a dreamy bit of sighing string-laden balladry that captures what The Beatles might have sounded like had Phil Spector worked with them in 1965. Drawing comparisons to The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” Zauner imagined a teenaged boy in the Midwest saying goodbye to his girlfriend as she goes off to an exchange program in Australia. “It’s not angry,” she says of the song, calling it her favorite on the album. “I think that’s such a beautiful thing that when you really love someone you don’t want to hold them back, either. Like, ‘It hurts me that I don’t get to be with you, but I know that you’re an amazing person and you’re going to go touch a lot more people now.’ I thought that was a very sweet idea.”
A far different sort of character drives the narrative of “Savage Good Boy,” a darkly propulsive midtempo rocker she recorded with friend Alex G co-producing the track. Imagining a billionaire who is trying to sweet talk an impressionable woman into his bunker to live with him while the world burns around them, Zauner calls it one of her first attempts at overt social commentary in her songwriting. Even here, she lends the protagonist a sort of cracked humanity, positing him as part capitalist robber baron, part delusional loner who is trying to justify his win-at-all-costs mentality. “I feel it’s a very timely narrative for this moment,” she laughs.
In conversation, Zauner laughs a lot, almost always after saying something that she seems to think is a bit too revealing. When describing the meaning behind her lyrics, Zauner is exceptionally candid, then often regretful that she might be ruining her listener’s ability to see themselves in her music by providing too much detail. “Sit”—one of the most mysterious tracks on the album—is a song about the obsessive nature of desire, she says, before contending that “there are a lot of secrets in that song that need to stay secrets.” “Tactics,” a soulful piano ballad Zauner describes as channeling Bill Withers via Randy Newman, is summarized as being about “self-preservation and putting space between you and a toxic person in your life.” Epic album-closer “Posing for Cars” came from a dream, Zauner says, but declines to elaborate further than to say it’s about “enduring love” and otherwise mostly consists of inside jokes. For “In Hell”—an aching piece of mid-tempo dream pop describing the anguish of loving someone you’ll never see again—there’s no need to speculate.
“Oh, my God, I think that’s probably the darkest song that I’ve ever written,” she says. “It’s a little pop song comparing euthanizing my childhood dog to watching my mom die. That song is also pretty old. I feel like I wrote that song in maybe 2017 and had just been holding on to it. It’s definitely still a song about grief. I had to slip one in there.”
Built on a bed of lightly churning electric guitar and atmospheric synth, the lyrics cut hard against the soft exterior of the arrangement, allowing the song to fit on an album where its presence would have been jarring otherwise. An increasingly sophisticated writer, having taken guitar lessons in order to incorporate more music theory into her arrangements, she has become a master of burying heartbreaking one-liners inside otherwise blissful hooks. For now, at least, she seems to take some comfort in the fact that some darkness hangs over even her most jubilant efforts.
“I always feel like I need to experience so much turmoil in order to create something beautiful,” she admits. “Only if I experience torment did I work hard enough on something to make it great. But on the flipside, I’m so worried about losing this magnitude of teenage, heady feeling. That’s when things were so great, when the dumbest shit meant the most and you felt things so deeply. You were so jealous. You were so in love. You were so embarrassed. And those feelings when you get older,” she says with a pause, “I’m so worried about losing touch with them.”
Something More Beautiful
Zauner tells a story about when she was a child, so small that when her mother picked up Michelle from her first day of preschool, she asked her teacher to look after her daughter to make sure the other kids didn’t bully her. The teacher replied that the biggest kid in the class had already approached Michelle, eying the toy she was holding. “And she just looked him in the face and said, ‘Don’t even think about it,’ and kept playing,” the teacher told Chongmi. “I feel like even from that age I felt 10 times my size,” Zauner laughs.
While Zauner is still small as an adult, she remains a large presence. Ryan Galloway, her collaborator on BUMPER, remarks that she has the sort of loud personality that “boosts the energy in the room,” causing everyone else to be a little louder, too. Katie Garcia, the person who signed Japanese Breakfast to Dead Oceans, remembers being struck by Zauner’s “special vulnerability,” recalling that the two of them ended up talking for over two hours the first time they met. Deven Craige, her bandmate in both Little Big League and Japanese Breakfast, says Zauner “puts up an incredible front,” recalling a pair of 2019 high-pressure gigs at Brooklyn Steel that included string players and complex light shows. “After the show is done, it’s like, ‘Oh, boy. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to do that.’ But never before,” he says.
“Both of my parents are pretty overconfident, boisterous city people,” she explains. “My dad is from Philly, and my mom is from Seoul—a big city in Korea. And between the two of them, growing up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, I was always a very intense, overly aggressive person in this tiny hippie town, I think, largely because my parents were that way and made me that way.”
While Zauner inherited her parents’ temperaments, she’s quick to point out that neither of them was particularly interested in music while she was growing up. Aside from her father’s Motown compilation CDs and Fleetwood Mac discs, two influences she hopes informed her songwriting sensibilities, she did not grow up in a particularly artistic environment. Her mother’s main contribution to her musical development was piano lessons, something Zauner describes as being an “Asian mother thing” that also included being forced into taking Korean language classes. She hated both.
By the time she was a teenager, Zauner was deep into the Pacific Northwest indie rock scene. Modest Mouse, Elliott Smith, Death Cab for Cutie, and Built to Spill became her new obsessions, and it wasn’t long until she was begging her mom for a guitar, something that became another point of contention. Her biggest influence, however, was from the other coast: Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “To see Karen O doing basically everything a Korean girl is not supposed to do, that was a big influence on me.”
When asked about her first performance at 16, Zauner can’t recall if she was nervous, which seems to be a good indication that she probably wasn’t. Taking the stage at the local pizza parlor, she performed original material in a high-pitched Joanna Newsom chirp. Having yet to experience the heartbreak of lost love, she instead channeled into her writing her disappointment over being abandoned by a close friend who had left her for another friend group. Even at that age, she wasn’t intimidated.
“I’ve always been an overconfident person in that arena a little bit,” she says. “Or just simultaneously convinced that I’m crap but also a genius. I think at that age that’s what I was going through. At that time, it still felt like I was the only person in the world doing this thing. At least in this small town, it really did feel that way.”
While Zauner’s tone brightens while discussing her first formal steps as a musician, she does not present her teenage years as being particularly happy. Finding the school environment stifling, she was an indifferent student who often skipped class and made little effort when she showed up. She and her mother clashed often and occasionally violently. They said incredibly hurtful things to each other, each transforming into the worst versions of themselves—Zauner the spoiled, uncompromising art brat and her mother, the overbearing micromanager.
“One part of the book that was really challenging for me to write was finding a way to talk about what a piece of shit I was as a teenager,” Zauner says. “I was just so depressed and going through a lot and very hormonal and confused. Part of that was normal teenage angst, but I also think I was really struggling with something and having some kind of existential crisis. Everything just felt really meaningless if I wasn’t pursuing [art]. But I wasn’t sure if I could ever make a career out of it. I always knew that I would have to work in a restaurant or do something on the side but that I would always pursue music. But I think it was just because my parents were of a generation—and also my mom’s culture—where it was just impossible. That was just not a career path that was even plausible. But there was this part of me that refused to let it go.”
While she had no interest in going to college, she nonetheless ended up at Bryn Mawr College, a liberal arts school outside of Philadelphia where she studied writing and film. Before long, she found herself playing guitar and singing in Post Post, a synthy indie pop band she shared with three other college students. But despite some initial buzz, the band fell apart before they could record their first LP, leaving only an EP. Zauner hesitates to go into much detail about the band’s acrimonious unraveling, other than to note that she was more eager than her bandmates to pile in a van to go play grimy clubs and sleep on couches. Her next band, Little Big League, would offer her an opportunity to do just that.
“They were all these East Coast kids who grew up on punk and hardcore, and I was a Pacific
Northwest moody indie rock kid,” she recalls. “So I think that band ended up being those two things coming together, whereas Post Post was more of a soft thing. I feel like in Little Big League I really wanted to challenge myself to write more complicated guitar parts and prove myself as a guitarist in this way that Post Post and Japanese Breakfast is not as concerned with.”
Zauner expresses confusion over just why Little Big League failed to connect in a commercial sense, pointing out that some of the material on their albums was strong enough that it eventually ended up being remade for Japanese Breakfast releases. But when Craige left to join Strand of Oaks and Zauner went off to care for her ailing mother, the band was effectively over. By the time Zauner got around to working on the songs that would become Psychopomp, she had no reason to believe that her new material would fare any better.
“I had absolutely no expectations for it at all,” she recalls. “And that’s what’s so strange about it, so miraculous about what happened. I was like, ‘Okay, it’s over. You’re 25 years old and you need to get your shit together.’ And I think I was just like, ‘I’m going to write this record, because it’s therapeutic for me to explore what I’m feeling. There are things that I can’t talk about to anyone, so I want to express them musically.’ But then I think I was like, ‘I want to send it to very small labels, like not even small indies but really tiny baby labels.’ That’s rude. But very, very low expectations. I was just hoping I could press 500 records and I could sell them over the course of 10 years.”
There were no plans to even attempt to tour, as losing money to play gigs didn’t make fiscal sense. After years of restaurant jobs, she needed to settle down and find something approximating a career. “But I still wanted to make music, and I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll work a job. I’ll make a record every couple years,” she says. “I’ll sell 500 copies until I’m old.’ I remember when I signed to Yellow K and they were like, ‘We’re thinking about hiring this person for PR,’ and in my head I was like, ‘Why are you wasting your money?’”
With her mother gone and her relationship with her father strained, Zauner moved back across the country to New York City, taking a job as a sales assistant at an advertising company in Williamsburg. Working during the day, recording at night, the plan was in place. After Pitchfork reviewed album single “In Heaven”—a luminous slab of reverby rock where Zauner describes the immediate aftermath of her mother’s death—the floodgates finally opened. Within weeks, Dead Oceans had signed her to a record contract and she was frantically throwing together a band to take to South by Southwest, with one showcase soon turning into eight. Once there, the band found a booking agent and was put on tour as an opening act for Mitski. When her employer politely told her that it might be best if she took a severance package and end her career in advertising, she took the money and ran. With Dead Oceans now footing the bill, she had the opportunity to spend the time and money to make a proper follow-up release.
“I was so scared of the sophomore slump, and I felt like [the success of Psychopomp] was such a fluke. And I had a bad falling out with the co-producer of Psychopomp and knew I didn’t want to work with him again, so I was really worried about how much of that was his influence and how much of it was mine. So I kind of went into it like, ‘Okay, the worst thing you can do is let these expectations get into your head. You have to do exactly what you did on Psychopomp in a way. What is interesting to you, you need to pursue. You can’t pander to anything.’ Because that’s when artists fail is when they’re not pursuing what they’re interested in but are trying to guess what people want them to do next.”
In Craig Hendrix, she had the perfect collaborator for expanding her sonic palette, an experienced producer and arranger whose appetite for exploration matched her own. On Soft Sounds from Another Planet, Zauner blew up her template. “We didn’t really say no to anything,” Hendrix recalls. “We didn’t say, ‘Oh, here’s this indie rock downstroke eighth-note guitar song, so now we can’t do something synth-based.’ There was no censoring of ideas. I think that was advantageous for both us, like, ‘Whatever sound happens or whatever feels right for these melodies or this lyric, we’re just going to go with that and see where it ends up.’”
Where it ended up was on countless “Best of 2017” lists and on thousands of Spotify playlists. A trio of high concept videos directed by and starring Zauner would garner millions of views. The band would spend the next two years on the road, encountering the sorts of fans that never turned up at Little Big League shows. When they got home, Zauner still feared it could all slip away.
“I had seen so many of my friends’ bands get big and then just die,” she says. “Or put out another record and no one cares anymore. Play to thousands of people, and the next album cycle no one shows up—there are 20 people. So I kept pushing—‘It’s going to end at some point. You’ve got to just ride this wave as hard as possible.’ And I’ve honestly been doing that ever since.”
Tackling the Void
Crying in H Mart is not a typical rock star auto-biography. In fact, the story of Zauner’s development as an artist features relatively little in the narrative, and the words “Japanese Breakfast” appear only once in the entire text. Even the passages that do explore Zauner’s first steps as a musician seem included only to add more context to the daughter-mother dynamic that is the book’s central focus. Just as she writes songs that are striking in their emotional directness and meticulous in their imagery, she is an equally unsparing storyteller, whether recounting her discovery of her dad’s infidelity or describing her mother’s final hours.
“For me, the story was always about my relationship with my mom and how grieving can take an unexpected journey to find closure in some way. A big part of it was that I think everyone grieves differently, and I think it’s important to encourage people to explore different parts of grieving. Some people do need to go to therapy, and some people do need to connect with their family members, and some people do need to pick up a new hobby that saves them in some way. This was just my particular experience that shed light on a mixed-race upbringing that I don’t feel is talked about very often. That was always the story to me.”
The book’s origins lie in a 2016 essay entitled “Love, Loss, and Kimchi”—an award-winning short story where Zauner pondered the connections between the comforts of Korean cuisine, her mourning over the loss of her mother, and her struggle to reconcile where she fit within the intersection of Korean and American culture. “Crying in H Mart,” an essay published in The New Yorker in 2018 that expanded on those motifs, remains the novel’s overture and sets the tone for the themes that unfurl throughout the rest of the text.
“It sort of went hand in hand with what I was doing musically,” she says. “I think that I was just in a really confused, emotionally new space, and one way that I tried to control that was by creating narratives around it. So around the same time that I was working on Psychopomp, I was also starting to write some nonfiction essays about what eventually became the book. There were times when it was really cathartic and there were times when it was not so cathartic. I’ve never felt so challenged by a medium, that’s for sure.”
Having studied creative writing under novelist Daniel Torday at Bryn Mawr College, Zauner has a natural voice as a writer, effortlessly cutting straight to the vulnerability underlying every scene she describes. But while Crying in H Mart is a breezy read it is not an easy one. Zauner writes vividly of her childhood in Eugene, casting her mother as a complex amalgam of well-meaning over-protectiveness and hypercritical tough love. Her coming death frames every twist in the narrative with a palpable sense of dread, and Zauner positions herself as someone who is neither impartial nor so totally consumed by her own experience as to lose all perspective. Though Korean-Americans are likely to identify with many of the text’s cultural themes, most of the text pulls on universal threads of childhood neediness, young adult insecurity, and intergenerational tension. Like all great literature, it is at once both singular in intent and universal in its application, asking more questions than it answers. It provides no easy catharsis, either for its author or its readers.
“I wish I could say that felt that I wrote 80,000 words and finally felt like I got some closure,” she says. “But writing a book has never made me feel like I’ve confronted my own stupidity more than through doing this. I felt like I was so aware of what I wanted to say but was two steps beneath what I was reaching for, and that was endlessly infuriating. There’s so much material, and you always feel like you can do a better job, not only representing something that has happened but commemorating someone who has died. I feel like once it comes out there will be more of a sense of closure, I hope. But right now it still feels really unreal to me. It still feels unfinished.”
Certain portions of the book—such as a chapter devoted to her time in Post Post—ended up becoming casualties of the editing process. A central theme of the later third of the book is Zauner’s attempt to connect with her remaining family in Korea after her mother’s death, struggling to overcome language and cultural barriers. While her career as a musician is not a prominent focus, the novel ends with her on stage with her bandmates in Korea, playing the last show on her tour while her aunt and uncle watch from the balcony. If the book is, at least partly, about a young artist’s attempt to find at least one place where she belongs, it ends with her finding it.
“It used to end in the bathhouse with me crying silently, which was a really depressing way to end,” she explains. “But it’s hard, because there was no way that it could end in this way that was like, ‘And then I made kimchi, and now I don’t think about my mom anymore.’ Obviously, you need some sense of closure, but the point is that you never get over grief. I was always really nervous about introducing any element of my relationship to music or my work as a musician, because it felt like such a silly self-important thing, because I’m just a small indie musician that a lot of people haven’t heard of. I think, and hope, that a lot of people who read the book don’t even know about my work in Japanese Breakfast. A lot of the book [is about] never quite feeling like I belong in the U.S., and definitely not feeling like I belong in Korea, but feeling like I do have a home in this artistic space.”
The Long Haul
During the summer of 2020, while Zauner was lamenting a music industry in a coma, she was also reflecting on how much it had changed over the last decade. Indie rock, a genre whose proponents had been predominantly white and male when she started her career, was now populated by a far more diverse cast of characters. Where a Korean-American frontwoman was nearly unheard of when Zauner was idolizing Karen O in the mid-2000s, 10 years later she could go on tour with Mitski and Jay Som and not have the entire tour be about increasing visibility for Asian-American women. But that’s not to suggest that Zauner doesn’t recognize that she carries the responsibility of representing the changing face of underground music.
“I would like to say that it’s not important to me, because I wish that that sort of burden wasn’t on me to be…” she says, trailing off. “It’s definitely a weight. And also I think there’s this expectation, because I’m a quote-unquote marginalized voice, that because I have benefited from the people who have fought for it, I have to do that in turn. Which is fair. It’s something that I want to do. But it has been a real challenge. I just didn’t grow up in a family that taught me how to be civically engaged and politically active. It’s a very new thing for me. I feel very stupid and not smart enough to interact with that world. I’m so scared of doing something dumb.”
Zauner’s reticence to attach herself to hot button cultural issues extends to the protest sign she made for this publication. She chose the topic of police reform, she says, because it was the issue she felt was most pressing at the moment, alongside climate change. But while she is a natural when performing before a crowd with a guitar in her hands, one gets the impression that she would much rather work behind the scenes of protest movements. “I don’t feel like I’ve been at the frontlines of protest,” she says. “I’ve been involved in protests and tried to be politically active, but I definitely felt a bit uncomfortable taking this space [in the magazine] and felt like there were musicians who deserve it far more than me.”
Aside from “Savage Good Boy,” political themes have figured relatively little in her work, Zauner says, simply because those topics haven’t naturally emerged in her writing process. When asked which artist she thinks makes effective socially conscious art, she quickly name-checks Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood and the way her Titanic Rising album subtly probed themes of climate change. “I hope someday I can find a way that it feels natural to me to do that,” she says, “but I also worry about it being something that panders to the time. I want to make sure that it’s done well.”
Exactly what comes next for Zauner is an open question. Given her eclectic skillset, she has more creative tools at her disposal than just about any of her peers. There will be more writing projects, she says, and given her interest in sci-fi and anime, it seems inevitable that she’ll experiment with fiction at some point. With obvious skills as a director, it’s not hard to imagine her making films at some point. Having recorded the soundtrack to Sable, an open world puzzle game set in a barren desert, she added instrumental music to her list of competencies, as well. Few artists have potential to make waves in more mediums over the next decade.
“I think I’m just riding whatever comes my way until it stops,” Zauner says. “In that sense, I’ve always really admired Mount Eerie’s career, because I feel like [Phil Elverum] does not give a fuck. He’s just making exactly what he wants to be making. He’s living in this small cottage in the Pacific Northwest, still sending out his mail orders. I think I’d be totally okay to be in my 40s, sending mail orders out from my house in the woods. I’d be totally okay going back into the minivan and playing shows to 50 people, if they would have me. I’m still very in love with that lifestyle and happy to have it on that scale. But if it gets to be bigger than that, I definitely want to push myself to meet that bar.”
As she describes the possibility of returning to the small-scale career she once felt was inevitable when writing the grief-stricken songs that would become her breakthrough, she does not sound troubled. Though fewer musicians mouth DIY platitudes today than a decade ago, Zauner is the rare artist who seems as if she would be genuinely content to follow her intuition back into obscurity if that’s where it led her. With the conventional metrics of success becoming less relevant, she is still measuring herself in the same way she always has. She asks nothing less from her listeners.
“I guess I hope that they just feel a lot,” she says after a long pause. “I don’t really know if it’s one feeling—I hope it just stirs a response. I guess that’s all you can really hope for. I hope there are a couple of ‘Damn, that’s a great line!’ Or ‘That’s a great riff’ or whatever,” she says, then laughs at herself. “I hope they have that feeling.”
[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 68 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online. The issue was our 2021 Protest Issue, in which we once again examined the intersection of music and politics and conducted photo shoots with musicians holding protest signs of their own making.]