Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner Is Indie’s Most Accomplished Video Game Star

Right now is a great time to be Michelle Zauner.

She’s fresh off the release of her latest Japanese Breakfast album, Jubilee, which Uproxx’s Steven Hyden reckons might be the best indie album of 2021. She also just dropped her memoir Crying In H Mart, which debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. A few days ago, it was revealed that the book is set to get a movie adaptation, for which Japanese Breakfast will provide the soundtrack.

Then, there was this week, when she was one of the musical performers at Summer Game Fest, a new but already-premiere virtual event that showed off the best of what’s on the horizon in the video game world. This is far from Zauner’s first foray into video games, of course. She supported her 2017 album Soft Sounds From Another Planet with Japanese BreakQuest, a game that she co-developed. She’s also behind the soundtrack of the anticipated new game Sable, the release date of which was just revealed at Summer Game Fest: September 23, 2021. Zauner’s soundtrack for the game, by the way, will also be made available as a standalone double-LP release.

So basically, Zauner has more hyphens than just about anybody.

Ahead of her Summer Game Fest appearance, I got on the phone with Zauner to talk about what she’s playing now, what upcoming games she’s looking forward to, and her rich history with video games, both as a consumer and creator.

Last year was obviously pretty quiet for live music, but I would imagine that gave you some more time to focus on gaming. Did you get into any of those big viral games like Animal Crossing, Fall Guys, and Among Us?

I got into Animal Crossing. I played that for a while and really enjoyed it. The funny thing is, when you got to visit each other’s islands, it was kind of the first precious kind of social interaction that you could have [laughs] and I definitely was into that. I also played A Short Hike, and Spiritfarer. Those were my favorite games during quarantine.

Nice, and which games are you playing now?

I’m playing this game called Dawn Of Man, which is a caveman civilization game where you basically grow a caveman colony from the Paleolithic era to the Mesolithic era, all the way into the Iron Age, and they learn how to make composite weapons and they develop new skills like masonry and become agricultural societies, and it’s pretty fun.

That sounds sweet, I haven’t heard of that one.

Yeah, I don’t know if it’s a popular game, but I’ve been really into it.

What’s your earliest gaming memory or the game from your childhood?

The game from my childhood is definitely Secret Of Mana. That was what got me into RPGs and video games to begin with. It’s also one of the only RPGs I know that it has a two-player option. I started playing video games when I was like five years old. I had a Super Nintendo and I remember playing that with my dad. That was the beginning of realizing that video games could be art.

How was making your own game soundtrack for Sable different than making, say, a Japanese Breakfast album?

It was so different, honestly. I mean, it’s the first project that I’ve been a cog. That sounds really reductive, but I really appreciate being a cog in the creative machine. [Gregorios Kythreotis and Daniel Fineberg, the two-person team behind Sable developer Shedworks] are very much the directors of that project, and I just was so excited to contribute to someone else’s vision that I trusted. And to their credit, they were very supportive and pretty hands-off and just let me be creative and truly liked everything that I submitted for the most part.

It’s definitely a different vibe because first of all, lyrically, there are only like three songs with lyrics on the soundtrack, but you have to approach it from a place that’s not necessarily personal to you. It has to be this kind of universal feeling and it has to feel like it lives within the game. Also, a lot of the time for me, when I was writing, the narrative wasn’t all the way put together, so you have to kind of guess what’s going to cover the general idea of what’s happening.

It’s a coming-of-age story, so also my influences were super different for it. I was thinking a lot about Alan Menken and how he crafts this universal feeling and a song that everyone can relate to. That was actually a really lovely experience for me and took me to a very different place in my songwriting because I feel like so much of what I do for Japanese Breakfast is rooted in specific detail. I was doing these broad strokes of human feeling, like, what’s it like to feel uncertain about the future? Or coming of age, or discovering what path do you want to pursue? Instead of filling it with all these kind of little details, you have to sort of do these broad strokes but also make it compelling. So that was really fun for me.

Also, because it’s an open-world game, you have to make sure that the songs are really sprawling and don’t get grating. It’s very different from writing pop music where you’re always trying to find a hook that gets stuck in your head. It’s almost the opposite of that, because if you had something like that constantly for ten minutes while you’re exploring a place, it would get really f*cking annoying, so having to do more ambient sprawling work was interesting.

Do you have a favorite game soundtrack?

I really liked the Final Fantasy IX soundtrack and… what else? I was really inspired by the Chrono Cross soundtrack because I really liked that there’s alternate versions of the same song, because you go into a different time/world. So I kind of liked looking at the variations of those songs because I made a lot of day and night versions for this soundtrack. It was really fun to see how you can manipulate a song and keep it at the same key, but slow it down and create sparser instrumentation to make it feel like it’s a nighttime vibe. And of course, [The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild] soundtrack is incredible and does that as well.

Was there anything that surprised you about the process of making your own game, Japanese BreakQuest? By the way, that title is just [chef’s kiss sound].

Thank you [laughs]. I’m pretty sure that the label came up with that title. They approached me about it because my husband made these MIDI versions of the songs [from Soft Sounds From Another Planet] just for fun, and we were going to just release them on a cassette tape as a B-side kind of thing. When I sent it to the label, they were like, “You should make a game.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I should make a game.”

They introduced me to this woman named Elaine Fath. She did all of the design and all of the development and a lot of the writing, and I kind of just helped her come up with the concept based on some of the lyrics and concepts on the record. I helped with the character design and some of the writing and then helped place all of the songs and stuff like that. But yeah, it was really, really fun and really cute. I’d love to do that again. It was a great experience.

Having been involved with games, both making one and making music for one, how has that changed how you look at games now?

I guess I just have a newfound appreciation of what goes into them. So much of making a game is things breaking and fixing them. I think I just realized it’s a really wild craft and just how much of their lives are invested in, getting to know Daniel and Greg from Shedworks and just seeing they spent over five years of their lives on this project. After writing a book and knowing what it’s like to work on a long-term project, it’s really awe-inspiring that they’re creating a world. They’re actually creating a universe. It’s really inspiring, the kind of work ethic you need. I also learned more about sound design from Martin Kvale, who has been a really wonderful collaborator to work with. It just made me appreciate it so much more.

Is there anything different about planning a performance for an event like Summer Game Fest, where music isn’t necessarily the main focus?

Yeah. They had me perform in front of this giant wall that has the gameplay behind me. And then also there’s a section where I kind of disappear and stop singing and then it gets to go into the gameplay. I was definitely very hesitant at first to just… I don’t really identify as a singer, and I was nervous that if I didn’t have a band with me that people wouldn’t be able to know that I had produced and composed the whole soundtrack, and think that I was just the singer. So I was definitely nervous about just being alone and singing, but I think that it went well and I’m really happy with the way that it turned out.

What upcoming games are you most eager to hear more about, whether it’s at Summer Game Fest, E3, or just in general?

Lena Raine just did this game called [Chicory: A Colorful Tale] that looks really cute. I’m excited to see that. We just dropped the Sims cottagecore expansion pack, [The Sims 4 Cottage Living] just dropped the trailer that they featured “Be Sweet” in. I just watched that today and it does look very good. And yeah, what else? What are you looking forward to? I don’t know what else is coming.

Well, there’s possibly more news about Breath Of The Wild 2 that some people think might be coming.

I’m definitely very excited. I mean, Breath Of The Wild is my favorite, like everyone else. Just the pinnacle of excellence. I definitely am very excited for that as well.

Jubilee is out now via Dead Oceans. Get it here.