The Evolution of Japanese Breakfast Has Been Anything But Predictable

Skim the career of Michelle Zauner too hastily and you might come to the conclusion that she primarily viewed her Japanese Breakfast moniker as a valve to release her grief. It was late 2014 when Zauner put a stop to all activities with her band Little Big League and moved back to Eugene, Oregon to be with her mother, who had been diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer that would become terminal. In the history of popular music, it’s common for the psyche of an artist who records in such desperate conditions to be poured over, lyrics examined for insights, every snare crack or synth hum scanned for emotion. But Zauner wasn’t hiding the fact that the music was providing an outlet for her pain. When she posted the short lo-fi release Where Is My Great Big Feeling? to Bandcamp in June 2014, it was with a note that revealed her mother’s diagnosis. “I also hope anyone else who lost or is struggling with a family member or friend with cancer can maybe find some comfort in these sh*tty lo fi songs,” she wrote.

Revisiting the Japanese Breakfast origin story reminds us of the distance Zauner has run to get to the 2022 Grammys, where she is up for Best Alternative Music Album, recognizing her third full-length Jubilee, and Best New Artist. The latter nomination is, of course, ridiculous, given she’s been musically active since 2006 at the latest, but it does reflect Zauner’s establishment in mainstream American music. Jubilee features big choruses, propulsive guitar lines, a grand cadre of orchestral instruments. Encouraged by her bandmate and co-producer Craig Hendrix (though it’s firmly Zauner’s vehicle, Japanese Breakfast is sometimes referred to as a band), she helped compose the string and horn arrangements for the first time. Zauner had, in fact, initially envisioned touring the record with an orchestra. Covid-19 restrictions ended those best-laid plans, but the intent reflects her grandiose vision for the project. “After writing two albums and a book about grief, I feel very ready to embrace feeling,” she told Pitchfork in March 2021. “I wanted to just explore a different part of me: I am capable of joy and I have experienced a lot of joy,” she added. “All the songs are different reminders of how to experience or carve out space for that.”

Zauner has not yet been one of Bowie-esque reinvention. The evolution of Japanese Breakfast from dropping rusty lo-fi jams online to the Grammys has been organic. On Psychopomp, her first album as Japanese Breakfast, Zauner and musician Ned Eisenberg polished up some of those previously released compositions. Alchemising dream pop, shoegaze, and teen movie alternative rock, Zauner wrote songs with lovely melodies but sad overtones. Alongside the fuzzy, chugging guitars of “In Heaven,” there is the image of the family dog searching the house for the Zauner’s missing mother. “I came here for the long haul,” the singer admits. “Now I leave here as an empty f*cking hole.”

Zauner’s voice has a hushed, breathy texture, capable of blowing through the arrangements like smoke through a room. But she can be versatile too. The vocal on “Rugged Country,” also from Psychopomp, has a more trashy feel, calling upon the spirit of Joan Jett.

There was a quick follow-up in Soft Sounds From Another Planet, released on Dead Ocean in 2017. A sure-footed step, the arrangements were more fleshed out and sophisticated. Dream pop was still the blueprint, but with extra synthesizers, funky basslines, various beeps and blips that provided a cosmic texture, and, on “Machinist,” a sax solo. Still, a sense of gloaming shrouded the project. The soothing, beautiful “Till Death” presented post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, and fears of genetic disease and death, packaged as a thank you from Zauner to her husband for his support.

We can be tricked into thinking that coming-of-age tales can happen in real life as neatly as they do in a John Hughes movie. But life’s key lessons rarely fit neatly into a weekend stint in detention or unauthorized day off. No Japanese Breakfast album cycle offered a perfect arc with a happy resolution. They gave us Zauner, in her mid-20s and dealing with cacophonous anguish, and the realization that grief is not a straight, descending line that time automatically heals. “I have a sh*t-ton of GI cancer in my family — both my mom and her sister died really young — so I feel like I have a ticking time bomb inside of me,” she told Pitchfork in that interview last year. And yet, there’s evidence that the thunderclouds have perhaps begun to dissipate: “Once death was really close to me, I suddenly became very fearful of it. I think that lit a fire in me like, What do you have to say before it happens?”

A four-year break from album-making saw Zauner harness a passion for writing into the memoir Crying In H Mart, which covered not just her mother’s death, but, as a woman of Jewish and Korean heritage, growing up mixed-race in America. And, not long prior to the book’s release, there was Jubilee. It would be wrong to suggest that this is the sound of commercial compromises, but its sense of catharsis is blended with brighter 1980s indie-pop arrangements into a more mainstream palatable formula. Baroque opener “Paprika” features trumpets, trombones, and cellos, among many other instruments, immediately offering more grandeur. Zauner describes awakening from a dream of untying a huge knot, immediately allowing the listener to share a sense of release.

​​With music co-written by Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum, lead single “Be Sweet” is Japanese Breakfast’s most anthemic tune: a brash indie number that pulls from both adult contemporary and new wave sounds of the ’80s. Interestingly, it’s followed up with “Komono, IN.” Zauner’s favorite song on the album resembles the vintage 1950s pop of an artist like Patti Page, but with the ripple of a slide guitar bumping up against the strings.

The outer perimeters of the Japanese Breakfast sound are further tested on “Slide Tackle,” which includes a steady, synthesized beat that feels salvaged from an old Postal Service tune. “Savage Good Boy” is underpinned by what sounds like a more hyperactive version of the famous riff from Devotchka’s “How It Ends.”

“Posing in Bondage” is one of Zauner’s greatest achievements. The grinding, machine-like beauty of the music is paired with a lilting melody. The chorus on the short sentences is an exercise in brevity: “Closeness / Proximity / I needed / Bondage,” sings Zauner, each word floating into the atmosphere.

In the wake of Jubilee, Zauner has put out a soundtrack to the videogame Sable — check out strings-led “Better The Mask” and how it resembles the production skills of Jon Brion and Van Dyke Parks. Even more recently, there’s been a new standalone single, “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do.” A piano ballad, it feels like a closing track of an epic record, perhaps a curtain call on the first act of Japanese Breakfast. Collecting a Grammy would be an emphatic button on this period of her career. Zauner’s upward trajectory to this point might have felt unbroken, but that doesn’t mean the road has been predictable.