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Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner On Her Wild Year And Winning The 2021 Uproxx Music Critics Poll

When The Recording Academy livestreamed an announcement of all of their 2022 Grammy nominees, Japanese Breakfast‘s Michelle Zauner nearly didn’t tune in. She was scheduled to record a podcast that day and certainly wasn’t expecting to become Grammy-nominated for Best New Artist and Best Alternative music album. So when she did hear her name called alongside artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Saweetie, all she could do was scream with joy.

Zauner has been experiencing a lot of joy lately. Her 2021 album Jubilee was an ode to the feeling, detailing ecstatic romance and the nuances of identity over shimmering synths and pop-leaning chords. The album was a way to move on from the grief she carried through the better half of the past decade, and also gave her the chance to try out new things like writing string and horn arrangements.

Zauner’s joy has also comes from the fact she hit a lot of major milestones in 2021. Earlier this year, Zauner released her New York Times bestselling book Crying In H Mart. The story is set to be adapted into a film and also just landed on Barack Obama’s list of favorite books of 2021. And while her Grammys nod confirmed the stand-out nature of Jubilee, the album came in at No. 1 on the Uproxx 2021 Music Critics Poll, featuring on more than 25% of the 200+ ballots.

Sitting down to reflect on her wins and absolutely bonkers year, Zauner chats with Uproxx about some of the other albums she’s been loving this year, how she celebrated her Grammy nominations, and her hope that she runs into Ariana Grande on the red carpet. Check out an edited version of the conversation below.

Every year Uproxx asks music critics from a range of publications like Rolling Stone, Billboard, Spin, and others to rank their favorite albums and songs of the year. So, this year we had more than 200 music critics vote for their favorite album and Jubilee appeared on 53 ballots, meaning more than 25% of all these critics voted for your record. How does it feel to have these music critics’ favorite album of 2021?

It’s a rush. I think I’m just blown away. Just totally floored. I felt kind of like a crazy person these past two years sitting on this record and it’s been so surreal to receive this type of acclaim. I’m honored.

I bet that that must feel really nice too especially since you were sitting on the record for so long, to have it be released and also have people love it so much.

It’s a really, really wonderful feeling, because I think as an artist, there’s so much time that’s spent feeling like no one understands you or what you’re doing. And it’s been such a long time working on music and feeling like no one really got it. And so I felt like it was such a special record for me and it’s really wonderful to have that feeling be shared with people with such high standards and impeccable taste.

In general, you’ve had a wildly busy year. Not only did you release a book and an album, but you also went on a tour, you were nominated for Grammys, you went on TV, you soundtracked a video game, and probably the biggest achievement of the year, you sang “Be Sweet” in Simlish for Sims4.

That’s true.

Where were you when you heard the news about the Grammys and how did you hear it?

I think that my manager had an inkling that it was going to happen. I had a Studio Ghibli podcast booked for noon that day. And he was like, ‘we have to cancel this podcast. I think that you should watch the Grammys.’ And I was like, not really planning on it. I’d rather not delude myself into thinking that there’s a possibility here. And so I was like, ‘I don’t want to watch it and then feel bad about myself for watching it.’ And he was like, ‘no, no, just trust me.’ And so I was in my apartment in Brooklyn watching it and yeah, I screamed a lot and probably freaked my neighbors out pretty intensely.

Did you celebrate at all that night?

I had kind of a weird busy day where I had to do a bunch of interviews and a reading and I couldn’t really celebrate properly, but I did get very drunk at a bar in Philadelphia with my producer Craig Hendrix and the two of us celebrated with some friends. We played a fun game where we were going through the years guessing which artist won Best New Artist for every year. And I think just thinking about where we’re at in music and what that represents. Seeing people like Elton John against The Carpenters in the ’70s and even Jewel and Fiona Apple in the ’90s… It just it was really cool to look back at the Wikipedia of all of the artists that have been nominated for Best New Artist over the years and be able to consider myself in that history. It was a fun drinking game.

I assume that you’re going to the Grammys next year?

Yes.

Do you have any musicians or celebrities that you really hope that you run into when you’re there?

Yeah. I am a secret Ariana Grande stan, and so I would love to meet Ariana Grande. I’d love to talk to Megan Thee Stallion about anime. I’d love to meet Olivia Rodrigo. I’m very excited to meet a bunch of people, but I think I would particularly like to meet Ariana Grande. I think it would be sick to meet BTS, too.

Just before our chat today, Barack Obama listed Crying In H Mart on his favorite books of the year. What is it like knowing not only that one of our former presidents read your writing, but also loved your book?

I was just saying he’s the first president I ever voted for and it’s really surreal to be on the most coveted year-end list. But yeah, I don’t know at this point, there’s just so much good news that has happened at the end of the year. It just feels momentous. And I’m trying to just be in this moment, because it feels like such a big, special moment and I want to feel it to its full extent.

Jubilee was a music critics’ favorite album of the year, but I was wondering what you would say your favorite album of the year was, or just some albums that you’ve been listening to a lot.

I really loved Chai’s Wink. I probably listened to that album the most, this year. I also really liked Hand Habits, Fun House, and Clairo’s Sling.

Did you get to try anything new for the first time this year like food or any experiences that really stand out to you?

I went to Mexico City this week for the first time, which was so much fun and so wild, because it was the first time we left the country in almost two years. I had the most incredible snapper, whole roasted snapper with these Mexican sauces on it. It was so delicious. I think I’ve eaten a lot of bugs in my life, but I don’t think I’ve had crickets before and that’s like a big thing over there. So we had a lot of fried crickets that were pretty good.

Is it true that they taste like chicken?

I think that they taste kind of like dead leaves. They’re salty. They kind of taste like salty fall foliage.

When you released your book, did you have a lot of people reaching out to you that were just talking about how they had really similar experiences to you? Did that make you feel a sense of connection with people?

Yeah, totally. Because the book came out in the middle of the pandemic, I didn’t really get to do that many readings up until closer to the end of this year. And I think that especially growing up in a very white town with very little diversity, I felt so alone in my experiences. And I felt so confused by… in particular my relationship with my mom and being raised by an immigrant parent and my identity and all of that, that I think for the first time I feel like I’m not a crazy person, because so many people reached out to me having this same type of relationship with their parent or their culture. I just I feel so much less alone and less crazy, because for the first time I feel like I’ve written down what so many people haven’t said out loud. That’s a really wonderful feeling.

I have a really specific question that I’m really curious about. Can you tell me what it was like working with Michael Imperioli for your “Savage Good Boy” video? Cause I just started watching the Sopranos this past year and I’m totally hooked, very obsessed with him now.

Yeah. I’m a huge Sopranos fan. And so it is my cinematographer and he was our top pick and that was like the beginning of a really crazy year of getting to meet some of my heroes. It was really hard for me not to call him Christopher. I felt like I just really knew him as Christopher, but he was like such a nice guy. And he knows a lot about art and music and was really down and took it very seriously and gave me so much respect as a director, even though I’m so new to it and pretty young. It was a really wonderful experience. He’s such a gracious, wonderful guy.

Jubilee is all about joy, which definitely contrasts with your previous releases and your book as well, which are often revolving around the feeling of grief. I was wondering while you were writing Jubilee, were there any lessons that you took away from writing the music and what are some things that are bringing joy for you right now?

Oh, I studied, I took some guitar lessons and piano lessons and that was like a big learning lesson for me was just push myself to write with other instruments. And that was really helpful. I wrote “Slide Tackle” on bass and I largely wrote “Paprika” and “Tactics” on piano. And this is also the first time that I started writing string and horn arrangements. I just learned so much about what I’m capable of as a composer and that was really exciting for me.

And what it’s bringing me joy is this massive relief that my work has finally found a home in so many people’s hearts. I feel just so grateful to have this type of understanding and connection with so much of the world that I’ve never had before. It feels like a very peak moment in my career. And I’m just trying to remind myself to revel and not feel overwhelmed or scared and to feel like hard work has finally paid off.

Check out the results of Uproxx’s 2021 Critic’s Poll here.

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

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