Japanese Breakfast Explains How She Made 2021’s Best Indie Album

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Michelle Zauner has already had a momentous 2021. In April, her first book, a memoir about her complicated relationship with her late mother called Crying In H Mart, debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. Now, the 32-year-old singer and musician is readying the release of her third album as Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee. Not only is it Zauner’s most accomplished album to date, it might very well be the best indie record of the year.

Oh, and Zauner also directed the videos for each of Jubilee‘s three singles. And she has a poppy side project, BUMPER, with Crying’s Ryan Galloway. And she’s currently composing the score for an upcoming “coming of age” video game, Sable. Zauner clearly is a compulsive over-achiever. What drives her to work so hard? Joy? Fear? Is she a workaholic?

“After my mother passed away, I started really becoming a workaholic, in part, because I had this fear that I didn’t have enough time to say all this stuff,” Zauner confessed during a recent interview. “Also, I think it just helped to ground me. If I’m really busy, then I don’t have as much time to get sad and depressed.”

With Jubilee, Zauner made a concerted effort to move beyond the life and death themes of her book, which also dominate her first two albums as Japanese Breakfast, 2016’s Psychobomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet. Zauner started the project in 2013 while tending to her ailing mother in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon. (She moved there at nine months old after being born in Seoul, South Korea.) At the time, she was fronting a Philadelphia-based emo band called Little Big League, but in Japanese Breakfast she began experimenting with introspective indie pop to significantly greater effect.

While Japanese Breakfast’s early material was often classified as lo-fi, Jubilee represents the grandest music of her career, nodding to the sonically rich and expansive indie albums of the ’90s and ’00s by artists such as Bjork and Joanna Newsom. In terms of lyrics, Zauner has turned her eye to character studies that are delivered with cinematic flair. The result is a record that should put her in the highest echelon of indie scene stars in the 2020s.

Zauner spoke about the making of Jubilee, her love of “cringe-worthy” indie music from the Pacific Northwest, and how Jeff Tweedy inspired her to play an epic guitar solo.

You made this album in 2019, and it was going to come out last year but of course the pandemic screwed that up. So you’ve been living with Jubilee for a while. Has your perspective on it changed?

I actually like it more. I had a really nice experience a couple of weeks ago where I just sat down and listened to the record from start to finish. I was like, “This is pretty good! I think I did a pretty good job!” I tend to have this feeling when I finish a project, especially as I get older, where instead of feeling this gratification, I’m like Debbie Downer. And I don’t know why that is. I don’t feel it was as bad when I was younger. I had that feeling of accomplishment. But now I’m always grappling with, “Did I reach my vision?” And it never quite feels like I do. And then, time goes by and I can look back and enjoy it for what it is.

Is there a particular song that you hated at first that you like now?

Yeah. I hated “Slide Tackle” for a long time. I was like, “Man, I should have really buried that record. It’s so basic.” I didn’t know what I wanted it to be for a really long time. And then, relistening to the album, I was like, “These sounds are weird, and kind of cool. And not really like anything that we’ve done before.” I don’t know if other people will feel that way, but I certainly did while I was relistening to it.

This album made me think about that era of really expansive aughts-era indie albums like Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, and Joanna Newsom’ Ys. It has that kind of classic sweep to it. Were those albums on your mind at all while you were making Jubilee?

I mean, I feel like those are seminal records for me that have lived inside of me. They weren’t necessarily on my mind. I think that I am in this interesting spot where I don’t think that the records that I grew up with are cool. So, I don’t feel I’m quick to claim them, even though they’re so formative for me, including all those records you just mentioned. I feel there’s not enough distance from them, in the way that referencing a Kate Bush album or Bjork record would be. But those are albums that shaped me very, very much when I was a teenager, and I’m sure subconsciously have influenced me a great deal. I love that second Joanna Newsom record for sure.

Were you an indie kid growing up?

The music that I really loved growing up were bands like Built to Spill, Death Cab for Cutie, and Modest Mouse. Also, all the K Records bands and that sort of anti-folk stuff, I was into that when I was a teenager. And all the Phil Elverum projects, which had that sort of hyper-personal, confessional quality. There’s this almost cringe-worthy earnestness that accompanies the Pacific Northwest. And I feel like that type of music really influenced me growing up and is definitely a major reference point for a lot of Japanese Breakfast albums, whether or not I want to admit it.

There’s also a real pop influence on Jubilee. Where does that fit in your musical consciousness?

The only music that I remember my dad listening to were old Motown compilations and Fleetwood Mac records. Those are the most tasteful pop albums of all time, and maybe that made its way into my music. I mean, I’m not the kind of artist that likes experimental music for the sake of being difficult. I hate that. I have no interest in dissonance really. I like things to sound good.

It does seem like you were trying to ramp up for this record. It’s the biggest sounding music you’ve made as Japanese Breakfast.

Absolutely. I’ve actually never been in a band that has reached LP3, so this is my first LP3. I really nerd out on artists’ discographies. I’ll go on Wikipedia see how old they were when they made certain records, so I can understand their trajectory and map it onto my life. For me, the quintessential third LP is Bjork’s Homogenic.

I wanted to make an LP that felt like I was putting my strongest foot forward, flexing every muscle and using every tool in the box to make a record with the utmost confidence. Because I was so riddled with anxiety for the sophomore record, because I came into this later. I really felt Psychopomp was an absolute fluke, and I wasn’t working with the same producer or the same musicians. I just felt terrified that I was going to lose everything that I had gotten that year. Soft Sounds was made in a very insular environment, where it was just Craig Hendrix, the live drummer, and I. And he’s also the co-producer on this record and Soft Sounds, and very much just my ultimate creative collaborator.

I knew with this record I wanted to invite in more people. Some of that came from being on tour for the last three years, and getting to meet people like Adam Schatz, who plays saxophone and also has a network of horn players he brought in. And then Molly Germer, who still does all the violin on Alex G records. And she has her whole network of string players.

Your first two records and the book are grounded in your experiences from childhood and your relationship with your mom. Jubilee feels like moving on from that. Do you feel that making art inspired by your life has given you a new perspective?

Writing the book really helped me end that chapter of my life in a way. It was three years of excavating memories, and structuring it to be better understood by myself and other people. I think that definitely helped me make way for this new album in a lot of ways. I had written two albums about it, and it just felt like I wanted to flip myself to the other side of the spectrum and talk about this other huge part of my life.

How would you compare the process of writing a book vs. writing an album?

I think that, in that way, it’s the same, because you’re sort of collecting these pieces of your life, and then investigating them. But the actual process of writing a book is much lonelier. It’s more difficult and much more time consuming. One thing I do like about it is there’s a lot more perspective that’s built into the writing process of a book. You write the first draft and then you send it to an editor, and then you have months away from it where you don’t think about it at all. And then, you get to go back in with fresh eyes and do it all over again, and be away from it for another month.

I will say I never felt as stupid as I have writing a book. It’s like being confronted by my own limitations.

In my experience, the hardest part of writing a book is going through the emotional valleys where you feel your book is terrible.

I had the same thing with this album. When Craig and I went out for our little glass of champagne at a bar in December of 2019, we both felt that way. We were like, “I think it’s good. I don’t really know.” We lost perspective. It made me very sad that I can’t even enjoy finishing an album anymore.

The album ends with this epic guitar solo on the song “Posing For Cars,” which runs for nearly half the track. You don’t often hear guitar solos on indie records anymore. What’s your relationship with the guitar?

I was just really inspired by Wilco. Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline write some of the greatest guitar solos. But they’re a specific type of guitar solo. They’re not like a bad rock solo. They have a narrative. I was really inspired by that song “At Least That’s What You Said.” It feels like this sort of very quiet moment between two people that’s really stripped down for the first minute or two, and then Jeff Tweedy just says everything that’s not said between these people in his guitar solo. “Posing For Cars” is very much about two people who love each other in very different ways, and how both are really valid and deep. It felt like that same kind of buildup moment, where I needed to express all of the underlying emotion in that song through a guitar solo.

I don’t really feel that confident as a guitar player, and I definitely wanted to shy away from doing it. I wanted to have Meg Duffy play it because they’re a much more virtuosic wizard of a guitar player and could do a much better job at it. But it felt necessary that I be the one who created the narrative in a way.

It’s not like Jeff Tweedy is a virtuoso, either. But his playing on “At Least That’s What You Said” is so primal.

That was how I rationalized playing it. He could have tapped Nels Cline to do it. Nels Cline is definitely an objectively better guitar player than Jeff Tweedy. But in the same way that you don’t have to have this massive literary vocabulary to write a great book, you just have to have a great voice and personal style, I think that the same could be said for guitar solo.

What do you think it is that ultimately drives you creatively?

I feel like a little bit of a late bloomer in some ways. I had been playing in bands since I was 16, but I never had any kind of recognition really until I was 25, and Psychopomp started getting press. I just had really done the grind for 10 years. I’m seeing so many of my friends who I’ve always considered to be more talented than me not make it. Or make it and then get dropped or forgotten about. So I feel like I’ve always felt this need to make a backup plan, or take advantage of the eyes on me while I can because I love what I do for a living and I want to always be working.

Do you feel in retrospect that there was a benefit to not becoming famous when you were 21?

Yeah, I think I would have been a chaotic egomaniac if I had come into it earlier. I think that I could really appreciate it, too, because I never felt it was owed to me. I felt I really worked hard and I won a lottery, and I should really cherish that.

I’ve seen some younger artists whose first album blew up, and that’s all they’ve ever known. They don’t know what it’s like [to not be successful]. I always feel like I have to really push myself. And I wouldn’t have known that if this had come earlier to me.

What do you want to do that you haven’t done yet?

I would love to play with an orchestra. And there are certain festivals that I’d love to play. I think I’d love to direct a feature someday, down the line, but not right now.

What kind of feature would you want to make?

Part of me would love to direct the Crying In H Mart adaptation, but part of me is also terrified of doing something like that. I’m honestly in this place right now where I don’t have a lot of new ideas. I’ve been sitting on this record for a year, and working on this book for three years. I am in kind of a pleasant but anxious place of not knowing what my next project is for the first time in six years. So, I’m trying to let myself be chill with that.

Jubilee is out on June 4 via Dead Oceans. Get it here.