There’s something about failed sci-fi musicals that seemingly inspires an artist’s best work. Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo is perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon, scrapping an entire space opera entitled Songs From The Black Hole before he crafted what is, perhaps, the most fervently beloved disaffected freak-out album of all time with his band’s sophomore record Pinkerton. It’s tough to say if trying and failing to present his emotional crisis through a cosmic context was instrumental to Pinkerton’s eventual inception, but with Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner has now attempted the same, before winding up with her stunning, spectral new album Soft Sounds From Another Planet, and the pattern is seemingly proving itself to be a rule.
While initially born out of creative curiosity, the pre-planned thematic setting for her follow-up to 2016’s breakthrough Psychopomp also served as Zauner’s method to avoid singing further about her mother’s death after that event defined her breakout album’s narrative. Yet, she found herself stifled by the creative limitations, and realized she couldn’t just convince herself not to write about what was on her mind; her mother was, of course, still present in her thoughts, and so was all the rest she’s gone through emotionally in the years since her passing.
She lifted her strict adherence to what she originally envisioned as a tragic love story between woman and robot, and freed from her self-imposed constraints, set out to express further her relationship with the trauma of the years surrounding Psychopomp, an album where she said she was “so consumed by my own vulnerability and what I had endured,” with new perspective.
And while I’d love to hear what Zauner’s Pinkerton would sound like, it’s clear there’s no chance she’ll be writing it anytime soon. In spite of the difficulty of her recent past, Zauner’s contextualized those experiences and moved beyond them in an improbably healthy way. Doing so, she’s made something far more compelling than a jagged, unstable panic. Soft Sounds From Another Planet is about the process of stripping from your tragedies their power to punish you, or as she puts in her own words: “The album is a lot about thinking of your pain or the circumstances of your life more objectively.”
Like Rivers, Zauner collected the residue from her collapsed science fiction concept and wove it into the fabric of a broader exploration of her private and interpersonal anxieties, doing so with a stark, almost violent clarity. Yet unlike Rivers, she’s found peace in spite of what’s plagued her, although she still manages to honestly portray the realities of what she’s been through. In some instances her songwriting is despairingly graphic, like when she uses the act of “Road Head” as a foil to unravel the intricacies of a past relationship’s destructive power dynamic.
Elsewhere she’s achingly abstract, as on the robot-romance disco-ballad “Machinist,” one of the few Japanese Breakfast songs not rooted in Zauner’s real-world experience, yet still a resonant expression of the kind of communicative dissonance that sits at the center of many of her best songs, whether they revolve around lovers or bandmates or even the echo within her own head.
The compositions themselves are similarly varied and deeply endowed, expanding considerably upon Psychopomp’s palette of shimmering dream-rock while still retaining a cohesive sonic profile. The opening track takes cues from Japanese Breakfast’s recent tour mates Slowdive, as Zauner welds together a fish tank of gauzy, weighty shoegaze — letting it simmer for over six minutes on what is now her longest song by a good margin.
Meanwhile, “12 Steps” sounds like the Strokes filtered and distorted through a hall of mirrors, as if every sound is composed of several different spokes running close enough to be taken as a single brushstroke, refracting out as an array through that searing guitar riff. There are even nodes of Hot Chip in the thumping pep of “Machinist,” and Depeche Mode in the flittering ripples of instrumental track “Planetary Ambiance.”
Consistent throughout, however, is Zauner’s unflinching, soaring voice — one she uses to not only deliver her poetry, but will life within it, drawing from both personal experience and a cross-generational cultural background. On “Diving Woman,” Zauner considers the female divers of the South Korean island Jeju, called haenyeo, who collect and sell materials from the sea in the local marketplace, as a paragon of a life of dedication and endurance that she longs for. She relates the haenyeo to her fascination with the Mars One project, the mission to train humans into a multiplanetary species with the establishment of permanent settlements on our neighboring red planet, that originally served as the primary inspiration for the album.
“I just liked the idea of that a lot. I was really fascinated with people who wanted to commit themselves to a job like that, or any job that requires such complete mental, emotional, physical devotion,” Zauner explained. “After going through something that was really hard and painful for me, I just wanted to be consumed by that kind of direct devotion to something, to be a person of regimen, to only think about your work or what’s in front of you or the task at hand.”
Where Psychopomp was born of circumstance — a necessary reflection to keep moving and steady during hardship — Soft Sounds feels willfully intent. Zauner has become sturdier in the studio, and she has a bit more control over the presentation of this album’s narrative. She’s even taken the opportunity to reframe an old song from her days in Little Big League, “Boyish,” transforming it into an arresting, sweeping arrangement better centered around the perfectly dismal lyric: “I can’t get you off my mind / I can’t get you off in general.” Revisiting the song three years later proved to be a marker of the extent to which Zauner feels she has grown: “I think it takes on a little bit of a different emotion… it feels almost more cinematic, like when you’re recalling a memory of when you felt some way and it seemed kind of funny to you that it was so melodramatic.”
With time, Zauner has also come to better understand her relationship with her cultural background. Against expectations set by her band name, Zauner is half Korean, although that side of her is one she didn’t feel comfortable presenting until “maybe three years ago.” Like many second-generation Americans, her sense of self was skewed from a young age.
“I grew up in a largely white community, so I resented that part of my identity for a really long time,” Zauner admitted. “I would actually do things to try to hide that in a weird way. For instance, my middle name is my mother’s name, it’s Chong Mi, and I used to pretend as a child that I didn’t have a middle name.” Beyond self-identity, these experiences shaped her self-expression: “I was oddly ashamed and I think part of that was I felt being non-white made my story less neutral, and I could never just tell my story without it being in a niche market.”
While we’ve become increasingly accustomed to marginalized voices taking ownership over previously prohibited spaces, with many of Zauner’s own friends leading the movement of young, multicultural indie-rockers at the forefront of the genre, that comes with a constant strain for these artists, who are navigating vastly uncharted territories of media presentation. There are many fans that find the presence of Asian-American artists in Western culture essential to their own participation, but the value of their art shouldn’t be intrinsically linked to their racial novelty.
“It’s a double-edged sword, because I understand the desire for people to talk about it and I understand that it is something that’s new and powerful, but first and foremost I’m an artist and I want to talk about that more than anything else,” Zauner affirmed. “It’s a tough balance and I’m still trying to figure it out, because I am proud of that part of my identity and I do enjoy sharing that with people who haven’t gotten to see that in this community, but I also don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the main thing I’ve spent time on and am interested in showcasing is my craft.”
And while there’s an unambiguous benefit to having more minority representatives in our popular culture, the road to inclusion is paved with obstacles built around the few that manage to break through into the mainstream.
“A lot of times people are like, ‘Oh did you have any role models when you were younger in music?’ and I would often cite Karen O because it was such a big deal to me to see a half-Korean girl deep-throating the microphone and spitting water all over herself,” Zauner said. “And it’s only recently I realized that that was simultaneously really encouraging and also discouraging in some way because I felt like, ‘Oh, it’s too bad there’s already a half-Asian girl in music that exists because now I can’t fill that spot, as if there was only one.”
Her experience with Karen O mirrors the one minority artists face daily when pursuing spaces where there is already a strong presence from a distinct representative of their ethnic group. They aren’t simply fighting to be heard; they also have to fight against being seen as derivative. It’s why every Asian-American woman entering indie rock is going to have to prove the distinction of her identity against Mitski in the coming years. And it’s not just in music, either; South Asian comedians have had to immediately set themselves apart from comparisons to Aziz Ansari whenever they begin to accumulate any screen time, and Panjabi poet Rupi Kaur is the latest casualty of expressing herself in a manner that resembles too strongly the style of other women writers of color.
Of course, sometimes these associations also come from those predominant artists using their earned platform to further elevate deserving voices. Mitski asking Japanese Breakfast and East Bay bedroom auteur Melina Duerte of Jay Som to open her national tour last year made for one of the most impressive touring bills in indie rock I can remember, regardless of whatever pool you’re drawing from. And after years cutting her teeth on the creative circuit and a resigned acceptance of a future in the nine to five world, it was also a necessary door opened that convinced Zauner to forgo her intentions of retiring after Psychopomp and seize the moment for one last try at a career in music.
That decision to persist has been validated repeatedly over the last year. One of the most awe-striking moments Zauner’s felt yet was having Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell tell her band how much she believes in them at the end of their tour together. As Zauner put it, “When a universally-acclaimed, genre-changing band tells you that you’re doing a good job, it’s a surreal experience.” Her current stint as support for Tegan & Sara is another checkmark for Zauner, who mentioned that in college she “was in a band whose end goal was to open for Tegan & Sara.” And beyond her musical peers, Zauner’s even caught the attention of the science community that initially inspired Soft Sounds’ construction, recently she was contacted by the CEO and co-founder of the Mars One project himself.
Aannnnddd this is from the CEO and co founder of the Mars One project ??☄️??? pic.twitter.com/Mym8fWwNt6
— Japanese Breakfast (@Jbrekkie) July 18, 2017
“That was crazy! I don’t know what will happen there,” Zauner laughed. “I think he just saw an interview of me talking about the Mars One project and thought that was really cool and listened to the record. I was like ‘Oh, what’d you think?’ and he was like ‘Oh, I don’t really listen to this kind of music. He listens to classical music and listed all these composers that he does listen to. But yeah, it was really insane. He’s a brilliant man and I hope I get to meet him this year, he might try to make it out to one of our shows or something.”
Those shows this fall will comprise Japanese Breakfast’s first ever headlining tour, an occasion Zauner doesn’t take casually even after her seemingly endless time on the road this summer. “We try to play more of the ‘upbeat hits’ when we do a support run, and now that we get to headline we get to play some of the quieter songs and rely on the fact that people are there to see us and want to see maybe the depths of our catalogue.” In the winter, those shows will make their way to Asia, where Zauner hopes to stay after the tour and take a month off to reconnect with her roots in Korea.
“I’m so tired of eating mediocre Korean food in the states, and I’m excited to go eat real Korean food and spend time with the family I haven’t seen in a couple of years and my father lives in Asia now so it’ll be easier to see him,” Zauner said. “I’ve been wanting to work on a book, and I haven’t been having any time to work on this book and a lot of it is about Korean culture, and I just want to plop myself in there for a little while and be inspired and be in a new environment.”