Japanese Breakfast Finds Vows in the Throes of Death
In Japanese Breakfast’s most recent press photo, Michelle Zauner stands in a flurry of blurred lights, the kind that only exist in certain windowless spaces — a casino, an arcade, sections of amusement parks. The multicolored haze intimates a sense of entertainment, a delicately overwhelming feeling. Zauner is situated in the middle, mostly expressionless, eyes smiling, focused directly on the frame. There’s an intensity in the image, one that doesn’t reveal much … that is, until Zauner explains it.
“That photo was taken between these two,” she reveals as skips to a particular section of Philadelphia’s Dave & Buster’s, squeezing between two arcade games, the goal of both being to knock down as many clowns as possible. “Right here.”
Considering the critical conversation surrounding Zauner and her project Japanese Breakfast, the lighthearted location might read as surprising. In March of this year, Zauner released Psychopomp, her first full-length under the JB name, a body of work she largely considered a side project to her band of a few years, cult emo faves Little Big League. It’s a compilation album of sorts, Zauner reworking songs written and recorded at various points in the last six years. The result is an album that spans genre and emotional weight, all connected by a singular narrative: the death of Zauner’s mother. She’s on the cover of the album, young, full of life, reaching for the viewer. In 2014, she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She passed six months later.
"I didn't grow up with any kind of religion; I'm a cold, non-spiritual person," Zauner explains while sipping a red and blue snow cone vodka concoction, the kind of cocktail kitsch she enjoys. The lighthearted beverage adds to the gravity of her speech. "When my mom died, people from my dad's generation would come to me with, 'She's in a better place, she's in heaven.' People from my generation, my friends, [they] had nothing to say at all. They didn't know what to say. There's nothing to say. We believe in science. When it comes to things that are difficult to talk about, what happened to psychology? I was reading today about repressed memory and it seems like a fact." She's alluding to "In Heaven," a reverb-heavy shoegaze number that doesn't question the afterlife as much as it criticizes the belief. The song is delicate; her frustration is not.
"When I started going to therapy for the first time in a long time, I saw a union analyst because I started getting mad at myself," Zauner says. "I'm not a religious person. Why am I spending $20 on a bouquet to put on my mom's grave? It wasn't helpful for me. I wanted her to know, in some way, that I was doing that. I was angry that I wanted that. I was expressing this to the analyst, and she showed me that this was the same kind of fundamentalism — my desire to not believe is the same kind of religious fundamentalism. She explained to me that I had to make a space for some mystery. It was just a very logical way of thinking. If it helps, believe it, and it's okay. Whatever helps you in a moment, let it in. At the time, I was having a lot of dreams about my mom, and when I do, I like to believe that she's visiting me. It's not a religious experience, but it helps me to think of it that way."
After the tragedy, another almost struck. "My dad got into a really bad car crash two weeks after my mom died," Zauner reveals. "He called me in the middle of the night and told me he'd crashed half a mile from our house. When I saw his car, I thought, 'I'm an orphan. He's dead.' The car completely flipped. When I got there, he was sitting in the back of an ambulance, totally fine. He didn't break a single bone in his body. It's hard to not believe in some way — even with all the success of this project that I never had — it's hard to believe that someone isn't looking out for me."
This newfound mystery and success is a new practice for Zauner. As a musician, everything she does is meticulous, calculating without the neuroticism. When she first started Japanese Breakfast in 2013, she recorded a song a day for the month of June, largely as a challenge to herself. "It might not sound romantic to sit down and force yourself to write songs instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, but it's worked for me," she explains. "I think it forces you to be intuitive and it’s a good exercise in discipline — you have to complete something. That’s not to say you can’t go back in a year, which is what I did, There’s this interview with Hemingway where he says you should always write and stop writing when you still have something to say so you can come back to it. You leave it, but you’re not necessarily finished with it. You come back after a certain amount of time and you have new perspective."
Perspective, and being honest in that perspective, is key in Japanese Breakfast's existence. The moniker is often read incorrectly, casual listeners assuming it's somehow an appropriation. Zauner is half-Korean — her mother's side — and it's a response she has considered. "'Breakfast' is a word that sounds very classically American," she says. "'Japanese' is a word that a lot of people associate with something foreign. I wanted to combine my feelings of unbelonging with this classically American identity. I think growing up in a town where the population was 98 percent white, in a lot of ways Japanese culture felt like the most familiar Asian culture to Americans. I didn't anticipate people getting upset by it. People read my name, Michelle Zauner, and assume I'm white, and are offended by it."
The town in question is Eugene, Oregon, where Zauner grew up. It's also where she spent the majority of 2015 taking care of her dying mother. "I grew up American and hated [my] Korean [identity]," she recalls. "When you're younger, you're really self-conscious about anything that makes you different. It really felt like a stab, in a lot of ways. As I got older and I became more comfortable with my identity — and even more so when my mom passed away — I really started to identify with my Korean heritage. I grew up largely with my mom; she was a stay-at-home mom. My middle name is her name; growing up I pretended I didn't have one."
She stops and thinks for a minute. "I played in a punk band for three years. I don't think I was ever called a woman of color until the last two years. I think that was a huge change for me. I think there's been a real shift on how people talk about race now. People that are younger than me are really navigating a new dialogue."
Learning to accept her heritage seems to be something that arrived before her mother's passing, but continues to live on as legacy. It lives on in Psychopomp. While the album will always be associated with feelings of grief, Zauner managed to find compassion and love in a time of trauma with her partner, Pyotr. "We had been dating for a year and a half when my mom got really sick," she says. "I ended up calling him from the hospital: 'If you think that someday we'll get married and you don't do it now, I don't think I'll ever forgive you.' I threatened him into proposing," she jokes. "I wanted my mom to have something to look forward to that wasn't just waiting to die. 'You have to hold on because your only kid is going to get married.' If I ever got married after my mom died, it would always be a painful memory.
"I also think I created a family in fear of losing mine. I had a small nuclear family that was completely disrupted. I think, psychologically, I was prepping for that. I got a wedding dress tailored in Korea for $400 in two days. I tried it on for my mom in the hospital. Whenever she got down, I'd ask her, 'What kind of chairs do we get? What kind of food do we serve?' It was a really beautiful way of flipping the conversation. We planned the wedding in three weeks, got married, had a beautiful wedding, and two weeks later my mom died. Within a week, she was in a coma. She really fought to be there. I wanted some sense of lightness in a dark time. And if I didn't have my partner at the time, I don't know if I could have survived that period."
When Zauner looks up, her eyes glisten. For a moment, it looks like the onset of tears, although it's most likely the flashing arcade lights of the games around us. When she pauses to consider her gesture of affection in loss, she takes a sip of her drink. It's now a melted purple. She laughs. "We actually had our first kiss outside this Dave & Buster's!" Zauner stands up when Pyotr approaches at the mention of his name, taking off to play a game.