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Soaring Success: Michelle Zauner and Japanese Breakfast’s unstoppable creative explosion

November 1, 2018

Text by Dave Miniaci. Image by Ashley Gellman.

Hanging in the entranceway to Michelle Zauner’s apartment are framed posters of concerts past, from her former band Little Big League and current band, Japanese Breakfast.

They serve as fun mementos but are also reminders of the hard work that has led Zauner to this stage in her career.

“I’m at the point where I’m achieving things I thought would just be comical and outlandish to achieve,” she says, then continues with a laugh. “So I’m just trying to do a good job and work hard and keep it that way.”

It may be surprising to Zauner, but here she is, performing internationally, playing to a sold-out crowd at Union Transfer last summer and headlining an end-of-the-year residency/three-day-long party at Johnny Brenda’s in December.

Zauner exhales as she sits down in her living room, a well-lit and cozy space in Washington Square West. This is her staycation, a few days in between tours.

The past year for Zauner has seen extensive touring in support of her latest album, Soft Sounds from Another Planet. The record was critically acclaimed and scored a spot on many end-of-the-year “Best Of” lists, including Stereogum  and Rolling Stone. The album deftly mixes elements of shoegaze, noise rock and ’80s alt rock. Rolling Stone called it “an expansively trippy album saturated in science fiction and 1980s shoegaze sounds.”

Zauner has spent the past few days mostly relaxing and catching up with friends. She and Marisa Dabice, lead singer of Mannequin Pussy, had been out the night before “drinking a whole pitcher of wine.”

Cleaning was among other evident activities—“I’ve basically just been cleaning my apartment for four days,” says Zauner—as the place was pretty spotless, save for some guitar amp parts lying around. They belong to Zauner’s husband and bandmate, Peter Bradley.

“He likes to tinker with that stuff, and I’m scared I’d electrocute myself,” she jokes.

While she may never be an electrician, Zauner has ventured into a number of other creative endeavors. Dabice describes Zauner as “this tiny person with the energy and presence of 10,000 men.” And that is certainly reflected in the number of projects she has undertaken.

Zauner has directed several of Japanese Breakfast’s music videos. “Machinist” is a dark sci-fi adventure reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the video for “Boyish” features Zauner and her bandmates playing a high school dance, following a main character dealing with insecurity and confidence issues, a theme of the song.

“I really wanna make a short film. I’ve directed most of the Japanese Breakfast music videos, and I want to venture more into that,” she says. “Anything that’s been a male-dominated field, my entire life I’ve had this desire to infiltrate, and there aren’t enough women directors, and I want to experiment more with that.”

Much to her surprise, Zauner became involved in the making of a video game. The game, “Japanese Breakquest,” was released to the internet last September. When the player wins, they are rewarded with the downloadable MIDI version of the album. It also led to Zauner being approached to soundtrack a game that was released earlier this year, “Sable.”

She has also written essays, from her recent, very personal piece published in The New Yorker called “Crying in H Mart” to her award-winning essay for Glamour she intends to turn into a book. Both of these deal with the heartbreak of Zauner losing her mom and finding comfort in cooking and the foods of her Korean heritage.

“[The Glamour essay] was a memoir about Korean cooking and grief and losing my mom and how that affected me, and I felt like I was losing half my identity,” Zauner says.

She isn’t sure when she will get to writing the book, and she knows it will take time to put together, especially with everything that comes with being a touring musician.

Zauner admits it’s time to hit the pause button ever so slightly, though. She has been on the road for extensive touring, and there was little time in between Soft Sounds and her first album, Psychopomp. She doesn’t want to rush right into the next album, but she doesn’t plan on slowing down altogether.

“I wanna take my sweet time with this [new record],” she says. “I wanna try on a couple things and live a little before the next record.”

She’s in an enviable position. On early Japanese Breakfast tours, Zauner planned nearly every aspect of the schedule. Now, she just worries about playing. And enjoying the company of her tourmates.

“We toured with Mitski, and I remember thinking if I could be where she is now [at the time of the tour] then I’d be happy,” Zauner says. “We’ve toured with friends like Mannequin Pussy and we’ve also toured with Tegan and Sara, which was always a dream.”

Zauner is excited for her run of upcoming shows at Johnny Brenda’s and plans to create a fun atmosphere. She even has Dabice DJing the New Year’s Eve show.

“I wanna do something super special and decorate it and learn some fun covers,” Zauner says. “I’m excited to hang out for a few days with friends at these shows.”

Zauner has found herself in uncharted territory and considers how far the band has come. Japanese Breakfast sold out Union Transfer last summer, but Zauner recalls working coat check at the venue when it first opened. When she started Japanese Breakfast, she had only hoped to release an album on vinyl and sell shirts out of her apartment.

“I didn’t think I’d still be in music,” she says frankly. “It wasn’t a stable job, and after something bad happens in your life, that’s what you want. But then there’s this slow growth of when you accomplish something, you move onto the next thing. Everything has just been so far beyond my expectations.”

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