Japanese Breakfast: 'We used to sleep in cat piss'

Korean-American Michelle Zauner is bringing her beguiling music to Beijing

Made in the wake of the death of her mother, Oregon-based Korean-American Michelle Zauner’s debut record as Japanese Breakfast combined lyrics of loss with uplifting melodies and pulsating, shoegazey instrumentation.

Psychopomp deservedly brought her widespread acclaim. But while she now modestly describes its success as 'a complete accident' following the collapse of her previous band Little Big League, Zauner’s new album, released last July, comes with the pressure of Japanese Breakfast being more of a known quantity.

Fortunately, Soft Sounds from Another Planet is a stellar work, with a revamped sound that veers into ’80s synth-pop while retaining the charm and knack for melody that gave Psychopomp its instant appeal.

Ahead of Japanese Breakfast’s first China shows, including a stop at Yue Space, Zauner tells us about sleeping on floors covered in cat piss, putting heavy lyrics to upbeat pop and being mistaken for being Japanese.

Were you comfortable with Psychopomp being perceived as a 'grief record'?
I’d maybe played three shows as Japanese Breakfast before the album, so it was a complete accident that the album did well and had a narrative at all because I was a pretty unknown artist... but when I started doing interviews I was open and honest about it because that’s just the type of person I am.

I’m comfortable with it being defined that way because that’s how I think of that time of my life and that record, and I also feel like it was a big part of the reason why it resonated with people and connected me with a larger audience that feels very close to me.

You’ve said that Soft Sounds From Another Planet started out as a sci-fi concept album. What led you away from that?
'Machinist' was the first song I wrote for the album, and I had always danced around the idea of writing a musical before. [But] I had so much left to say about my personal experiences; it just didn’t feel authentic to deny what I actually wanted to write about for some grandiose concept idea.

Did you feel pressure when creating the new record, given the success of Psychopomp?
Definitely. It was nerve-wracking, but I tried not to try to think about it and just focus on making what I felt like was something good, something exciting for me. I was lucky because Psychopomp was a total accident, I really didn’t care what people thought and made something I felt was so authentically myself, for myself, so I felt like if I just did that again people might like it.

You’ve suggested that touring was a challenging experience for you. What’s it like touring with your husband now?
It was more challenging back then because we weren’t making any money. We didn’t have a real booking agent so we’d play these house shows where we’d walk away with like, $50 if we were lucky, and that would all go into gas or fixing our car. We would play to like, 20 people and then sleep on a disgusting floor covered in cat piss. But it was fine when I was younger because I was having the time of my life and felt free.

As I got older, and after I lost my mum, I just didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to just be with the person I loved and live a normal life, but then working a nine-to-five I realised I was pretty miserable doing that as well.

I got really lucky in that Psychopomp did quite well and now we are able to split a hotel room and all make a decent living. For Soft Sounds... I was able to bring my husband into the band to play guitar and it’s been really nice because now I don’t have to miss him all the time.

Does your band name lead to you being mistaken for having Japanese heritage?
Yes, it definitely does. I try to be vocal about my Korean heritage, but I understand why people would find it confusing. I think the name was kind of meant to f**k with people a little.

How do you feel about bringing your music to China for the first time?
I’m so, so excited! I’ve been to China a few times and love it there so much. I love Chinese food and I can’t wait to eat so much of it while I’m there. Whenever I tour Europe or the US I miss Asian food, so I’m excited for this tour because I know I’m going to finally be happy eating all the food I want. I’ve never played any shows in Asia so I really have no idea what to expect; I really hope that people come and enjoy our music.
By Jake Newby

What the press said about Soft Sounds From Another Planet

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The Guardian: 'Although it’s mostly dreamlike and existential, the album soars with its shimmering pop songs.'
Pitchfork: 'On "Boyish", an old song repurposed from her days in the rock band Little Big League, Zauner brings things back down to earth. "I can’t get you off my mind, I can’t get you off in general," goes the instantly iconic chorus, now backed by a melody that would make Roy Orbison grin. The sentiment encapsulates Zauner’s sensibilities: uncomfortably personal, unpretentiously profound.'
The Quietus: 'Zauner carves out her place as a solo artist, floating in a realm between indie, alternative and punk.'
  • 4 out of 5 stars