In June of 2013, deep in the woods of Oregon, Michelle Zauner steeled herself to write one song a day.
After several years of grinding it out with her Philadelphia-based punk band Little Big League, Zauner spirited across the country to be close to her mother, who was suffering from cancer. At the time, Zauner’s approach to songwriting was purely therapeutic, and she had no grand commercial plans for these bedroom recordings.
“In a sense, I had really given up,” says Zauner, who now performs under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, and will be opening for Porches at the Independent on Sunday, Sept. 18. “I thought that any work I did from there would be this quieter thing, where, if my friends wanted to listen to these songs, they could.”
Despite her muted expectations, Zauner’s songwriting regimen proved to be the artistic rebirth she needed. Not only did it help her deal with the grief of her mother’s illness, but it also instilled confidence in her abilities at a time when she conceded to being in a creative rut. By committing to getting any and all concepts on tape — whether they were the result of a five-hour brainstorming session or a quick 10-minute jag before work — Zauner ignited a belief in herself that had been dormant for awhile.
“At the time, I was very self-conscious, and I needed some kind of project that could unravel that,” Zauner says. “In a lot of ways, this was an exercise in self-forgiveness. I wasn’t concerned with being a perfectionist, so I had this built-in excuse that took some pressure off me.”
The end result of that songwriting process was Psychopomp, Zauner’s debut album as Japanese Breakfast, which came out in April. A gorgeous collection of shoegaze, indie-rock, and jangle-pop tunes, Psychopomp is almost-painfully candid and ruminative. Zauner’s mother passed away in 2014, and the album is filled with references to their relationship.
Psychopomp’s opener, “In Heaven,” deals most directly with the tragic event, as Zauner mournfully describes the new emptiness in her home, singing about how “the dog’s confused/ She just paces around all day/ She’s sniffing at your empty room.”
Yet the album is not some stark, morose contemplation on mortality. While her mother’s death looms over much of the album, Psychopomp is filled with an eclectic collection of sounds and arrangements. “Everybody Wants To Love You” is an infectious, buoyant paean to casual hookups, “Rugged Country” is a thoughtful pop song that cops all the best elements of Belle and Sebastian, and “Jane Cum” is a slow-burning shoegaze ballad that recalls Mazzy Star and showcases Zauner’s impressive vocal range. Even “In Heaven” is uptempo and ebullient, belying its agonizing lyrics.
Zauner attributes the wide-ranging sound of the album to the unorthodox way in which it started. She posted the skeletal elements of many of the songs from Psychopomp in 2014, as part of her independently-released EPs, American Sound and Where is My Great Big Feeling? Buoyed by the positive reaction from her colleagues to those sparse, elemental recordings, Zauner decamped to the studio to flesh out the material for a proper album.
As the unquestionable creative force behind the project, Zauner was able to take certain risks with each track, building them out in ways that struck her on a particular emotional level. And, because the songwriting progression for Psychopomp dated back several years, she could pick from a wide back catalog.
“It was almost like I could choose the greatest hits from my last six years of writing,” Zauner says.
But sharing such candid and achingly-tender songs with the public, especially during live performances, has taken some getting used to for Zauner.
“When you share something that is so personal in your art, it makes people want to share a part of themselves when they meet you,” Zauner says. “Not that I would want it any other way, but it’s hard for me to have kids come up and tell me they’ve lost their parents. It’s great that I was able to provide a source of comfort, but it’s just so painful to know that there is so much grief and loss in the world.”
Still, Zauner says she’s incredibly grateful to be able to tour behind an album that resonates on so many levels.
“If I received this kind of attention on a true debut album, I don’t think I would have appreciated it,” says Zauner, who is currently working on the second Japanese Breakfast album. “It’s been tough, which makes it all the more validating to be where I’m at right now.”
Japanese Breakfast plays with Porches and Rivergazer at 8 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 18, at The Independent. More info here.
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