Japanese Breakfast’s New Space Odyssey

The Korean-American indie rocker rethinks grief and growth in her upcoming album.

Japanese Breakfast (Photo by Ebru Yildiz)

Michelle Zauner’s parents weren’t exactly enthusiastic about her choice to become a musician.

Although Zauner’s mother enrolled her in piano lessons at age five, she didn’t expect her daughter to take those skills beyond the confines of their home. Both of Zauner’s parents had been brought up in poverty, and the financial and emotional instability par for the course in musical careers was far from what they had envisioned for their daughter’s future.

But Zauner had other plans. After several years of pleading, she convinced her parents to allow her to take up the guitar at the age of 16. Within days of learning a few basic chords, she was already penning her first songs.

Two years later, Zauner left her parents’ home in the woods outside of Eugene, Oregon, to attend college in Philadelphia. She wrote and released music as part of the indie-rock band Little Big League — in 2016, Pitchfork called their music “underrated” — and found her own thriving musical community.

Following the release of Little Big League’s second album, Tropical Jinx, Zauner moved back to Eugene with her partner to care for her mother following a harrowing cancer diagnosis. Two weeks after Zauner married her partner, her mother lost her fight with the disease.

“Even before she died, she was kind of waiting for me to stop and was really worried about my life,” Zauner recalls. “I think that it came from a real place of love. She was concerned about me leading a lifestyle that seemed very unstable.”

Reeling from her mother’s illness and death, Zauner poured her grief into writing and recording Psychopomp, her first full-length album under the moniker Japanese Breakfast. The record meshes delicate dream-pop with a muscular indie-rock sound, dwelling on the ways love and loss can bleed together.

Zauner meant for it to be her last release ever and took a job as a sales assistant at a New York advertising company to prove it. Exhausted and craving stability, she told her label — Maryland’s small-but-mighty Yellow K Records — that she would not promote Psychopomp or tour behind it at all.

She told the label to release no more than 500 physical copies, all of which she figured would sell over the course of a decade. “I really thought it was going to be the last record I was going to put out and that was going to be that,” she says.

Except Zauner’s best laid plans went, well, awry. Psychopomp started garnering press and listeners, Zauner’s 9-to-5 routine started to wear, and her creative impulses started to nag. She accepted an invitation to play a showcase at South By Southwest in 2016, partially because she had never been to Austin and thought it sounded like a fun city. One small acoustic showcase morphed into eight full-band showcases, and the industry responded in kind. Austin-based label Dead Oceans set plans to release her next record, and indie-rock luminary Mitski invited Zauner to open for her upcoming five-week tour.  

“It happened really quickly and unexpectedly,” says Zauner, who agreed to work with both Dead Oceans and Mitski. “I quit my job and never looked back.”

But her debut record’s unexpected success came with some considerable baggage when she sat down to write her sophomore album. For listeners and critics alike, Psychopomp encompassed a specific narrative: that of a mother’s death and the accompanying trauma.

“When I sat down to write Psychopomp, I wasn’t like, ‘OK, this is an album about grief and my mom,’ ” Zauner says. “I was just writing songs addressing feelings and seeing where they took me. But it was a little bit daunting. In some way, it felt like the narrative of Psychopomp was, ‘This is an album about her mom’s death and now she has to write something else.’ ”

She describes her forthcoming record, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, as the product of spending a year on the road combined with her fascination with space, an interest that has helped Zauner dissociate from both her grief and the daily slog of touring. The end result is light-years away from the intimate indie-pop of Psychopomp. Lead single “Machinist” crafts a narrative of a woman falling in love with a machine over an ambient synth line, a distinctly ’80s dance beat, and echoing vocals.

“I feel like Bob Dylan trading in for electric guitar,” Zauner says with a laugh.

And while some fans have not taken kindly to her use of AutoTune in “Machinist,” Zauner feels confident they’ll connect to the 11 other tracks (none of which, she is happy to report, use AutoTune). Now, she’s looking ahead to spending the summer on the road in support of (Sandy) Alex G and indie duo Tegan and Sara — an achievement Zauner describes as “one of those tours that you daydreamed about as a kid.”

In a sense, Zauner is still pinching herself over her success — “I’m just constantly afraid that there’s a trapdoor waiting to shut me under,” she says — and she’s still celebrating the smallest victories. While on the road supporting British shoegaze outfit Slowdive this spring, she found herself in a green room outfitted with an ice bucket.

“I was like, ‘There’s no way in hell there’s ice in here,’” she says. “I opened it and there was ice in it. I was like, ‘Holy shit! I’ve fucking made it!’ ”

Japanese Breakfast
plays at 8 p.m. on Sunday, June 16 at The Chapel. Sold out; thechapelsf.com

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