Over the past five years, few artists have established themselves as representatives of the new cultural zeitgeist quite like Michelle Zauner.
As the creative maestro behind Japanese Breakfast, Zauner has released two brilliant indie rock albums, navigating thorny issues of grief, acceptance, and identity to lush soundtracks of ambient dreampop. In 2018, her essay for the New Yorker, titled “Crying in H Mart,” channeled those same themes in prose and earned her a new cadre of followers.
Her ruminations on the culinary touchstones and memories of her deceased mother resonated with Americans who shared similar tales of dizzying cultural dislocation.
Along with her peers, Mitski, Laetitia Casta of Vagabon, and Melina Duterte of Jay Som, Zauner is a standard bearer of the next generation of indie rockers, who have brought the genre to new audiences — breaking down barriers once held by crusty old gatekeepers in the process.
And yet, despite Zauner’s justly earned ubiquity, tackling her latest endeavor — a memoir of her life, refracted through the intersections of food, family, and forgiveness — quickly ushered in a crash course in perspective.
“When I turned the book in, I was devastated,” Zauner says of the memoir, also titled Crying in H Mart, which was released on April 20 through Knopf Doubleday. “Because I was absolutely convinced that I had failed.”
That sense of despondency eventually lifted for Zauner, and with good cause. Throughout her captivating memoir, Zauner displays a preternatural gift for describing the experience of first-generation Americans, evincing a lived-in experience that delves into the contrasting forces of the immigrant experience.
“I felt like a huge disappointment at first — that I totally bumbled my opportunity and that I had let my mom down,” says Zauner, who will discuss her experiences writing the book with Saturday Night Live cast member Bowen Yang on May 6 for a virtual installment of the City Arts and Lectures series. “But then I read it again for the audio book, and I was able to revisit everything and I finally found a sense of comfort, like, ‘maybe this pretty good.’”
Zauner’s mother, who passed away in 2014 after a lengthy battle with cancer, was a native of South Korea and emigrated to the United States with her daughter after Zauner was born. The stories of Crying in H Mart capture the tempestuous nature of their relationship, a connection built on unworldly expectations, emotional dependency, and unconditional love.
Similar to the original New Yorker essay, which recounts the catharsis Zauner experienced while shopping at the beloved Korean-American convenience store chain (a location recently opened in San Francisco), the recollections in Crying in H Mart take on weighty subjects via the shared experiences of food. Zauner equates her trips back home to Oregon to see her ill mother with the memories of homemade radish kimchi dishes. And she remembers how her family ate galbi ssam — a traditional Korean beef short rib dish — on the night of her wedding, which her mother attended despite being in hospice.
While Zauner initially found the process of drafting the memoir daunting, she acknowledged that her experience as a songwriter helped carry her through the more difficult moments. For her two albums as Japanese Breakfast — 2016’s breakthrough debut, Psychopomp, and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet — Zauner deftly mined the emotional turmoil of her mother’s passing to create a narrative of mourning and recovery, although her lyrics tended to be more oblique and interpretative. Those comparative touchstones were useful, but what really carried her through writing the memoir was her familiarity with the creative blocks that arrive fitfully during a drawn-out artistic endeavor.
“I was lucky because as a musician, I was familiar with navigating through a large creative project,” Zauner says. “I know that like 90 percent of the process is just sticking with it, and even if you’re colliding with the wall on a daily basis, you just keep going.”
With two albums and a memoir devoted to the passing of her mother, Zauner says she was eager to explore a new creative angle when embarking on the third Japanese Breakfast record, Jubilee, which will be released on June 4. The first single off that album, “Be Sweet,” tracks with that sentiment. It’s a stirring dancefloor number in the vein of euphoric synth-pop acts like Robyn, The Tough Alliance, and Cut Copy, and it promotes a wistful, joyous approach to love. When Zauner croons, “Be sweet to me, baby / I wanna believe in you,” there is an unfettered sense of optimism that was relatively absent on her first two efforts.
That is not to say that Jubilee will be filled to the brim with upbeat paeans to the majesty of romance. The second release off the album, “Posing in Bondage,” is a slow-moving darkwave number, chilly and icy and almost in direct contrast to the warmth of “Be Sweet.” Zauner may no longer be devoting every ounce of her creative energy to the existential ponderings of death and its impacts, but she’s not ready to deny negative sentiments just to showcase some perfunctory growth.
“I think there will always be a part of me that lives with grief in some ways,” Zauner says. “But through these projects, this gaping wound has become smaller.”
Sonically, Zauner says that the album will continue on the trajectory she set with her first two Japanese Breakfast releases, which are eclectic and adventurous, despite sharing the same lyrical themes. On Psychopomp and Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Zauner explores elements of shoegaze, chillwave, twee-pop, post-punk, and airy desert rock, all to wildly emotive effect.
“I think my records all have this kind of scrapbook sort of quality, where the songs all sound really different from track to track, but the one cohesive strand is that I wrote them,” she says. “Those have always been my favorite albums — where every song is really something unique.”
With a new album and a new book all coming out this year (and a new tour — Japanese Breakfast just announced they’ll be playing in San Francisco on Oct. 1), Zauner is steeling herself for an emotional rollercoaster of doubt and validation. However, after finishing her memoir and establishing herself as a bona fide indie rock star, Zauner says she’s better equipped to manage those volatile highs and lows.
“After I finished Psychopomp, I was 100 percent convinced it was a fluke and I was terrified of the sophomore slump,” Zauner says. “But I was incredibly proud of Soft Sounds, and from that experience, I understood that there was nothing I could do but put forth my best effort. It makes for an interesting experience — sometimes I convince myself I am a genius and other times I’m pretty sure someone is going to take this all away. But I know that as long as I do my best to create an environment that is honest to myself, I can be happy.”
Michelle Zauner with Bowen Yang
Thursday, May 6 | 6 p.m. | $29
City Arts & Lectures (Online)
Will Reisman is a contributing writer. Twitter @wreisman