Despite not being able to tour for the past year and change, Michelle Zauner hasn’t just been spinning her wheels stuck inside, not by a long shot.
Her New Yorker essay-turned full length memoir, Crying in H Mart, broke into the New York Times Best Seller list earlier this year.
And musically inclined video game fans were treated to a surprise at this last month’s Summer Game Fest when Zauner popped up alongside the release announcement of Shedworks’ open-world adventure game Sable to perform “Glider,” a key track for the game’s trailer. She’s been busy.
The Sable connection started with Shedworks programmer Daniel Fineberg approaching Zauner as a fan of her indie rock outfit Japanese Breakfast. As of this writing, she’s clocked 100 hours in pre-release builds of the game and composed two hours of music for Sable’s soundtrack. Zauner’s all about flexing different creative muscles.
“When I’m writing stuff for Japanese Breakfast I’m so focused on maintaining someone’s attention, you know,” she says. “You’re trying to write a hook constantly. It’s an open-world game, so you actually wanna avoid that on a lot of these ambient tracks because you don’t want it to get annoying. And it has to be a sort of sprawling, long composition that’s really different from the work I usually do that’s rooted in following and supporting a vocal melody.”
The difference is evident in the handful of vocal tracks that have trickled out so far too. Whereas much of her output at Japanese Breakfast has been characterized by personal stories punctuated with detailed vulnerability, the lyrics in the Sable tracks still connect with depth and meaning without a clear through line to Zauner’s own life.
In the process of researching for her work on the game, Zauner returned to the beloved soundtracks of legendary 90’s RPGs Final Fantasy IX, Chrono Cross and modern classic The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. All three deploy certain songs and leitmotifs across their soundtrack in varied forms to reflect the player’s story progress.
“So a lot of these songs I was writing would end up being the day version or the night version,” Zauner describes. “And it was fun seeing how you can play with the same theme that’s in the same key and maybe the same progression but you slow it down by 20 bpm, or you make it sparser by taking out certain stems, or add other ones to make it feel like the same area but a little bit different, a little sleepier.”
Jubilee, her third studio album as Japanese Breakfast, makes it clear Zauner’s just been in the mood to push herself.
Her past two albums have boasted the emotional bandwidth to sway from twinkling highs to dismal lows, and Jubilee continues this trajectory with a sharper focus on leaving space for the instruments.
“I think I was also just much more confident than I’ve ever been in what I was going for with this record, and there’s just a natural kind of clarity that comes from that.”
When Jubilee gets bright, it’s brighter than her previous work dared to venture. Songs like “Kokomo, IN” find space for a beautifully arranged violin sequence that would sound out of place in one of her previous albums, but feels indispensable here.
“Savage Good Boy” continues Zauner’s tradition of writing from the perspective of a toxic male protagonist dating all the way back to “Lindsey,” an early song from her previous band Little Big League.
Crime drama fans might even recognize good old Chrissy Moltisanti as the titular character.
The Sopranos star Michael Imperioli shows up in the video as a Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk-like billionaire archetype saving a beautiful young woman from an implied apocalyptic world with a giant bunker, a sizable bed and larders of preserved food.
“It’s a different role, it’s sort of a sugar daddy kind of role,” she says of the casting. “But he’s like the ultimate anti-hero in The Sopranos, like he has so many problems and so many flaws, but he’s also so pure and wholesome in a way, and you’re always kind of rooting for him no matter how much he fucks up. Not that I’m rooting for any billionaires or want to defend them in any way but I would like to understand them, and how people get there. How they can hoard wealth at such a high level. I’m interested in how that happens.”
The song proves to be a star-studded affair front to back with indie-rock darling Alex G dropping in to contribute some soulfully plucked piano and synthesizers that feel like characters of the concept track in their own right.
The song feels less like a piece of science fiction as the aforementioned billionaires wage their own personal space-race. But whoever “wins,” it’s a victory for all of us to have a poet like Zauner to make sense of it all.
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