The Many Roles of Japanese Breakfast

Janice Headley
all photos by Peter Hilgendorf

Michelle Zauner is a creative force of nature. With her project Japanese Breakfast, she's released two full-length albums (the most recent being Soft Sounds from Another Planet), directed many music videos, and somehow found time to write a heart-wrenching essay for The New Yorker that had publishers bidding against each other to release her book (that Zauner is somehow working on now). We wanted to learn more about how and why she manages all these creative projects at once. KEXP spoke with Zauner following her excellent performance at THING Fest in Fort Worden, WA. 

KEXP: You're incredibly busy. You've got a million things going on. How do you manage your time? 

Japanese Breakfast: Oh gosh. The best I can, I guess... 

Do you have any tips or processes that work for you? 

I guess it's a lot of fretting about having minimal time on the earth to do all the things I want to do. I'm very lucky that I have a job where everything I enjoy doing is stuff that we do. I think part of it comes from trying to do exactly what we're doing now for many years and never having the opportunity to. And now that we have it, it feels like I really have to do my best job. It never really feels like work. I feel like it's kind of a controversial thing to say because you're always working when you're doing something that you love. I feel like there are people who don't want you to say things like, "It never really feels like work," but everything that I'm doing feels like something I'm really passionate about and I just want to do the best job. It's such a huge representation of you in the world. 

You recently teamed up with W Hotels and recorded a cover of Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels." What made you choose that song or did they choose it for you?

No, we chose it in 2018. We did three New Year's Eve shows at Johnny Brenda's, this venue we love in Philadelphia, and we were like, let's do something fun. And so each band member picked a cover that we would try. And I had just been listening to Tears for Fears and I was like, this song is so great. Like, everything about it is so great. The composition is amazing, the arrangement's amazing, so, I thought it would be really fun to do. We played a more close-to-the-original version live, and so I thought that it would be fun to make a recorded version while we were in Bali. We spent a lot of time working on the original song, "Essentially." It was such a fun experience. It was one of those crazy things where you're just like, I never anticipated being in a band and getting to stay in a luxury hotel writing music. So I went with Craig, our drummer, who also co-produced Soft Sounds From Another Planet with me. And we had originally planned on recording the song that we had a more fleshed out version of and then once we got there I was like, Let's try something new. And so we spent a lot of time on "Essentially" — it's a really big track. There's a lot of tracks on it. So, it was kind of like, let's split our time between enjoying ourselves and Bali and at this amazing hotel and recording. So we spent all this time working on "Essentially" and then when they got to recording the cover we're like, I think that it would be best for time to do a more stripped-down version and yeah, that's sort of how that ended up sounding. 

You guys do a lot of covers in your live sets. Do you have any favorites that you look forward to performing? 

Yeah, it's funny. We do [The Cranberries'] "Dreams" a lot, and we keep trying to one-up "Dreams" with other covers and I think that just ended up being this crowd favorite, especially for festivals. It's a song that everyone knows and it has such a perfect structure and it's arranged in this perfect way. Also because we did this Spotify recording of it, a lot of people kind of look forward to us playing that song. So every time we try to do a new cover, it never gets the same kind of response when we do "Dreams." So that's definitely a favorite. We did "Lovefool" by the Cardigans, and that was fun, too, and we did "Race for the Prize" by the Flaming Lips, which was really fun, and Carly Rae Jepsen's "Run Away With Me" which is really fun but kind-of out of my register. The one recording that we have of it, I am pretty drunk, it's on New Year's Eve. I don't know if we can do that again. We just did a cover of Wilco's "Jesus etc." with two really amazing string players in Chicago and that felt really, really special, too, and that is definitely one of our favorites as well. 

How is work going on your book Crying in H Mart

It's going well, I think. I sent the rough draft to my editor a month and a half ago, so I'm just waiting for her probably-massive notes on that and then diving back in to it. So, while I'm waiting for her to respond, I've started working on a new record and am trying to get as much of it done before I have to dive back into the book world again. But it's going well. I'm excited to dive back into it. Books are — I'm slowly learning — a really, really long process. So I don't think it'll come out for at least another year. But yeah, it's been great. I actually just played in Portland yesterday and I went to Powells and it got me really excited for the day that gets to come out and I get to actually talk about it and not just reference this thing that I've been working on for a really long time without anyone knowing what I'm talking about. 

Is the process of writing a book similar to songwriting for you? 

Yes and no. I think that everything that I do centers around telling some type of story, I think, in the way of collecting information and knowing how to manage a large project helps you navigate that. But there's not much to hide behind, which is a very different thing. With writing songs, I think you get a little bit of a grace where there is such a blur between fiction and non-fiction and no one really knows and people can infuse what they want as fact or fiction. But when you're writing a memoir, it's like you're making the statement of "this is real" and "this is what happened" and "this is how I feel about things." And so that's a little nerve-wracking. And with writing a record, if you are stuck on something, you can pick up another instrument or attack it in a different way or be a little bit more ambiguous. And I think that with writing the memoir, it's been very "it's just you and the screen" and it's not as collaborative, at least at the process that I'm at now because I haven't really been able to go back-and-forth with an editor yet. Yeah, it's been a struggle. I studied creative writing in college but I never, ever wrote non-fiction before the two essays I wrote about this in the last five years. So, I'm a bit more confident writing records than I am writing a book. It feels like a much larger beast to tame as one person.

In addition to everything that you do, you're very hands on with your music videos and I wanted to ask where did the love of directing come from? 

I studied film and creative writing in college at Bryn Mawr. And I had two really good friends in high school who were huge film nerds that kind of exposed me to a lot of great directors and inspired me to to take some film courses in college and I had an amazing professor named Homay King who exposed me to a lot of great directors like Wong Kar-wai. So it really kind of developed in college and I was an independent major and I was really nervous about writing a thesis like an English thesis. I really didn't want to. And I had a creative writing professor who really encouraged me — because Bryn Mawr is a pretty small school — to make my own kind of program so I could write a thesis that was a collection of short stories and then develop one of them into a short film. When I finished my short film for my thesis, I was really mortified by the experience, like I was really not happy with what I made and felt really out of my element and not prepared. I felt like I really had failed, and so it turned me off from directing for a long time. It took having Adam Kolodny, who was the DP on all our music videos and all of the videos that we've done for other people. We did two videos together and I was like, "you direct," and for the third one which was "Everybody Wants to Love You," he was like, I really think that you should try to direct because I'm a DP and I don't really want to direct and I feel like you already have a clear concept of what you want to do and are already guiding this project like a director already. Maybe you should try it. So, we co-directed "Everybody Wants to Love You" and having done two videos together before and having like a really great relationship, I feel like there's a little less pressure with music videos. Also, because I'm largely acting in it. It just felt like a more comfortable thing for me. And so we've done, I think, like 10 videos together. And I just became more comfortable, particularly with him and the crew that we started building. The crew that you slowly start to accrue make you feel more powerful and comfortable doing that. So, it was largely having a creative team that really lifts you up into that role that got me really into it but yeah, I mean I really fell in love with film in college and so I feel like I have a good kind of theoretical understanding and reference point of what great film is to at least try to get somewhere near there. 

So, you've got film, writing, music... When are you going to do a fashion collection? 

Oh God, never! 

You have such great style! 

Thank you. I think with fashion, you think about like great artists like David Bowie or Bjork. And one thing I was really interested in is, just finding every way to insert yourself into expressing your creativity or elevating everything that you see onstage and marking certain eras of your life. I have a friend, Cece Liu, who helps style a lot of the shows. Just learning about a new kind of art form and incorporating that into what people get to see has been really fun because you'll see photos of a show and you're like, oh yeah that was a good outfit, that marks that time period of what we were into. I feel like you have that same kind of feeling when you see a David Bowie era, like he was really into this during that time, and so, yeah, trying to incorporate that more. I'm really dumb when it comes to fashion. I like what I like and Cece has really helped expose me to a lot of just like what fashion can be and how things can look really interesting. So it's been fun trying to play with that a little bit, but I'm very much a novice. I'm not a great visual person in that way. 

Soft Sounds from Another Planet is out now via Dead Oceans. Crying in H Mart will be out in the future via Knopf. 

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