Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner Is Bringing Joy to the "Fringes of Society"

With her album 'Jubilee' and recent memoir 'Crying in H Mart,' she celebrates the struggles of her Korean-American upbringing
Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner Is Bringing Joy to the 'Fringes of Society'
Photo: Peter Ash Lee
Japanese Breakfast leader Michelle Zauner grew up stuck between two worlds. The only child of a Jewish-American father and Korean mother, her upbringing in Eugene, OR, found her straddling both cultures, cultivating her music taste to bridge the gap.

"Nothing was as vital as music, the only comfort for my existential dread," writes Zauner in her recent memoir, Crying in H Mart. "I spent my days downloading songs one at a time off LimeWire and getting into heated discussions on AIM about whether the Foo Fighters' acoustic version of 'Everlong' was better than the original."

It's a sentiment she expresses during a recent conversation with Exclaim! "Growing up, I didn't have a lot of people to relate to or [who] felt the same kind of experiences that I had," says Zauner. "So it was a real surprise and a real joy to get to find that sense of community. I feel like we grow up feeling like we're on the fringes of society and that no one is ever going to be able to relate to these very niche stories about our upbringing.

"I think that that's just what white supremacy does."

Zauner explores this and more in Crying in H Mart, which poetically and poignantly tells the story of Zauner's mother's death from gastrointestinal cancer in 2014. She describes in graphic detail the workings and failings of a sick body, and reveals how her mother raised her to love food and how this in turn helped her to not only process grief but also reckon with her Korean-American identity. 

Zauner tells her very specific tale of frequently being the only person of colour in rooms as a child, but the book has resonated with a wide audience, having debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times Best Seller list. On her Instagram Stories, Zauner shares posts made by other Korean-Americans, who see vignettes of their own experiences in hers — their Korean mothers also never use measuring spoons, they say. This response has surprised even Zauner. 

Zauner is deeply self-aware. In her music and prose, she is always acutely aware of herself, her singular situation, and her position in whatever space she occupies. For many people of colour, this is just a byproduct of the lack of a great many privileges. With her awareness, though, Zauner is creating art that teaches us — children of immigrants, immigrants ourselves — how to be. By thinking about her particular circumstances, she has shaken the hold that the dominant white culture has on her life, and by sharing her story, she helps others to shake it off, too. For many, including in Zauner, this is a culture that makes BIPOC children afraid to bring home-cooked lunches to school, and that makes many shy away from their ethnic identity altogether.

Just watching Japanese Breakfast's music videos is a lesson in strength. Zauner has directed most of the group's videos — especially those for the singles off the band's forthcoming album, Jubilee, due for release on June 4 via Dead Oceans — and wields them as opportunities to be unapologetically herself, showing us that she is a force to be reckoned with. She shows that everyone who grew up in the margins of the dominant culture, like her, can be a force to be reckoned with, too.

While Japanese Breakfast's first two studio albums, Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet, explored the heaviness of Zauner's mother's death and mapped grief onto the vastness of space, Jubilee is an invocation to rejoice — to celebrate without qualification, without judgement, with laughter, with tears.

"Jubilee is like a really fun summer record that makes you want to embrace feeling and release," Zauner says. The first two albums — along with her memoir — offered catharsis, helping audiences to feel dark emotions or work their way through a numbness. Jubilee is distinct because it is a celebration of the ability to feel. "The record [helps you release] teenage kinds of emotions," she says.

The new album is bright, bursting as though with the flavour of the persimmons that grace its cover, but also containing the lyrical depth and ingenuity for which Zauner is known. (She studied literature and film at Bryn Mawr College, after all.)

Zauner says that, while working on Jubilee, she looked at the third albums of the musicians she loves. "Kate Bush was a big [inspiration]," she says, also citing albums by Björk, Wilco and Randy Newman. Albums full of ambitious feeling and bombastic theatricality fed her imagination as she worked on this record, she says — and you can tell.

Each track contains a vivid story — either one that Zauner lifted directly from her life, or expanded from an idea that she found compelling. She does the latter on "Savage Good Boy," a fun track through which Zauner imagines the rationalizations of a wealthy man who hoards his riches, parading around selfishness under the name of self-preservation. Her lilting voice is front and centre on each track: clear and sweet, relaxed and waxen, so full you can almost touch it, for it certainly touches you.

"I think that that's a feeling that I'm always chasing in music," Zauner says. "[It's] this moment where the song lifts and you can feel your heart jump with it, soar." With her music, she wants listeners to get goosebumps, she says. "And if a song doesn't [accomplish] that, then it's not working."

While she certainly hopes her listeners, regardless of who they are, react viscerally and meaningfully to her art, Zauner feels that the only way she can achieve this is by focusing on her unique, particular self, rather than what she thinks people want to hear, or what the spirit of the times demands.

"If you think at all about other people, people can smell it," she says. "It's like they can feel when you're beginning to pander to them. And so the best thing that you can do as an artist is to just not think about other people at all."

She continues, "I don't think about other people at all. I try not to anyway. It's all what feels intuitively good and right to me. And I think that's just who you are as an artist. You just have to hope for the best, that other people will like it too. But I think I've been kind of lucky in that I'm a pretty simple-minded person in that way, where I don't feel like what I do is too complicated. I like things to sound good, I like things to sound catchy and poppy and fun. And luckily, those are things that the majority of people can enjoy. And I just like to try to do those things really well."

It's this intuitive talent of hers, along with a stellar ear for hooks and daunting intellect (when asked about her writing inspirations, she name-drops Ernest Hemingway, among many others), that shatters any notions of celebrity. She's not pretending to achieve any kind of perfection, and instead does what seems right in the moment. She's not prim as a role model, but rather is transparent and unapologetically herself, setting an imperfect example that BIPOC kids have needed in the limelight for so long.

This is all to say: if you ask Zauner for advice about something like working toward a healthier relationship with your parents, she won't give you sterile, platitudinous words. Instead, she'll speak from her own experience, recognizing human fallibility, especially her own, sharing with you what she has learned, leaving you with the autonomy to make a decision that works for you.

In Crying in H Mart, Zauner describes a period during her teens when she fell into an intense depression and grew apart from her mother. One of the contributing factors in this rift was that Zauner struggled to feel at home in American culture while being raised by an immigrant parent.

"I think that I really learned how to forgive myself from that period of time really recently, and a lot of it happened through writing this book," she reflects. "I had so much guilt about that time in my life and felt it was held over me for a really long time. I didn't know anyone who had immigrant parents growing up, and so I had no reference point for what I was going through. I had no mainstream media that could have ever shed a light on that. And so I hope that my book can do that for some people, because I think that it's really challenging to go through — the sort of cultural differences that you go through and don't even realize that a lot of those points of contention come from growing up with a different cultural upbringing from your parents."

By leading by example, Zauner teaches us how to not ignore bits of ourselves, how to not cut off bits of our past to satisfy the mainstream culture. Through Jubilee, too, Zauner seems to be saying that there is no such thing as too much or too little when it comes to your identity and your feelings about who you are. Though its title is an invitation to rejoice, to be jubilant, many of the tracks have a deeply melancholic undertone. "In Hell," for example, is about when Zauner had to put down her dog. 

"'In Hell' is maybe the most devastating song I've ever written," she says. "I think [all the tracks are] about joy in different ways. They're about how the joyous is difficult, how it's hard to experience joy, and you have to fight for it. It's rare and precious and it's important to protect it and covet it."

Jubilee reminds listeners that sometimes you have to work and struggle to feel happy — something Zauner has certainly learned since her mother's passing. In translating her mind's intricate workings into music and memoir, Zauner has created a space for herself on a world stage — simultaneously allowing those of us who never saw ourselves on this stage to imagine ourselves in the same place.