Japanese Breakfast | photo by Joyce Jude | courtesy of the artist
Checking In With… Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast
In times of crisis, it’s more important than ever to check in on your friends and loved ones. Here at XPN, we’re Checking In With our extended musical family to see how they’re holding up during the Coronavirus quarantine…and what music has kept them grounded. Today, John Vettese chats with Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast.
When we caught up with Japanese Breakfast frontperson and songwriter Michelle Zauner for our Checking In chat, she was hoping for a literally brighter day. Isolation is a day-by-day thing, she says, and it is much more agreeable when her small apartment is filled with sunlight, rather than grey shadows.
When shelter-in-place happened, “I was already sort of self-quarantined working on a lot of insular projects,” she says. “I was working on a new album, I’ve been working on finishing my book Crying In H Mart, which really I’ve been working on for the past three years. I just turned in what I think to be the final revision yesterday, and I’m getting ready to shift gears to the final project I have on the docket, which is composing the soundtrack to this this indie game called Sable.”
In our conversation, she gave us some movie recommendations — “I’ve been watching a lot of queer period pieces. I think it’s an interesting genre to dedicate yourself to during quarantine.” — and the status her other creative projects, like video production.
We also talked about the Japanese Breakfast livestream concert Zauner plays this Thursday, May 14th. It’s the first proper streaming performance she’s done during the health crisis, and it’s a ticketed gig to raise money for her bandmates and road crew. “We had so much touring scheduled that had to be cancelled, and that’s our primary source of income,” Zauner says. “I just wanted to do something for my band family. I’ve been practicing piano and learning a lot of covers, and I’m really excited to share that on Thursday.”
Get tickets for the Japanese Breakfast livestream here, listen to our conversation with Zauner in the player, and check out her Checking In song picks below.
Favorite Song of All Time: “Haenim” by Kim Jung Mi
“I never really grew up listening to that much Korean music. I actually talk about discovering this artist Kim Jung Mi in my book. It was a really moving moment for me when we played Seoul for the first time, and this guy named John who runs a record shop in Seoul, in a neighborhood called Hongdae, introduced me to this artist Shin Joong Hyun, who is kind of the Phil Spector of Korea. He’s an amazing producer and guitar player, and wrote songs for a lot of really popular girl groups of the 60s. And one of the songs he played for us is this song ‘Haenim’ by this artist Kim Jung Mi, which is this really sprawling, really simple, timeless, captivating, haunting song. I thought it was so beautiful, it was after our first show in Seoul, and we went out to this really popular vinyl bar called Gopchang-Jeongol, which translates to offal stew, and he played us a song on vinyl and it stuck with us for a really long time. And later on, I told my aunt about it and she was like ‘oh, you know, your mom and I used to sing Shin Joong Hyun songs when we were kids.’ So it felt like this really serendipitous, really beautiful moment, and it’s been a favorite song of mine for a while now.”
Song that Raises Your Spirits: “Tell Him” by Barbra Streisand featuring Céline Dion
“‘Tell Him’ is kind of an odd choice. It’s another song I write about in my book; I’ve been so absorbed by that process that it’s all that’s in my psyche right now. ‘Tell Him’ is a song by Barbra Streisand, it’s a duet with Céline Dion, it’s off of her 27th album Higher Ground. And I have really wonderful memories of my mom and I singing that as a duet and prancing around our living room. It’s a song where Barbra Streisand is basically telling Céline Dion that she should confess her feelings to this guy she has feelings for, and Céline Dion is hesitant. My mom and I used to really melodramatically sing it to one another. I’m such a huge Barbra Streisand stan, I’m a big fan of her films The Way We Were and Yentil. I dare you not to have your spirits raised by this track. Two powerhouse divas joining together for an unstoppable hit.”
Song You’re Most Proud of Working On: “Glider” by Japanese Breakfast
“I was really lucky. About two or three years ago, Daniel Fineberg, who is one of the developers on Shedworks, who’s making this game with a man named Greg Kythreotis, [got in touch with me]. It’s called Sable and it’s a desert exploration game. The art is so beautiful, and they were fans of my music, and they asked if I would be interested in soundtracking the game. It was super enticing to me to be involved in that kind of project because the music I write is so different from what I knew a soundtrack would need. I typically write songs that are very personal, really lyrically based and dynamic, and have these pop structures. So writing a largely ambient album that has nothing to do with me personally and has to do with a narrative outside of something I’ve created was a real challenge and a really exciting opportunity for me. ‘Glider’ was the first song I wrote for them, and it was in the trailer for the game which streamed at E3, which is a big game convention. It was such a fun experience for me, it was the first song I released in a long time that I produced myself. Writing lyrics for a game or composing for a soundtrack is such a different experience because when you write lyrics, they’re such a personal thing that you’re going through, so it was really cool to write from a different perspective. I got to take a lot of influence from Joe Hisaishi, who does all the Studio Ghibli movies, and it was just fun to write a very lyrically removed, objective, world-building kind of song that’s very different from what I usually do. I’m super proud of the work that I’ve done so far, and I’m going to be playing not this song on the livestream but another track from Sable that I’m really excited about.”