Soft Sounds and Big Moves: A Chat with Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner

Interviews
09/24/2018
Dusty Henry
photo by Eric Tra
Transcription by Molly Wyman

Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner moves through her career on a sprint. When we sit down to chat for an interview at last May’s Sasquatch! Music Festival, we’re quite literally in the middle of a series of similar chats she’d be having with eager music journalists throughout the day. It’s indicative of the pace she’s been on since releasing the critically acclaimed Psychopomp in 2016. When Zauner takes the stage at the Neptune Theatre on Sept. 25, 2018, it’ll be the second time this year she’s played Seattle just this year alone (not counting her set at Sasquatch!) supporting her excellent 2017 LP Soft Sounds From Another Planet. It’s been a near constant tour schedule over the course of two albums, but Zauner only seems to be reveling in the experience.

In the time since we chatted in May, she’s announced that she’ll soundtrack an upcoming video game called Sable, penned an essay for the New Yorker, and has maintained a tour schedule that will take her all the way into 2019. Watching Zauner perform during her Sasquatch! set, she amassed one of the largest crowds the Yeti stage saw all weekend, cascading all the way across the lawn and into the concrete paths nearly out of earshot of the sound. It’s a testament to Zauner’s work ethic, but also her astounding craft as a songwriter. The music on Soft Sounds is contemplative, lush, and consuming on record but also finds a powerful second life on stage, erupting into empowering anthems to be shouted back by the audience and danced freely and recklessly.

Before she’d go on stage for one of the most memorable sets of the 2018 Sasquatch!, KEXP picked Zauner’s brain on touring, staying creative, her ventures into other mediums (like her stellar self-directed video for “Boyish”), and more.

 

KEXP: It seems like you've been going nonstop since Psychopomp or even before that.

Michelle Zauner: Yeah. I think that following up Psychopomp with Soft Sounds [from Another Planet] in the second year without a break in between the cycles – those two cycles kind of bled into each other. But yeah, I'm really grateful to be doing what we're doing. I love touring too, so I'm really excited that I get the opportunity to do it so much.

It's been interesting watching the shows. You've been to Seattle a few times over the last couple years, and each time you come through your set is not just better, but also grander in scope. Have you been taking the time to plot out your shows with a bigger vision?

Yeah, definitely. I think that the scope of what I thought we could do as a band we've already kind of surpassed my expectations of where we could go. I had no idea. Selling out The Crocodile and then selling out Neumo's. It's crazy to be able to do that, and I didn't even anticipate that we'd be able to do that. When we first came through, the first time we played Seattle, was opening for Mitski at The Crocodile. I remember just watching her in awe, just like, man, if I get to that point in my career where I can sell out that kind of venue on my own, I can retire. I'll just feel totally accomplished. But now that we've surpassed that point it's like, what's next? How do we put on an even better show? How do we ensure that everyone that came to the last show feels like they saw something different the next time we come around? So, yeah, there's definitely always that challenge of trying to make the shows better and really honing your craft and bringing different elements to the live show.

I just really admire your vision. Soft Sounds [from Another Planet] maybe started as a concept record, but you kind of abandoned that idea. Is that something you would come back to? Maybe not that particular idea, but something like that?

Like a heavy-handed concept album? Yeah, definitely. I think that for me I've always liked the idea. I mean, I feel like every album I've made has some kind of concept to it. I think that I really like organizing new albums and projects that way. It makes me feel more focused when I'm making it to have something like that. Yeah, I don't know. I have no plans right now for a concept record like that, but I think in the future that's something I might try again.

 

How do you keep sane with the amount of touring and output you have? It's impressive.

Yeah, I mean, I think that it's a lot easier to stay sane when it's a job that you love to do. This has always been my dream job since I was young, and to have the opportunity to do it is really fulfilling and exciting. Also, I think having the opportunity to try on jobs that I hated kind of grounds you and how hard just being a working person is in general. Work is hard, you know? I feel a lot more sane doing something that's fulfilling and exciting to me than working a job that I hate. That's what makes me insane.

We've talked about this a little bit, but it feels like Japanese Breakfast has just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. 2017 was a crazy year for you. Where do you hope to go next, and how has that been adjusting to that?

I mean, like I said, I feel like I've just already surpassed all my expectations for this band in so many different ways. But yeah, I guess I'm just excited to travel to new places and just push ourselves to be the best band that we can be. Just some really boring things like having a person doing our front of house sound for the first time was really exciting for us just so we can have a consistent front of house sound every night is a really exciting thing for me to have. And yeah, I don't know. I'm always just trying to figure out how we can make the live show better.

From what I understand the first records were more of a solo effort. Has your writing process become more collaborative as you've had a solidified band?

I think that the records have always been collaborative. It's just kind of in a different way. It's not like a traditional band format where someone plays the guitar and someone plays the drums, and we all get in a room together and write something together. It's more like I'll work with a producer or some musicians to help arrange the songs that I bring in, and I get to kind of be the directing force in how it all comes together. With Psychopomp it was three musicians that helped me arrange it, and I worked with Ned Eisenberg to kind of co-produce and add synths and work on mixing together. Then, for this record, it was just our live drummer, Craig Hendrix, who co-produced it with me, and, between the two of us, we just played everything on the album. So I think for the next record I'll probably stick to that kind of format of working closely with someone to co-produce songs and kind of try to keep all of the arrangement in the studio instead of working with a band to do that.

 

I loved the video you directed for "Boyish." Have you done video before Japanese Breakfast or was that kind of your first foray?

I actually studied video and studied film in college. I was an independent major in creative production, which is basically just taking a lot of film studies and creative writing and video production courses. So I made a thesis short film that was terrible and some music videos that were just kind of fan videos and some short video projects for classes. But then I really put it aside until Japanese Breakfast started doing stuff, and I have a friend, Adam Kolodny, who's the director of photography on all of the videos that we've done, and so he really kind of encouraged me to sort of pick it back up. He was like, "Well, you're basically already directing, so I think that you should just take this over." Originally I asked if he would direct it, and he really just loves to be a DP, so he kind of just pushed me into that role, and it's something that I've really fallen in love with in the last couple of years.

And you directed the video for Jay Som's "The Bus Song." Is that something you're interested in doing for other artists as well?

Definitely. It's been a really busy year for us with touring all the time, so I haven't gotten the opportunity to do it for any other artist, but I really want to. I think maybe next year if I have more time or have a little break from album cycles to do that for a couple more artists I love. Yeah, for sure.

How do you keep yourself inspired? It seems like you really enjoy sci-fi and similar fantastical genres. What are you consuming to keep yourself mentally stimulated?

I've been reading a lot. I love media in general. I love narrative and listening to a lot of really great bands and observing the world. I'm just in awe of many things, and I feel very inspired by all sorts of stuff.

What are you listening to and reading?

I just watched Phoebe Bridgers. I really love her new record. I've been listening to a lot of Japanese ambient music, and what else have I been listening to? Fear of Men. We just did a tour with them in the UK. I love that band. The new Empress Of songs I really love. What's on my Spotify playlist? [laughs] All sorts of stuff.

Are you working on new material for another record?

Not yet, no. I'm going to take my time with the next one, for sure. We really went quickly into the next one, and, yeah, I want to do more video projects, work on some nonfiction writing and explore some other things and take some time for myself.

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