Japanese Breakfast talks about her work ethic, her favorite catalog gems, and her future plans

Photos by JV Rabano

 

I try to stay in my lane when I meet Michelle Zauner, but she won’t let me.

As I am led into her hotel suite, I notice that there isn’t a seat across the sofa she’s sitting on. An armchair has been placed adjacent to her, and instead of making myself comfortable — like we’re equals or something — I decide that the carpet is the only real option. So I put down my bag, sit cross-legged, and she slides off her couch and plops onto the floor with me.

When we meet, the creative polyglot known as Japanese Breakfast has already been in Manila for 24 hours, having arrived to play at The Rest is Noise’s Summer Noise 2019 music festival. She’s embarking on a whirlwind Asian tour that will eventually culminate in her birthplace, Seoul.

During these itinerant periods, Michelle likes hunting for the best Korean restaurants around town. After losing her Korean mother to cancer, she found the cuisine to be her greatest comfort, a kind of spiritual umbilical cord connecting her to the memory of someone who no longer was. She continued with her food crawls in Manila, marveling at the city’s vibrant Korean community. “I just love Asian food. I really wanna eat good Filipino food too, but I haven’t gotten the chance to yet,” she laments. Her voice is clear and crisp, inviting in its tone and assured in its bearing.

Throughout our interview, Michelle seems highly aware that the Summer Noise team has not given us much time together (15 minutes, including a quick photo shoot), so she speaks with great economy, like she wants to answer as many questions as she can within our tiny window.

This is the skill that imbues her work with such cutting power. As a songwriter, she’s always known how to make the quickest pop lyrics crackle with electricity. Consider this line from Boyish, a bleeding song about sexual frustration that sounds like it was recorded in a dimly lit saloon: I can’t get you off my mind. I can’t get you off in general.

It remains one of her personal catalog favorites. “I remember finishing that song, because I had redone it so many times,” she says. “It was kind of like putting this song I’ve been playing for five years to bed.”

Her knack for signification has come in handy even as an essayist. Her heartrending essay “Crying in H Mart,” which was published in The New Yorker last year, saw her cradle her grief over her mother’s death while simultaneously ruminating about her place in the Asian-American diaspora. It’s an essay that impacts even a homegrown Filipino like me. But she didn’t necessarily have her audience in mind when she wrote it: “I think my work comes from me just wanting to explore things for myself,” she says. “I don’t think much about other people when I write anything, but I’ve certainly met a lot of people that (my art) has touched.”

Japanese Breakfast played a headliner set at Summer Noise 2019 Music Festival in Greenfield District last May 18.

She name-checks Richard Ford, Marilynne Robinson, Lorrie Moore and Raymond Carver as her writing influences. She just finished Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and is currently reading Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. Pretty soon, she too will have her own book out. A memoir, Crying in H Mart will build upon the eponymous essay’s themes of heritage. “I’m working on the rough draft right now and hopefully I’ll finish after this tour,” Michelle says. “I’m gonna spend another three weeks in Korea after we wrap. And then it really just depends on how my editor responds to it. So hopefully (it’ll come out) next year.”

Diving woman: Michelle is currently working on a book and her next record, which she hopes to get back to after her Asian tour.

Though she seems to emanate an untamed charisma — a passionate spirit, a touch of danger — Michelle Zauner is truly defined by her near-ascetic sense of discipline. This is a woman who once wrote and recorded a song every day for a month. How do you do it? I ask.

 

“I’ve noticed from hanging out with my artist friends that I’m not a perfectionist. I have a vision and I try to get as close to it as possible, but that’s not my be-all and end-all.”

 

“I’ve noticed from hanging out with my artist friends that I’m not a perfectionist. I have a vision and I try to get as close to it as possible, but that’s not my be-all and end-all,” she admits. “I’m really okay with things being an archive of the time and not this perfect thing I’m trying to achieve. Part of the reason why I do things like write a song a day is just to be like, ‘You don’t have time to have writer’s block.’”

This mindset has been key to the completion of her 90,000- word manuscript. “I just made myself write 1,000 words every single day. And if you do that, even if it’s really, really bad, you can always revisit it, and there’s one sentence out of a thousand words that’s made it worthwhile for you. So I think it’s good to just have as a regimen.”

just have as a regimen.” It’s an unintentional callback to a lyric from Diving Woman, the opener to her album “Soft Sounds from Another Planet.” I wanna be a woman of regimen. A bride in her home state. A diving woman of Jeju-do. You get the sense that she was part of the tribe in a past life.

Michelle also directs, her most notable credit being the delightful Road Head video, where she frolics around with a furry demon before shooting it and wearing its hide around her neck. The video treatment wasn’t conceived until after the song got its final cut. “I think that after you write a song, it goes through so many processes of, like, arranging and producing and mixing, so I can’t really get its vibe until it’s finished,” she explains. “(My videos) aren’t usually things that I feel are inspired by the lyrics.”

Perhaps the most amusing thing about Michelle is that she never takes things one step at a time. On top of the book, she’s also working on her next record. “Okay, don’t get excited about this, ‘cause it’ll probably change,” she laughs before reasserting the disclaimer a few more times. “But the mood board right now is Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ meets Björk’s ‘Homogenic’ meets Jubilee from the X-Men.” I heed her warning and try not to get attached. I try.

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