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.”