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Japanese Breakfast knows no vacation… and that’s ok for now

Interview: Michelle Zauner on leaving 'the nest of The Sinclair', learning how to say 'no', and the unexpected details that unite us all

Photo Credit: Jackie Lee Young
 
 

When Vanyaland rings Michelle Zauner, aka Philly’s indie phenom Japanese Breakfast, she’s sipping on Emergen-C and fighting off a hoarse voice from a cold — most likely gleaned from her quick succession of flights between Stockholm, Chicago, and Austin. She likens the rest from her new mystery illness to a “vacation.”

Considering Zauner’s schedule, coming out of the winter unscathed aside from a little rasp in her voice is a remarkable feat. This March, she’s just returned from a jaunt at South-By-Southwest, which was prefaced by yet another stretch of North American shows, capped off with drafting her forthcoming memoir Crying in H Mart.

“Aren’t people tired of seeing Japanese Breakfast?” Zauner muses on the phone. “I really have to put my trust in people sometimes, and this is what people are asking for. It’s kind of hard to believe sometimes.”

But she should believe it. Her next tour, a sprint along the East Coast, kicks off with two shows at Royale in Boston next week (April 1 and a sold-out show April 6), her biggest gigs in Massachusetts to date. The venue upgrade is shell-shock for both Zauner and her fans, who have gathered many times over at The Sinclair in Cambridge to see Japanese Breakfast perform with bands like Porches and LVL UP. Moving to Royale — a venue with roughly double the capacity, and for two nights, no less — just furthers her ever-growing glow-up.

We chatted with Zauner ahead of her Boston shows to get the scoop on leaving “the nest of The Sinclair,” her years dwelling in DIY, and the unexpected details that unite us all.

Victoria Wasylak: When I started writing for Vanyaland, you were one of my first articles. That was two and a half years ago, and you have been touring non-stop ever since. What is that like for you as a person who needs rest and recuperation, and as an artist who has a creative process?

Michelle Zauner: It’s hard. I actually was really re-assessing my calendar today, particularly because I just got a book deal — just trying to prioritize where I need to spend my time, which is limited. I think that’s changed over the years. In the beginning it was just saying yes to everything, because I was — and still am — just so grateful for all of the opportunities I have. I’ve wanted to do this for a very long time. I started playing music when I was 15, and I think for most people, playing music and touring the country and seeing the world is a total dream job.

First of all, I’m really appreciative of that, and I’m really lucky to do the things I want to do, so it’s very hard to say no. Over the years, I’ve just had to learn how to say no to more things, and sometimes it just really, really is hard to walk away. I’ve had to say no to a couple music videos for artists that I really love just because I had to stare down the barrel of what was realistic, and when it came down to pitting one project against the other, what I really needed to focus my time on. I just had to get more and more specific over time.

It can definitely be hard, but it’s nice to be in the position now that you can afford to say no.

I mean there’s always the nerves of [wondering] “is this always going to be how it is?” I’ve watched a lot of artists with booming careers have people lose interest in them, so it is really scary, [thinking] “oh my god, if I say no to this tour, are people going to forget about me?” or whatever. It’s a balance and a negotiation between “if I die tomorrow, what is the project I want to be working on?” Is it doing the same tour and playing the same songs in this big of a room, or it making something?


When did you even have time to work on this book?

I’m still working on it — it’s not done, it got submitted on proposal, so I have about six chapters with an outline, and that’s what got the deal. Now I have to write the rough draft, due in June. It’s a process that I’m working on now, and it’s very hard. I wrote Crying in H Mart [the essay] and a lot of the material when we were in Korea. I played in Korea with the band in December of 2017, and I stayed there for about six weeks. It’s so fucking cold in Korea. I never realized what I was signing up for because growing up, I went to Korea every other summer, so it was always really humid and that’s what I associate Seoul with. It was so cold — I was in a studio apartment and you just couldn’t leave the house.

It was so brutally cold that you couldn’t leave the house, so I really wrote a lot in those six weeks, that’s where a huge chunk of it got done. Also in the car drive on tour… I just don’t take a day off, really. It’s what I want to do so — there are very different feelings about this. One, “if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,” which isn’t entirely true. And then there’s “you never have a day off if you love what you do.” It’s not a negative thing. I am told quite often to take it easy and I just don’t want to. That’s why I hate getting sick — it’s like I’ve reached my max capacity and there’s nothing to do. Being sick is like vacation.

Because you’ve been as tenacious as you have, over the course of the past two and a half years, we’ve watched you progressively grow to bigger and bigger venues fairly quickly. You had an opening show at The Sinclair, then your own show at The Sinclair, and now you have two shows at Royale, which is a big venue. What has it been like to grow that quickly in a relatively short amount of time?

It’s simultaneously a very short period of time and a very long period of time. We weren’t necessarily a band that just blew up. We’ve had a pretty steady climb. I’ve been playing music since I was 15, I’ve been playing DIY tours since I was 20, and I’m 30 at the end of this month. It was a long process of touring for 10 years, basically. We saw the climb as a very steady thing. We’ve been very lucky opening for Mitski somewhere in Boston, opening for Porches at The Sinclair, opening for Alex G, that was definitely at The Sinclair, doing that first [headline] show at The Sinclair, doing two shows at The Sinclair, and now with a heavy heart moving to Royale — which I hear is amazing, but it was weird to leave the nest of The Sinclair.

That was over the course of the last three years, and it’s not always like that for a band and I feel really lucky that’s it’s been like that. A lot of it came from having a manager, because I never would have booked these shows if it wasn’t for my team, who was like “It’s time. People will come. You sold it out far enough in advance, you have the ability to do it.” It’s really hard sometimes when he comes to me with these things. Aren’t people tired of seeing Japanese Breakfast? I really have to put my trust in people sometimes, and this is what people are asking for. It’s kind of hard to believe sometimes.


It’s interesting that you say it’s been a 10-year process, because you know that, and your bandmates know that, but for the rest of the world, they’ve only seen the past couple years, not the additional seven.

It’s so comical to see [when people say] we “blew up.” It was a very slow and steady thing. I’ve made two records as Japanese Breakfast, but I had two albums before that with another band, and did many tours with them as well. I am not the kind of person who got a Pitchfork “best new music” and got blown into the sea. I dwelled in DIY in bands that no one cared about for a very long time. It feels nice to come back. I do appreciate it every time we have people come to shows.

I read an interview you did with another paper saying you never thought you would make a second album at one point, and then when you did, it was kind of “removed” from you. Looking ahead, where do you go from there to make a third album?

Oh, I always wanted to make records. I think you really have to consider the circumstance that I was in when I wrote Psychopomp. I had played in Little Big League for four or five years. I had made two records that not too many people cared about or wrote about. I would go on tours where I would sleep on the ground for weeks at a time. It was a really difficult lifestyle. You make no money, you eat really poorly, you would play in a basement where people would forget to pass around the can [for donations] — you’re basically a professional homeless person. And it was really sad and disheartening! Sometimes there were moments that were really great and you lived through them, and that’s why you did it, but there was a lot, a lot of bad.

Touring as a DIY musician is very, very hard work, and for the mentally unsound, it is tremendously a lot harder. When I had written Psychopomp, I was in a very mentally unsound period of time. I had just lost my mother, I was an only child, I had a lot of pressure from my father to take care of him, and I had very little time for my own mental health. I had a partner that was kind of like my complete lifeboat, that the idea of going back on a tour without him was very scary, because I thought I would be in a mental place where I could potentially be very dangerous to myself.

So I told myself with Psychopomp, I’m gonna release it, I would like to to make this record kind of a conversation with myself, and I will hope that it sells 500 copies over the course of the next 10 years. But I told Yellow K, the label that put it out, “I will not tour, because it’s too hard, I need to be with my partner, I need stability, I need to make money, I’m 25 years old, I need to make a life for myself.” It wasn’t like, “this is my last one, just for funsies,” it was very much “I love this job, I love this music, I’ve always wanted to be a musician, but I have to hang my hat up because I’ve done it for a long time and it’s not working, it’s too hard, it’s time to try something else.” Psychopomp did really well, and of course it was out of nowhere that people really resonated with this record that I made — that had never happened before.

That was also months after I had said this — it takes quite a long time for a record to come out, and I was at another place in my life where I was working a 9-to-5 job — that was also a struggle in a new way. Around that same time, Mitski had offered to go on tour with her, and I was just a huge fan of her work. I had never gone on a real tour like that – a guarantee every night, and it’s at least enough money where you can balance it and pay a small sum of money to your bandmates and afford to take a car. I had also just gotten the attention from Dead Oceans after that record came out, so I had an advance for the next album, which I had never had that kind of money before.

I had the interest of a label who could really take care of me financially and make another record a reality, which was an opportunity I had never really had. You always had your record label just pay for you to put out the album, which doesn’t account for the studio time, mixing, your time, an engineer, a producer. All of these things are things I’ve always had to pay for out of pocket. It was the first time I actually had a significant amount of money to actually pay someone to help me, and the studio, and take care of myself and pay rent. So that’s why I made another record.

I mean, I always knew I’d make a third album because I’m on Dead Oceans, and I’m looking forward to it, it’s just finding the time.


You had said that when you were younger and a teenager, growing up, being Asian was something that you tried to hide. Now, all these years later, you’re releasing a memoir called Crying in H Mart, and a huge part of that is being an Asian American. When did that change for you?

Well, my mom died. My mom, the Korean half of my identity — she died, and a huge part of that made me run after a culture that I had rejected for a long period of time. A lot of my memory of her is rooted in her culture and what she shared with me. That changes a lot when you lose that person. It’s hard to grow up mixed race in America, in a largely white town, where you don’t have the kind of language to express that feeling of just wanting to fit in. It’s very universal when you’re a teenager that you just want to fit in, and any small difference about your person is something that you’re quick to reject.

I think it’s a very natural thing for a teenager — my friends were white, my peers were white. I felt, for all purposes, like a white person. There were differences that I grew up with that I celebrated as a kid, but when you’re a teenager, you just reject that because you’re embarrassed. You’re embarrassed of every part of yourself and your family. When I became an adult, I became more comfortable with myself and less of an asshole, I found myself reaching back out to that culture and being proud of my identity, and wanting to connect with it more. That became all the more amplified when my mom passed away.

Indie music and alternative music can be overwhelmingly white, but I think you are a part of a generation of songwriters who is really helping to change that, but that can’t be easy to clear that path for other artists to walk along years later. I think you and Mitski are both frontrunners of that right now in music.

I’m at the point where I just really want people to talk about our work. We just put in the work, we’re good at our job, and we’re talented. You do your best to try to extend your resources to other people who weren’t as lucky to be recognized maybe, so it’s important to me to do that as well. I’m happy that things are changing and I’m excited for people to move forward from talking it to death and just appreciating our work. If you are able to identify with us or feel represented by us, I think that that’s wonderful and I share that feeling, and I’ve had that feeling. I’m glad that we have that and I hope that encourages more people to feel like it’s something that they can do.

You had said that you once felt you couldn’t relate to anyone, but that putting out music helped significantly with that. Do you think that your book will be a large extension of being able to relate to other people — and them being able to relate to you?

Yeah, absolutely, I think that playing music and having that response has really given me the courage to share that. There was such an overwhelming response to that essay Crying in H Mart, and so I really think it will be an extension of that kind of feeling. It’s kind of ironic that the things that are so detailed and specific and feel so niche to you are the most universal things.

JAPANESE BREAKFAST + LONG BEARD :: Monday, April 1 and Saturday, April 6 at Royale, 279 Tremont St. in Boston, MA :: 7 p.m. on Monday and 6 p.m. on Saturday, all ages, $25 advance and day of show :: Bowery calendar page and ticket links