Japanese Breakfast


In 2014, Michelle Zauner was facing a creative and emotional dead-end. Singing as the front of Philadelphia-based band Little Big League, which left her artistically unsatisfied, and boxed into an unsupportive relationships, Zauner was already considering abandoning music when she heard news of her mother’s cancer diagnosis. Zauner returned to her mother and father in their hometown of Eugene, Oregon, and began creating lo-fi music on her own as a source of “instant gratification,” at a time of emotional darkness. Those lo-fi tracks eventually made their way onto Psychopomp, the first solo album Zauner released in 2016 under the name Japanese Breakfast, a lush and emotionally dynamic  project in which upbeat and hopeful sounds enfold lyrics about pain, loss, longing, and death.

Japanese Breakfast’s latest project, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, released in 2017 under the label Dead Oceans, deals more with the issues of relationships in songs such as “Road Head” and “Boyish,” with a synth, sci-fi sound summed up perfectly in her self-directed music video for the sultry dance beat “Machinist.” Japanese Breakfast opened shows for Mitski in the past, but is currently performing as the headliner in Subterranean in Chicago on Wednesday, October 4th.


All images taken from Michelle Zane’s bandcamp page


Inspired by the short stories of John Updike and Richard Ford, Zauner maps broad and heavy emotional territory into brief vignettes and wraps those stories of pain, loss, longing, and death into yearning and hopeful songs sprinkled with small-town indie-rock guitar riffs and throbbing bass lines. On Psychopomp, songs like “Jane Cum” or “In Heaven” sound as if Zauner is howling into a canyon with all the strength she can muster.

Psychopomp is described by Zauner as sonically upbeat but riddled with dynamic and eerie instrumentation to accompany lyrics about the most darkly intimate conflicts of human life. Like a short story writer, Zauner can compress enormous emotional meaning into three lines describing a moment that is at once banal and heartbreaking, as she does in the track In Heaven:

“The dog’s confused

She just paces ‘round all day

She’s sniffing at your empty room,”

Soft Sounds from Another Planet, on the other hand, was originally intended as a sci-fi concept album about love between humans and machines, as portrayed in the music video for “Machinist,” a song which incorporates whispered pleading and auto-tuned melodic singing to strike the contrast between flesh and metal, while Zauner depicts herself eviscerating her spaceship in an attempt to build a body for her digital lover.


Zauner directs her own music videos, including ‘Machinist’ and ‘Road Head,’ which have made nods to cult movie The Craft and early Wong Kar Wai film Chungking Express and Days of Being Wild.

Japanese Breakfast is noteworthy is her place a role-model for the Asian-American population, a group of people stereotypically viewed as un-creative, conservative, and lacking in individuality. Zauner not only breaks the stereotype, but also brings a voice to the ancestral experiences of Asian Americans in songs like “Diving Woman,” which describes “a traditionally matriarchal society, where female free divers were the breadwinners and heads of household.” A Rolling Stone article describes Zauner’s reaction to being perceived as an Asian-American and a female role model:

“Being half-Asian and going on the Mitski tour, that was like, a big deal,” she says. On that tour, fans would come up to the two artists gushing and thanking them, because, she says, “they feel like they see part of themselves in us in a way that they haven’t been able to before.” It’s a bizarre feeling, she admits, but she tries to keep in mind that she was once that excited, awkward fan.

“I felt so alone doing what I do for a really long time,” Zauner says. “Now there’s this really fucking awesome community of women who I can relate to. And it feels really good.”

Japanese Breakfast will be performing at the Subterranean on Wednesday, October 4th. Find tickets here.

Written by Jessica Breznick

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