Q&A: Japanese Breakfast On Enduring Trauma, Reusing Old Songs, & Her New “Failed Concept Album”
Towards the end of Soft Sounds From Another Planet — Michelle Zauner’s second full-length as Japanese Breakfast — there’s a song that offers a blueprint of the emotional growth that she’s experienced over the last couple years. “Till Death” is a litany of what’s been plaguing her since the events that resulted in her debut (namely, her mother’s death, which provided a concrete narrative for those looking to contextualize the album): “Insomnia, haunted dreams, stages of grief, repressed memories, anger and bargaining,” she sings in a theatrical lullaby coo. It’d sound sweet if it wasn’t so sad, but Zauner isn’t one to wallow in self-pity; instead, the song acts as an ode to her partner, who stayed through the difficult times: “Your embrace, healing my wounds,” she continues. “Teach me to breathe, teach me to move.”
Where Psychopomp struck a nerve because of the immediate and palpable grief that overshadowed the album, Soft Sounds looks at the aftermath of trauma, when the initial shock has worn off and all that’s left is a dull, aching absence. There’s a loose science fiction concept that threads itself throughout about feeling like an alien that doesn’t belong. A lot of the songs are about gradually opening up and learning how to interact with the outside world after being hermetically sealed off inside your head for so long. That closed-off impulse stems from Zauner’s loss, but it’s how she translates that feeling of displacement into so many different situations — those of love and bad timing and codependency — that makes Soft Sounds such a compelling album.
Take lead single “Machinist,” which tells the story of a doomed human-robot romance that could never be. With its processed vocals and swirling, gauzy ascensions, it’s a fantastical take on unrequited love, but it also reads as Zauner’s internal dialogue with herself, wondering why she’s having trouble connecting with other people: “I never realized how much you were holding back,” she breathily intones in the beginning. “All the times I felt so plugged in, you were tuning out/ A muted channel, a cold shell, a hologram, an abyss…” The song’s pathetic narrative of a woman who will settle for anything as long as it looks like love is elevated, becoming a reflection on Zauner’s own circumstance.
That detached perspective bleeds into the often darkly comedic and cynical way that Zauner writes about relationships. There’s “Road Head,” an older track that works as an allegory for the ways in which we go out of our way to appease our partners: “Last ditch desperate, like a makeshift siphon/ Pump and run,” she sings. It’s not that she’s shaming the act itself, just pondering the implications of what it means for the power dynamics of a relationship as a whole. She’s a minimalist storyteller, utilizing snapshot vignettes to identify a larger truth. I picture “Boyish,” a song repurposed from her old band Little Big League, as taking place at a dirty table in some sleazy, everytown diner as Zauner’s narrator contemplates if she can really place their trust in the person sitting across from them: “I can’t get you off my mind/ And you can’t get yours off the hostess/ Watched her lips reserving tables as my ugly mouth kept running.” But she’s not taking action, just stewing in her own juices.
Soft Sounds From Another Planet is about being an outside observer to your own life and feeling unable to alter the fatal course of your own existence, but still existing anyway. “Try your best to slowly withdraw,” she advises on one song. “The body is a blade that moves while your brain is writhing/ Knuckled under pain, you mourn but your blood is flowing.” But from that mourning period, Zauner finds resilience and independence. The takeaway from the album isn’t a depressing one — detachment is just a temporary coping mechanism, one that’s necessary to overcome loss. And when you’re finally ready to let other people in again, they’ll be there for you. On the last song, a scratchy acoustic number called “This House,” Zauner reflects on a relationship that ran its course before turning her reflection inward: “I’m not the one I was then, my life was folded up in half,” she sings. “I guess I owe it to the timing of companions I survived the year at all.”
I talked with Zauner about enduring trauma, reusing old songs, and why Soft Sounds From Another Planet is sort of a failed concept album. Read our Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: Psychopomp was obviously made under very personal circumstances, but a second album comes with outside expectations and pressures that are completely different from when you’re creating something primarily for yourself. How did that factor into your creative process this time around?
MICHELLE ZAUNER: I started with “Machinist,” and it’s been fun to have that be the first song that’s out because I wanted people to feel the same way that I did when I first started this new record. I felt all this pressure. The narrative for Psychopomp wasn’t meant to be that it was a record about my mother’s death, but I feel like people caught onto it really quickly. Partially because of the first thing you wrote about the record, which was so beautiful and personal — it kind of spun that story. I don’t think what happened was even included in our press release, but I’m a pretty forthcoming person and if I was asked about it in interviews or if people were able to get that from the cover or lyrics, I would talk about it, and the narrative that was spun very quickly was that it was a record about my mom’s death.
So when I approached this new record, it was weird. Because I was like, My last record… That’s my death record, that’s my mourning record, and now this has to be something entirely different. But, I mean, I’m obviously always going to think about my mother’s death. It changed everything about who I am and how I view the world. So it wasn’t realistic to be like, I cannot write about that anymore, because I’m always going to write about it and it’s always going to be really painful for me and I’m always going to feel differently about it. Psychopomp was written literally only months after my mom died, and I think this new record explores a lot of the same feelings with a year-and-a-half of perspective in between about how death affects you a lot differently over time.
When I first started writing this record, I was under the impression that I wanted to really distance myself from something really personal. I wanted to write a science fiction musical. For some reason, that’s what I was fascinated with. This weird label/blog thing offered me $2000 to write and record two songs to make them content or whatever, and I was like, wow, that’s a lot of money, that sounds awesome. And so I wrote “Machinist” for that, and then they rejected it and they didn’t want it, so I just had that song. So I was like, okay, I’m just going to make this science fiction concept musical and it’ll be about this woman who falls in love with a robot. I was really obsessed with the Mars One project at the time, so I had this whole narrative planned out that this woman falls in love with this robot, realizes it’s a love that cannot be, and then enlists in the Mars One project, and the whole record was going to be a musical about this concept.
When I started writing the rest of it, it felt so phony to me. It worked really well for that one song, but when I tried to really limit myself to that, I wasn’t able to come up with anything really good. I had all of these other songs… Music has always been a way for me to sort out a lot of my feelings, so I think I was kind of entering into this record with those interests in mind, realizing I couldn’t limit it to that, and then infusing that science fiction drive into things that I felt like I had a lot to say about still. It’s kind of like a failed concept album, I guess.
STEREOGUM: Why do you think you were still attracted to the idea of space and science fiction as a cohesive theme for the album even when you didn’t have that narrative pull behind it?
ZAUNER: What I took away from that whole experience [with my mother] and what I think I was commenting on with this new record was just how impressed I was with what I endured. I’ve always grown up with a real leaning towards depression and darkness, and for me to have undergone something like that… just the trauma of being really close to death. It was the first time I saw a dead body. Watching someone so close to you deteriorate is so traumatic. I think I was really impressed that I didn’t allow myself to get really depressed, and I just channeled myself into productivity and really focused on taking it one day at a time.
As someone who is a very emotional person and a very sensitive person, I felt like I had to block off so much of that and of myself. I felt like I couldn’t cry in front of my parents because I was worried that they would start crying. So I really felt like I was this very mechanical, machine-like person that had to focus on continuing to move very robotically. And so, as a result, I’ve felt like the last two years I’ve been really, really shut off emotionally. I don’t have a whole lot of room… It’s sad, but a lot of me was shut off by that experience, and I feel like I’m relearning how to feel in a lot of ways. I’m trying to undo all of these things I really shut myself off from so I can experience emotion again. So I think that kind of fits into that theme of just being a mechanical body, or feeling like you’re floating through space. I felt like I spent the last two years disassociating so much that those were very comfortable places to look to as themes.
STEREOGUM: One thing that I feel like comes up in a couple of different songs is this idea that you have to teach the people around you how to interact with you because of what you’ve gone through. There’s that line on the title track where you say, “That’s not the way to hurt me/ I’ll show you the way to hurt me.” That’s a little bit darker than what I’m trying to get at, I guess, but I feel like there’s a constant need to have to teach someone how to give you the sort of space and emotional attentiveness that you need because of all of this stuff that’s happened.
ZAUNER: Yeah… I also felt like that song, for me, was about feeling like nothing could ever hurt me anymore because I went through the nightmare that I think a lot of children have — especially only children — because you feel so incredibly alone going through that experience. I felt like anything could happen and I would be OK from that point on. I really view life totally differently since that experience.
Another theme on the record is realizing the inevitability of death and being really afraid of death. My aunt and my mom both died of GI cancers in the last two years separate from each other. My dog died of cancer, not that that has anything to do with it… But all of this stuff happened so quickly and I think about my own death a lot and how I’ll probably get cancer. So I kind of feel like everything I do now is a race against the clock. In “Till Death,” the last lines are everything that I’ve been so freaked out about in the last two years, and having a partner see all of these really ugly and real sides of you so quickly one after the other… but also just kind of having them be there and how amazing that can be. Thanatophobia is the fear of dying, and that’s definitely another thing that weaves itself through the record.
STEREOGUM: Especially because this ended up being something of a failed concept album, how much consideration did you give when putting together the album in terms of flow, either narratively or sonically?
ZAUNER: I think it ended up making more sense as time went on. One big change that happened with this record was being afforded a label, and because it felt like more of a real project, I wanted it to be a really, really tight-knit album. So me and Craig [Hendrix], who plays in the band, between him and I, we played everything on the record — we had one trumpet player and one saxophone player, too — and he co-produced it with me, and then Jorge Elbrecht mixed it and Heba Kadry mastered it. But I wanted it to be really intimate and tight. I wanted to communicate with just one other person what I wanted to happen, so it was a way more intimate recording process and I was able to write more within the studio and pick up whatever instrument I wanted and use it.
I guess the flow kind of happens once you have six or seven songs put together and then it makes more sense. I don’t know if there’s really a narrative, but I do think there are these sounds that play off each other. One is the science fiction-y stuff, and the others are these really elaborate, almost Disney-esque Phil Spector big-arrangement kind of ballads. I think that kind of high drama was exciting for me to play with.
STEREOGUM: Psychopomp was a bit of a weird release in that it had a lot of songs that were older or included on different releases, and you have the same thing here where there are a couple of older Japanese Breakfast songs, and you even remake a Little Big League song with “Boyish.” Why did you decide to do that and why did these songs feel like they fit in with the rest of the album?
ZAUNER: I guess I just like that process a lot. I felt like it worked really well with Psychopomp. There are certain songs that I just felt were great compositions but never got their due and I could redo. Now that I’m a much more confident songwriter and producer and arranger, I feel like I can tackle these things a lot better than I was able to with Little Big League. With that band … we were all in our own roles and writing our own parts. Sometimes if it would go in a way that you didn’t want it to, you just kind of had to go, That’s their voice and that’s what they want to do with it.
But I remember thinking that I hated the way we recorded [“Boyish”] so much. I hate the direction that it took. It started out as “Day 6” on June, and then we reworked it for a Little Big League song… and it was just so bad. It wasn’t working out. I feel like if you look at that waveform, it just looks like one giant turd. There’s no movement at all. And I always really liked that chorus line, because it’s so pathetic to be a woman singing about a man’s failed virility. I really wanted it to move well, so I redid it.
A lot of the songs are like that. I think it’s kind of fun because the people who have listened to the project for a long time can pick them out. I think over half the songs on the record are reused songs that have a different context now. One thing that’s really fun about that is that you can start writing something in one context and end up finishing it from a totally different point of view. “Heft,” from Psychopomp, was one that was really interesting because I wrote that the day or a few days before I found out my mom was sick and I had an idea of what was going to happen. Then I wrote the second verse and second chorus after she had already passed away.
Similarly, with the title track, I started writing about a really toxic relationship that I was in, and I finished it maybe five years later after I had really buried that person. I was thinking so much about how lucky I was to have my partner going through what I went through because if I had been with this horrible person, they would have somehow made my mom’s illness about them. Somehow. And that chorus just makes me feel like, How could I have ever allowed this petty fucking person to make me feel this way? Because after enduring something that’s actually really painful, I would never allow myself to be treated that way. There’s something fun about revisiting songs, and I also think that they are demos that have stood the test of time for me, so I felt like they were worth investigating further.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to talk a little bit about the visual side of the project. You’ve worked with Adam Kolodny [from House Of Nod] on all of your music videos, and you’ve started to form this very compelling aesthetic that feels like it’s tied directly to your music.
ZAUNER: It’s funny because I kind of had the most ill-fated college major that anyone could have chosen for themselves. I was an independent major in creative writing and film, and it’s hilarious to me that all of these years I spent denying that those could ever be feasible career options ended up being exactly what I’m doing with my career right now. I really like film and I’ve always really liked Adam and his work as an artist. We just finished our fifth video together, for “Road Head,” and it’s my favorite one yet. We work really well together. Our relationship has gotten more and more streamlined and exciting over time.
I directed the last one and this new one, and I co-directed “Everybody Wants To Love You” with Adam. He really wants to focus on the cinematography, and I’m kind of a naturally bossy person so it makes sense that I would do this now. But Adam’s been really helpful to jump on concepts that we both have and develop them into what they are. I really love music videos and I think that they’re really nice to have. I always have a clear idea of what I want something to be, I think, but it’s hard to know exactly how they interact with the music. I’m not one of those people who’s going to pretend to have synesthesia and say that I see it all in my head. But I think that, in some way, being a songwriter means that you have some type of weird… You’re essentially hearing voices in a weird way when you’re writing music. It’s a sound that comes from nowhere that you’re chasing after.
But yeah… I like making the music videos. For “Machinist,” it was a very obvious narrative, but I think all of our videos follow a very similar formula in some ways. One thing about my songs and the videos that are similar is that there’s sometimes an overwhelming amount of joy with a really menacing undercurrent of sadness. In the “Everybody Wants To Love You” video and in the song, I feel like both of those things seem monumentally joyous, but in how excessive that joy is or how surface-level it is, there’s actually something really sad about it. In all of the videos that we’ve made, I’m either drunk or hallucinating. They all start really fun and happy, and then three-quarters of the way through, it’s our hope that it becomes apparent that it’s not really a happy situation. And I think that’s how a lot of my music is… It seems so happy and upbeat, but if you tap into the lyrical content, the sonics of it get tainted with this melancholy feeling.