In a series of interviews, we’re asking some of the artists behind 2017’s best albums to reflect on the year that was. After speaking to Perfume Genius and Vince Staples, we asked Japanese Breakfast mastermind Michelle Zauner to close the trilogy with us.
In the not-too-distant past, Michelle Zauner thought she was done with music. But then the former Little Big League frontwoman struck out on her own as Japanese Breakfast, releasing her official debut Psychopomp last year. Influenced by the death of Zauner’s mother, it was a beautiful, heart-rending album, easily one of our favorite albums of 2016. Then Zauner returned just a little over a year later with Soft Sounds From Another Planet, once planned as a sci-fi concept record. A dreamy and confident sophomore outing, it confirmed that Japanese Breakfast is one of the most exciting and evocative young rock/indie acts going right now, and it landed even higher on our end-of-year list this time around.
Along the way, Zauner has proven herself to be a funny and thoughtful presence on the scene, so we decided to catch up with her about her year and some of 2017’s big topics. Speaking just before setting off for Japanese Breakfast’s first-ever tour of Asia and Australia, Zauner told us about her hilarious Game Of Thrones viewing ritual, a love/hate reaction to Blade Runner 2049, her fascination with the Mars One project, how she feels now that Soft Sounds is out in the world, and more.
STEREOGUM: I saw you play at Baby’s All Right in September 2016. And I remember you saying something towards the end of the show about how you had thought you were done with music before Japanese Breakfast. You had moved to New York for a more professional route, and then music had pulled you back in. So last year there’s all the buzz around the debut, and then this year it seems like that much of a bigger deal with the sophomore album. How are you feeling now two albums into this? Is it overwhelming or are just sort of excited and taking all the chances that come up?
ZAUNER: I’m kind of taking all the chances that come up now. I definitely don’t feel overwhelmed. I kinda feel unsure … the last two years I kept waiting for the trapdoor to open up. I know in 2016, when I put out Psychopomp, it was such a surprise. I had made two records with Little Big League, it wasn’t really happening for me. We never did a proper tour where we were getting guarantees every night and selling enough merch to pay ourselves out. We were always barely breaking even, or losing money, to go on tour.
So it was kind of a miracle when Psychopomp started getting a lot of traction… I went on the Mitski tour and I got signed to Dead Oceans and it all just happened really fast. So when I started making the second record, for Dead Oceans, I was really freaked out, because I was like, “What if that was a fluke?” I was working with another co-producer and … I just felt like, maybe because Psychopomp was so accidental, I was set to fail a little bit for the sophomore slump or whatever. But I just tried to make what was interesting to me and not think about it too much. I didn’t send any demos to the record label, because I was so worried if I heard anyone’s opinion on anything I would just freeze up and make something really unnatural.
So, yeah, it was a huge relief when this record also got a good amount of traction, and people seem to like it. I just had all these really terrible nightmares that people were going to hate the next thing I did. I was happy that didn’t happen, because I think, actually, it’s quite a different record. So, yeah, I dunno, I think I felt like 2016 was my year and then when 2017 happened I was like, “Oh, no, wait, this is my year.” Now that next year is lining up, it’s “Oh, no, it’s next year.” So I’m in this limbo feeling like, “OK, this could all go away really quickly,” because I’ve watched so many of my musician friends get hyped and lose their careers just because of fading interest or because their followup. I’m waiting for that to happen but also taking advantage of everything while I can. I’m grabbing like, “I gotta do it before they spit me out!”
STEREOGUM: We’re about the same age and I understand where you’re coming from.
ZAUNER: I feel like the first real tour that was set up by real agents and had actual people coming to them was the Mitski tour, and I remember watching her play to a sold-out crowd at Music Hall Of Williamsburg and seeing her name on a banner and I was thinking to myself, “If I get there I can just stay there and be happy.” And then that literally happened this year! We had a very similar route, we sold out a lot of the same venues, and we had our name on the Music Hall Of Williamsburg thing, and it was insane to look out at that many people and be like, “Holy shit, I’m here.” But immediately once you get there, you’re like, “OK, I gotta get to the next spot and I gotta pay the band more and maybe I can get health insurance next year.” Literally the second you walk into that spot, you’re thinking, “OK, I have to work hard to get to the next spot.” Some part of me is worried, when will I be like, “You did it girl!” and feel a wave of relief. But as an obsessive, passionate person, you just want to keep running, I guess.
STEREOGUM: You adapted some older songs for both Psychopomp and Soft Sounds and I figure that might’ve helped with working quickly, but do you hope to keep moving at this clip, a record a year?
ZAUNER: Definitely not. I need a little break, I think, from recording. We’re touring so much off of this record still. I definitely want to have a year off between this record and the next one. I also feel like that’s the nature of the debut and the sophomore record. I think for [Soft Sounds], I just wanted to follow a more concentrated version of the process that it was to make Psychopomp. For the third album, I think that’s when you really push yourself and I want to make something that’s really out of my comfort zone and really different and really push myself to become a better musician and singer and songwriter and producer. I want to take my time with the next one. This year, I just had so many opportunities to work in other types of mediums, so I did a lot of video work this year, and that’s definitely something I want to continue doing and exploring. I want to do some nonfiction writing. I might want to work on some soundtrack stuff. So, yeah, I just want to experiment and start learning more before thinking about taking on the next record. I think I need to learn a new skill set to bring the next one to the next level.
STEREOGUM: I know sometimes when you’re on tour or recording it’s hard to keep up, but do you have a song or album of the year that stuck with you?
ZAUNER: I really loved the SZA record. I think that’s been my most consistently jammed since it came out. I feel like I never heard melodies like that before. They’re just so unique, but they’re so catchy even though they’re all over the place. I think the songwriting is so unique and I love her so much.
STEREOGUM: Do you listen to a lot of stuff in the rap and R&B world?
ZAUNER: Occasionally. I’m not super in that world but there are certain records that hit me a certain way and I loved that one so much.
STEREOGUM: Did you listen to her labelmate Kendrick’s record, too?
ZAUNER: I haven’t really listened to the Kendrick record. I love his music videos so much, but I haven’t listened to it. Honestly, I don’t listen to that many men anymore. [laughs] That’s not true. I really, really loved the Alex G record, too. We got to tour with him last year and it was one of my favorite tours. That was another record I thought was so unique.
STEREOGUM: Are you a Taylor Swift fan at all?
ZAUNER: No, not really. The whole record seems so gross. I’d like to believe we demonize her a little too much, but it’s also … that whole record just looks disgusting.
STEREOGUM: [laughs] What do you mean by “gross” exactly?
ZAUNER: The album cover and all the visuals and the themes around that record. It’s hard not to read into it, like she feels like she’s being edged out by the hip-hop community. It feels really gross. I don’t want to speak ill of her … I get really nervous about how angry we get with celebrities, and I think it can be unfair that someone says something taken out of context and they’re immediately ravaged. I’m kind of an apologist for those types of people. Not in terms of like, if they do something seriously wrong — like, I’m very much a Kanye West apologist.
STEREOGUM: Oh, same.
ZAUNER: He’s on his own planet, leave him alone! That lifestyle is so weird, you can’t understand. He’s just in his own head, saying stuff out loud. I feel like never gets to say things privately, so all the weird shit that you’re maybe saying to your friends, if that was taken out of context and blown up everywhere, you would be in deep shit, too.
STEREOGUM: Yeah I was talking to my editor the other day about how Morrissey made those insane comments about Harvey Weinstein. My editor was like, obviously Morrissey has a history of bad opinions, but also, people have asked him for his opinions for 30-something years. These people are so in their own world at that point, at that level.
ZAUNER: I mean, even in my small amount of interviews that I do, I feel like, “Oh my God, if a journalist decided to be unkind to me I’m really fucked.” But I’m sure if you’re a bigger celebrity it is a bigger, breaking story if they do take it out of context.
STEREOGUM: Did you have any thoughts on the song “Despacito?”
ZAUNER: No, I feel really sheltered from that world.
STEREOGUM: You clearly don’t take enough Uber rides, because that’s where I hear these songs all the time.
ZAUNER: I think so. I’m a super frugal person so I never take Ubers. [laughs] It really pains me to take Uber, because it just seems like such a waste of money. I just don’t leave the house. I’m also always working, so I don’t listen to the radio, really.
STEREOGUM: Did you see any movies this year?
ZAUNER: I really liked the Blade Runner movie. I don’t know if I wasn’t supposed to. Obviously, there were some things that were clearly shitty about it, and I hate Jared Leto’s character. He was horrible. But I just loved that world, and I have such a tender spot — it reminded me a lot of A.I., which I think is another movie people don’t like, but I really like. I just loved the world they created [in Blade Runner 2049], I thought it was really amazing. Sometimes I get involved in media that … I want so badly to believe. I think my suspension of disbelief is really high. I will excuse a lot of stuff.
But there was some weird shit with Asian people that I thought was really racist. It was the same thing in The Fifth Element. It’s weird that the future is very rooted in Asian culture but there are only really caricatures of Asian people. It bothered me that his girlfriend wore a Chinese dress, and I think there was an Asian takeout character. But there’s Asian language, like characters, everywhere. There’s Korean and Chinese neon signs. We associate a lot of Asian culture with the future and yet there’s no real Asian characters. It’s like, when there’s a tech, it’s the Asian guy. It really bothered me, because I think it sticks out, especially now. They do that in The Fifth Element, too, which is one of my favorite movies. The only Asian characters are an Asian takeout character and all these Asian fangirls for Chris Tucker’s character. I just love those movies so much but you really do have to disassociate a little bit.
STEREOGUM: That goes back to the first Blade Runner, too. Especially in the ’80s, the whole Japanophilia thing in sci-fi. Like you were saying, the one Asian guy is the comic-relief, old-guy eyeball tech in that one.
ZAUNER: It sucks, though. If that wasn’t there, I would have loved it so completely. I loved the whole memory-making thing, I thought that was so beautiful. It’s the kind of movie I really enjoy, so it was a slight bummer that they weren’t smart about that.
STEREOGUM: You’re kind of a sci-fan in general, right? Does that extend to the superhero realm of things? Did you see Thor and stuff, too?
ZAUNER: I didn’t. I really like the X-Men movies. Something about Thor I just never got into. I worked at a comic book shop before I moved to New York, which was the best job ever. I was pretty into comics for that year. I really wanted to see the Wonder Woman movie, but I didn’t see many superhero movies. I don’t have very much time. But I made a special exception, we had a day off in Montreal and we saw Blade Runner with Mannequin Pussy and it was so great.
STEREOGUM: So you still haven’t had a chance for Wonder Woman?
ZAUNER: I haven’t. Should I?
STEREOGUM: I grew up being more into the Marvel stuff, so I haven’t seen most of the D.C. movies, especially since a lot of them are supposed to be bad –
ZAUNER: They’re supposedly getting better now, though.
STEREOGUM: Apparently Justice League is a complete disaster, but Wonder Woman was really good.
ZAUNER: And finally they gave it to a woman director, that was really amazing. There was this one D.C. run, I don’t know if it’s still happening. I got really into Wonder Woman like three years ago, it was this Greek mythology thing where she was the god of war. Like she wasn’t actually an Amazon and her father was Zeus, so she interacts with all the Greek gods. It was super interesting, I was hoping they did more stuff like that. It was funny, the difference between the Amazons’ costumes in Wonder Woman and their costumes in the Justice League movie. They’re really skimpy and gross. The Amazon are really interesting, thinking about Wonder Woman being that. I just wish Gal Godot was like, twice the size of Gal Godot.
STEREOGUM: The movie does use some of that mythology. How about TV? Do you watch much on the road?
ZAUNER: I’m definitely a big Game Of Thrones fan. I think that’s another thing I’m an apologist for. [laughs] I know it’s really bad, but I just want so badly to live in that world that I’m so happy when I watch that show. I’ve rewatched that show like, three times. I was such a nay-sayer about it until I watched it. In 2016, my friend and my old drummer gave me this horn to drink wine out of, so you can’t put it down, because it’s a horn. Basically, I would pre-game, because it was the first year I was watching Game Of Thrones as it was coming out, you know? I would just get so excited that I would pre-game by drinking red wine out of this horn. And my husband gave me this shirt that has Jon Snow’s face on it and it says “Crows Before Hoes.” So I’d wear this shirt and I’d spill wine all over it and get really drunk, and be watching it wasted just screaming and so excited, and then I’d wake up and not remember any of it and have to re-watch it. I just want to live in that world so badly. I love it so much even though this season was, honestly, I think, pretty bad. I just don’t watch much TV, so when I watch it I get so pumped about it and I forgive it for all its bad qualities. I want it to do well. I felt the same way about Stranger Things. I know this is bad but I want to like it so I’m forgiving everything that’s bad about it.
STEREOGUM: Wait, why do you want to live in the Game Of Thrones world? It’s a pretty brutal place.
ZAUNER: I mean, I don’t necessarily want to live inside of their world, I just want to be cradled in that hour of television. I don’t want to be like “Ah, that sucked, this is stupid” and talk about it being bad. I hate it when people are like, “How did they make the chain? It doesn’t make any sense. How would they make the chain to drag the dragon out of the water?” I don’t want to think about that! I just want to be pumped that the dragon is out of the water. I want to be like, “No, everything is cool and it makes sense and is awesome,” because I watch two shows I’m excited about a year and I don’t want to talk about it being bad.
STEREOGUM: Were you excited for Twin Peaks to come back?
ZAUNER: I was, and then I watched it, and it took too much energy to focus on, I think. When I’m home and watching television I just want to be pumped, so I like shows that are just one way. I studied film in college and I really like watching good movies, or arthouse movies or whatever, but when I’m off tour — it’s so rare, that I just want to be dumb. I can’t focus on Criterion movies when I’m off tour. I had that same feeling with Twin Peaks. Unless I’m screaming about someone moving something with their minds, I just don’t have the energy for it right now. But when I have more time off, I’m sure I’ll be into it. It was just too demanding for me right now.
STEREOGUM: I hear you, I’m on the road a lot for work, too. When I’m actually at home in New York I find myself just wanting to watch goofy cooking shows with my girlfriend and not catch up on whatever season of whatever prestige drama.
ZAUNER: When I watch Twin Peaks, I feel like I’m learning something about how an artist expresses themselves. But when I watch something like Game Of Thrones or Stranger Things, I’m not thinking about that.
STEREOGUM: Right, “That’s a crazy monster” or something. Do you like fidget spinners?
ZAUNER: I never had one. On the Alex G tour, a lot of the guys had them. I have no real opinion. They’re gone now, really.
STEREOGUM: Is that trend over already?
ZAUNER: It seems like it, I haven’t seen one in a while.
STEREOGUM: I just had an Uber driver who was playing with one while driving.
ZAUNER: I feel like an old lady, because I don’t take Ubers and I didn’t have a fidget spinner. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Did you follow the ascension of Bhad Bhabie?
ZAUNER: I didn’t really follow that, no. [laughs] Am I not a young person anymore?
STEREOGUM: [laughs] No, I mean, this is just the random detritus of the year, you know?
ZAUNER: I’m going to get cut from this end-of-year stuff because I don’t know what the young people are doing anymore.
STEREOGUM: I’ve mostly been talking to people about TV and movies this year anyway, since current events are just dire.
ZAUNER: It’s like, “What world did you disassociate into while all hell was breaking loose IRL?”
STEREOGUM: So beyond sci-fi you’re pretty into space stuff in general right? I’ve seen you talk about Mars One a lot.
ZAUNER: I met the co-founder of the Mars One project when I was in Amsterdam like a month ago, Bas Lansdorp.
STEREOGUM: How did you wind up meeting him?
ZAUNER: Well, he reached out to me on Twitter, of all places, because I was doing all these interviews and he must have some kind of Google alert. He reached out to me and was like, “Hey, I only go to classical concerts” and then he listed a bunch of classical composers he likes, “But I’m glad you’re a Mars One fan, I’d love to meet you and I see you’re coming to Amsterdam and I’d love to have lunch with you.” So I was freaking out. I’m so fascinated by that project. I want to know more about it.
The beginning of this record in a way was my friend was visiting Philly — so my friend applied to be on the Mars One project, and was rejected. That was the first time I heard about it, him telling me about it. I think he’s really brilliant and he has this whole theory that the reason we haven’t met aliens is that they’re way ahead of us in terms of creating virtual worlds for themselves. So they lost curiosity and searching outwards, and they focused all their energy on searching inward. So, if there are aliens they’re all in some virtual idyllic simulation they’ve created for themselves and that’s why they haven’t found us. It was all really interesting. So I wanted this record to be a sci-fi concept album about a woman who falls in love with a simulation and realizes it’s a love that can’t be and enlists in the Mars One project.
I’m not interested in going to Mars, but I’m interested in the psychological elements of what it would be like to live with what I thought would be 20 people. In reality — [Lansdorp] told me they want to send four people every two years or something like that. I just can’t imagine only talking to four human beings forever. And are they going to try to match them? Like, they’re colonizing Mars, they’re not coming back. So are they doing a Real World thing, “Oh, I think this person and this person will probably be attracted to each other and have babies on Mars?” I was so into that. It was so crazy that [Lansdorp] wanted to talk to me. It was like, what are we going to talk about? It wasn’t like I was going to be involved in the Mars One project, I have nothing to offer them at all. [laughs] I think he was just happy that there was an artist with a small platform that was talking about it and interested in it. I don’t think that there are many people in my realm that are randomly talking about this project. He gave me a shirt and a tote bag and was like “If you ever want to do anything in the future.” I have no idea what he means by that.
STEREOGUM: If you want to go to Mars?
ZAUNER: He asked “Are you interested in going to Mars?” I was like, no. I’m comfortable here already.
STEREOGUM: [laughs] Did he seriously ask you if you wanted to go?
ZAUNER: He wasn’t asking me like, “Yo I got the hookup if you want to go.” [laughs] He was just curious, just making conversation.
STEREOGUM: As one does, making conversation about going to Mars. I used to read all this stuff — it was sort of my outlet from the music world — but I haven’t been keeping up with it recently. I haven’t read much about all this Mars stuff.
ZAUNER: It’s a nice world to live in. I think it’s so cool. They have soil from there that they’re trying to grow things in. I forgot what they sprouted or whatever, but they were like “We just grew this thing in this soil” and it’s like “THAT’S FUCKING NUTS! That’s so cool!” I didn’t realize how divvied up that labor was, too. They’re not involved in the ship-making. The Mars One project is only assembling the mission, the team. But then they’re like, “Oh, we’ll probably talk to Elon Musk about the vessel.”
STEREOGUM: Did you get a chance to see the total solar eclipse earlier this year? Or were you not in the right place?
ZAUNER: I wasn’t. We were in Philly. We went outside for a second to see it and we didn’t have glasses, so stupidly we were just looking at it. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Did you see Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial?
ZAUNER: Oh my God, yeah. That’s another thing — I just feel really bad for her. It can be so disorienting to be on a video shoot. Especially when you’re on that level, no one’s going over the storyboard with her, I’m sure. Or, when you read something it’s way different than the way it looks. Not that I give a shit about Kendall Jenner. But I just feel like people can be in these really shitty situations. [laughs] It’s not like she’s seeing exactly what’s happening, I feel like. It was horrible. It’s so stupid. It blows my mind that we’re trying to incorporate cops into anything. It seems really weird that we’re so concerned with making cops look good, or that anyone would write that character into something right now. It was very Blue Lives Matter. It just blows my mind. I was in my suburbs the other day. I’ve seen multiple Blue Lives Matter signs. It just pisses me off so fucking much, that people are that fucked, to think that’s appropriate, for so many different reasons, to co-opt a movement that you take issue with to defend the opposite thing. It makes no sense to me. That’s why the Kendall Jenner thing was ridiculous. Are you really going to give a Pepsi to a cop right now?
STEREOGUM: Seriously. Well, that’s a heavier note than I meant us to end on, but thanks for going along with this whole thing Michelle. I’m glad I caught you before you left for Asia and I hope you have an awesome time.
ZAUNER: I’m so excited, it’s the first tour where I get to eat what I want to eat. [laughs] When we were in Europe, I was like “God, I miss rice so much.” Our bass player is going to suffer so much. He only eats pizza and hamburgers. That’s all that’s easily available on tour. He’ll pull into a McDonald’s at 10AM and I’ll be like, “Are you a psycho? I can’t eat this shit.” In Europe, it was like “Jesus Christ, if I eat another meat pie I’m going to explode.” I didn’t eat Asian food a single day on that fucking tour. I’m so stoked to eat the food I want to eat and watch all the other dudes suffer and miss pizza. Because pizza over there is so fucked up. Korean pizza is seriously so fucked. It’s kinda deep dish, and it’s sweet, and they put corn on it. [laughs] It’s the weirdest thing. I’m so excited to see my band try to cope with that.
Soft Sounds From Another Planet is out now on Dead Oceans.