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Japanese Breakfast on making one of the year's best indie-pop records

Written by
Ro Samarth

Swirling synths, glitzy ’80s basslines and soaring, effervescent choral melodies: Singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner’s solo project, Japanese Breakfast, is a drastic departure from the punchy, no-frills pop-punk she wrote while fronting Philly quartet Little Big League. Her debut, Psychopomp, one of the best indie-pop releases of the year, was written after her mother’s death, and that context shows: A picture of Zauner’s mother graces the cover, and dark lyrics that explore loss and dissolution are buffeted by bubblegum sonic textures. We sat down with Zauner in advance of her Thursday, October 6 show at Baby’s All Right to discuss songwriting, grief and animal noises.

The project started as a one-song-a-day exercise—how did that routine affect your writing process?

Around June of 2013, I was feeling creatively stifled from being worn out finishing a record with Little Big League—it grew out of that. I think it was an exercise in forgiveness and creative practice. Having the discipline to write and record every day under these self-imposed restrictions produced a lot of really great raw source material from which I could draw, revisit and edit.

This project uses really varied instrumentation compared to your previous pop-punk material. Where did that come from?

I think it’s because Japanese Breakfast was the first time I had sole directorial authority over the project and no longer had to negotiate the project’s voice with other people’s vision. I could orchestrate different collaborators to actualize the sound in my head, rather than feel tied down to the same three people.

What did those collaborators offer?

[Coproducer] Ned Eisenberg, who describes himself as a sound detective—I’d ask him, “What if we have a screaming hawk sample to lift the pre-chorus?” and he’d say, “Absolutely, let’s do this.” And we’d spend an hour just searching through hawk sounds. 

I’ve noticed that lyrics on songs like “Everybody Wants to Love You” hide a critical bite under ostensibly romantic or innocent lines. Can you talk about your lyrical intent?

I think I really enjoy writing tongue in cheek, and with that chorus [“Everybody wants to love you”], you don’t know if it’s a joyous exclamation or total shallow isolation. A lot of country singers do this: Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette.... The sentiment of a song like “Jolene”—where Dolly begs this woman to stay away from her man—feels really real, but there’s also a theatrical humor involved in the melodrama of the events.

Where does the title of the album come from?

Psychopomp is a mythical creature that guides the dead to the afterlife without any judgment, and it resonated with me when I felt my duty during my mother’s illness was just to be a body of light and support.

What did the process of writing these songs while grieving her passing mean for you—catharsis, documentation or something else?

It was a means of navigating my emotions while in shock. I was stuck in Eugene [, Oregon,] supporting my father and needed to build something for myself. But also one of the really painful things about losing your mother is you lose your personal archive. I can’t ask my mom, “What restaurant did I go to when I was 5?” “What did you eat when you were pregnant...?” So archiving definitely became important too.

Japanese Breakfast plays Baby’s All Right Thursday, October 6 at 8pm; $10–$12.

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