Representation and identity politics has become an important topic in modern culture, and Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner talks about it a lot.
“Psychopomp,” the band’s debut album, is inherently infused with her own experiences growing up with a Korean mother. “Soft Sounds from Another Planet,” the band’s second album, expands to talking about life on this planet in general, while paying homage to Zauner’s Korean heritage.
Korean instruments aren’t featured on the band’s records, and the songs aren’t just about Asian mothers. “It’s not like I need to infuse my Asian heritage into my music. It’s just my life, and these are small parts of it,” Zauner said.
She adds little “winks,” as she calls them, to her music as a way of acknowledging her culture. The music video for “Everybody Wants to Love You” is a nod to how people perceive her, where she added “It’s kind of funny to see this representation of this culture that I’m simultaneously a part or and not a part of.”
She went on a trip to Korea a few years ago and thought about the Jeju divers, which helped shape “Diving Woman” on “Soft Sounds.” On “Psychopomp,” she features a voice recording of her mom speaking in Korean. Zauner makes “honest, personal” work based on small parts of her life.
Zauner always thought she would be some sort of writer. When she was in high school, she enjoyed reading and writing, so she thought that she should become a journalist. By the time her senior year rolled around, she quickly realized she did not want to do that. “I studied creative writing and largely wrote short fiction, and never anticipated writing nonfiction ever, until 2014, when I wrote ‘Psychopomp,’” she said.
It was around that time when she started writing an essay called “Love, Loss and Kimchi.” After her mom died, Zauner decided she was going to “become a very busy person” and pour herself into projects. She says it was a therapeutic way to process what was going on.
“It was a protective way of moving forward,” she said.
One of the ways she grieved her mother’s loss was by finding solace in a Korean YouTube blogger named Maangchi; another was by cooking Korean food. When she moved to New York from Oregon, she sent “Psychopomp” to every small music label she could think of. At the same time, she also was applying to food publications and literary essay contests.
“I probably applied to like 50 different things and was rejected by all of them. Over the course of the year, or every few months, I would get a new email that said, ‘We regret to inform you that your piece has been rejected.’ I was just like, ‘Whatever, this is not meant to happen.’”
Despite the rejections, “Psychopomp” ended up being picked up by a small label, Yellow K. A few months later, Zauner received an email from Glamour Magazine saying she had won its Essay of the Year for “Love, Loss and Kimchi.”
Zauner said it was a great surprise — “I didn’t even remember applying to Glamour Magazine’s essay contest!” she said — and the piece resonated with a few people. From there, things started to look up.
“Psychopomp” was doing well, and she placed most of her focus on touring for the release. She wanted to write a book, but didn’t have the time. Instead, she wrote “Soft Sounds from Another Planet.”
In December 2017, she toured Asia. “It was really exciting getting to play Japan, Thailand and China; all these places for the first time,” Zauner said.
The tour ended in Seoul.
“I decided I was going to stay there for three weeks and work on what I was hoping to be a book someday,” she said. That book’s first chapter was “Crying in H Mart.” As she kept working on it, people at her label said they had connections to The New Yorker, and that she should do something with them. “They were thinking that ‘you should do some kind of interactive website with recipes.’ And I was like, ‘OK, maybe?’ and I went on a call with Michael Agger.”
Agger didn’t know anything about interactive websites, but asked her to send in some of her writing instead. “I was like ‘OK, crap! I didn’t anticipate this,” she said. She sent him “Crying in H Mart.”
“I looked it over and edited it, and thought was that it could be a stand-alone piece. I sent it to him, and he really loved it and had very few changes, and suggested a change in the ending — which was a brilliant edit, and a real relief that he didn’t have much to say in terms of editing,” Zauner said. “He was like, ‘We’ll publish this next week!’ — and then six months later, after a lot of back and forth with the legal stuff, it finally was published.”
Agents started getting interested in her, and eventually she signed with a book group, getting a book deal with Knopf. She’s been working on her book, and hopes to turn it in sometime this year.
“It’ll probably take another year to come out, because the process is very long. It’s gonna be a while,” she added, thinking ahead to the book’s future release.
Ultimately, Zauner just misses her mom. Her mom was cautious about her becoming an artist, and Zauner thinks she’d be very “tickled” seeing her success today.
“I think about it all the time ... like how thrilled she would be, and surprised! Surprised about me playing in Korea and having a big book come out,” she muses when thinking about what her mom would think of her now. “The sad reality is that those things really wouldn’t have existed if I wasn’t writing about these really intense things and this intense story about losing her. It’s tough.”
Zauner mentioned a “really beautiful” David Sedaris story from his new book, “Calypso.” He talks about his mom, who also died. In that story, he talks about “the things I wish I could buy you.” That’s something Zauner finds herself thinking about often, now that she has a career in the arts.
“[I’m] in a position to buy my mom a nice bag or sunglasses with the money I’ve earned. I think she would think it’s very funny that I’m so interested in Korean culture now, because there was such a long period of time where I really rejected that part of my identity. She never made kimchi or anything, and she would think it’s really funny that that’s what I’m doing now.”