The joy of Japanese Breakfast
Joy had become an uphill battle for Michelle Zauner. The 32-year-old singer, who performs as Japanese Breakfast, spent years grappling with the complicated waves of grief that stemmed from her mother's death from cancer in 2014. Zauner's first two albums — 2016'a Psychopomp and 2017's Soft Sounds from Another Planet — served as vehicles for coping with that devastating loss: the former, weighted with lyrical mourning for her mother; the latter, a shoegaze-tinged existential trip to find meaning after suffering. Yet the praise both projects received left her feeling adrift.
"It was such an odd timing of things, where my mother passed away and then I wrote about that experience and suddenly [had] this artistic success that I had been chasing for 10 years — my whole working life," recalls Zauner over Zoom from her Bushwick apartment. "I was experiencing, simultaneously, a lot of guilt and joy and grief at the same time, I think."
For her just-released third album, Jubilee, Zauner decided to reset her intentions and perspective. "I had really set out to write a record that wasn't about grief," she says. "I wanted to write a record about joy and fighting to experience joy and feeling things deeply." Of course, like grief, joy isn't linear — something Zauner is well aware of. "I knew it wasn't going to be an entirely happy record, but I am in a place in my life where things are generally pretty okay and good compared to where I was five or six years ago."
Zauner has put in the work to get there. Two months prior to the release of Jubilee, the musician dropped her debut memoir Crying in H Mart to widespread critical acclaim. Based on a New Yorker essay she penned in 2018, the book pays homage to Zauner's complicated relationship with her mother, Chongmi, and her Korean heritage; it was also another outlet for Zauner to process her grief and find solace in the memories she had with her mom beyond the pain. "That was a nice part of it," she says. "To just take a magnifying glass to memory and work on sitting still and trying to remember stuff that you might not have thought about in a long time or thought was important to you until later."
But Jubilee is less rooted in memory and more focused on finding a way to move forward. You could say it's a rebirth of sorts for Zauner — a leap from her more insular songwriting to cinematic, full-bodied anthems. Broadly, though, the 10-track record is the singer's long-standing battle to experience joy, whether by self-preservation or confronting your own malaise head-on. In a lot of ways, the album is about Zauner taking her emotional power back.
Zauner started collecting material for Jubilee in 2017, and began recording two years later. Unlike Psychopomp or Soft Sounds, she opted for more piano-based songwriting, and looked to make the album's creation more expansive, bringing in Wild Nothing's Jack Tatum, Alex G, Ryan Galloway from Crying, and co-producer Craig Hendrix to collaborate. Zauner also considered the bodies of work artists make on their third album. "I feel like LP3 in a lot of artists' careers, they're big, bombastic, flex records, and I really wanted to go in with that mentality," she says.
Still, instead of swaying into commercial pop, Zauner hoped to embrace the eccentricity that has been a hallmark of her work — which is why Kate Bush served as a key influence on the record: "I think what I really love about Kate Bush is her ability to create songs that just sound so entirely her own, that are just really bizarre, but also so boisterous and appealing." The album's opening track, "Paprika," serves as a perfect thesis statement — a cacophony of swirling horns reminiscent of early Beirut.
"As a musician, she's come a long way in terms of instrument technique and also from a theory perspective," says Hendrix, about how much Zauner pushed herself in achieving a new sound. "This was the first record that she helped with the string and horn arrangements." For him, "the non-rock band instrumentation," driven by Zauner, remains one of his favorite parts of Jubilee.
Of course, Zauner's mother still has a presence on the album as well. "In Hell" and "Posing in Cars" recall Zauner's experience processing her mom's cancer diagnosis and the resulting grief. She also wraps a harsh truth in dark humor on "In Hell," which the singer notes is one of her most heartbreaking songs: "With my luck you'll be dead within the year/I've come to expect it/There's nothing left to fear/At least there's that."
While Zauner is largely an open book, there's one track on Jubilee she wants to leave up to interpretation: "Sit," the synth-heavy Tears for Fears-like center of the record. That is kind of a secret song for me, lyrically," Zauner says coyly. "But I will say that sonically, production-wise it was a very stubborn child of ours to get to behave." It's since gone from being menacing to a "weird sonic experiment" with a "bizarre, heavenly chorus." "I wanted to cut it from the record many times," she adds with a laugh. But the high standards Zauner had for her third album and general need to expand her palette pushed her forward. "For me, the big drama of the last record was, 'Is it just going to be one album for me? Am I going to go through the sophomore slump and all that?'" That anxiety helped motivate Zauner with Jubilee. Despite the stress, Zauner hopes she has hit her stride — even if she's already looking ahead to her fourth album. She has one caveat for that one, though: "No anxiety at all."