Inside Issue #20: A Conversation with Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast

 all photos by  Julia Leiby

all photos by Julia Leiby

I was not grieving when I began writing this article. But then, as it tends to, grief swept in at a time that was neither expected nor convenient.

Suddenly my combing through of the two Japanese Breakfast albums and conversation with front person Michelle Zauner carried new weight. On a flight to Seattle, en route to visit someone close to me in the hospital, I listened to our recorded interview and found pieces of my loss-colored self in Zauner’s responses.

The first album under the Japanese Breakfast eponymous, Psychopomp, digs through the fresh mud of loss. Lyrics like, “The dog’s confused / She just paces around all day / She’s sniffing at your empty room,” dive into the immediate feelings of someone close now being gone. These raw emotions are cloaked in layers of sound — the soaring of guitar, the sweep of synth, and over it all, Zauner’s emotive vocals. Together, these elements build a place of remembrance and processing.

This space of honoring and sorting through is furthered in 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet. While Psychopomp was a fresh dealing of loss, Soft Sounds sifts through life following loss and the ways that grief continues.  

In our interview Zauner explained, “ ‘Psychopomp’ is so rooted in confusion and raw feeling. It was very much my subjective view of the world. This new album is more about taking a step back and looking at my life, and other people’s lives, and recognizing that I’m not alone in experiencing this.”

Grief is a non-linear, mysterious, oftentimes alienating process which can leave one searching for meaning and methods of understanding.

Said Zauner, “… When something very serious happens in your life that is difficult to explain the purpose of, you’re torn between these two camps. [There’s] an older generation that preaches this idea they’re in a better place and that there is some kind of heaven, and this other place which is completely nihilistic and cold. When my mom passed away, I was searching for something like that for myself, to help me through that experience.”

Mystery, otherworldliness, mysticism, and the unknown were tools that helped Zauner through this difficult time, and these elements are present on both albums. Psychopomp contains imagery of dreams and Jungian psychology, while Soft Sounds has the subtle theme of space and sci-fi coursing through it.

The first song written for the album, “Machinist,” is about a woman in love with a robot, who then applies for the Mars One project when she realizes it’s a futile affection. The song was originally created for a media company (and eventually not used by them) before Psychopomp was about to be released. It was incorporated into the band’s performances from the early stages and brought into recording when the band began working on their second album.

Said Zauner in our interview, “That’s how that album came to be. I tried to draw from the themes I had started a really long time ago; it inspired a very subtle concept that I’m happy with.”

The mysterious elements of dreams and space point to the hazy, out-of-touch state that grief can leave you in. It can cause you to feel disconnected from the world around you and yourself. On trying to reconnect to herself following loss Zauner said, “It was kind of like coming down from space and [trying] not disassociate through my reality so much.”

Grief interrupts. It disconnect and disrupts. It can change you irreversibly.

As I listened to our interview, with California passing outside the small plane window beside me, I thought of a line I had scribbled in my journal a week after hearing the news about my loved one being seriously injured. “How can I be the same again? I have been wiped so raw that I have been made new.”

Zauner demonstrated this sentiment perfectly saying, “There’s a lyric on [Soft Sounds], ‘It feels like my life is folded up in half.’ I think of my mother’s death as a marking point of who I was before and who I was after. If I look at pictures, I think to myself, ‘Oh, that was before my mom died.’ My whole life is folded in half around this moment. This album was about trying to reconnect to who I was before this terrible thing happened.”

Grief can stop your life and make you incapable of interacting in the ways you previously could. Well-meaning, kind people often do not know how to deal with it unless they too have undergone loss or a tragic event. I thought of the looks of pity I got from friends following the delivery of this news. The wanting to offer comforting advice but not knowing exactly what to say.

Zauner told me, “I felt really uncomfortable talking about it with my close friends because none of them had lost parents before and didn’t know how to talk about it. They wanted so badly to be there for me that it kind of made me uncomfortable … I felt like it was easier on all of us if I didn’t talk about it. They didn’t have specific questions about it, they would just say, ‘If you need to talk …’ and then I felt this pressure to talk about it even though I didn’t know what to say.”

So, what do you do when grief interrupts your life? When it makes it hard to interact with others? When you fear connecting to it because you sense its ability to overtake you? When you have to stay strong for others, for yourself? Where do you go next?

You sift through. You process in small doses. You give yourself projects to pour yourself into. In Zauner’s words, you, “Create these challenges for yourself that are very small, that help you survive.”

I thought of my simple to-do lists littering my desk at home. “Take a shower. Eat. Write a poem. Scan new comic. Call Nikki.” I too had instilled movement in my day to ensure that I did not fall into the looming fog which threatened to take over in any moments of stillness.

Said Zauner, “I threw myself into work and tried to push forward day-to-day … I’ve become obsessed with working and making things and sharing them. It was a very healthy way of dealing with my situation. A lot of [Soft Sounds From Another Planet] definitely explores that feeling of making it through, and putting your head down in a way.”

You find outlets and tools you can use to process. To be able to process in intentional ways and not overwhelm yourself. The song “The Body Is A Blade” goes in this: “Try your best to feel and receive / The body is a blade that cuts a path from day to day.”

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Amidst our discussion of healing outlets, Zauner and I talked about the performance of grief and constantly being placed back inside a traumatic experience in live shows and interviews. She told me that she finds healing in sharing with strangers beyond her albums and that, “When you’re doing these interviews with strangers, more than anyone else, they ask you these really poignant questions about this experience you had and your work. That felt therapeutic to me in some ways. It’s exhausting because you get asked a lot of the same questions, and you feel different ways about it on different days. Sometimes, doing interviews about it is enlightening because you start talking about it and figuring out how you really feel because so many people are poignantly asking you how you feel about it.”

I brought up Phil Elverum’s “A Crow Looked At Me” to her, mentioning how both her and Elverum have gifted the public deeply personal experiences with someone close to them.

She said, “His writing is a lot more barren. It’s all there. I think if I had said certain things, it would be harder for me. Having a band, and having so much going on sonically, it’s easier to get wrapped up in the music that you aren’t thinking about these hard-hitting details. There are moments in the songs that are really moving to me and emotional, but it must be different for Phil Elverum because the songs are speech-oriented… I have a really hard time writing that way and not hiding behind anything and re-telling the story because it’s just a lot more painful that way… The process of putting it onto a record, producing it, arranging it, brings it to a different place.”

Hearing her discuss her albums in comparison to Elverum’s reminded me that healing does not look the same for everyone. It is multi-faceted, shifting, and does not follow a rigid path.

When talking about different forms of healing Zauner admitted, “I didn’t see a therapist for very long, and I just didn’t like it… It always seem like people push therapy as this ‘be all’ cure, and I think it can be for some people, but for other people it’s okay to look at other ways of healing. It was a very scary path for me to take when I decided not to go to therapy. A lot of people were very concerned for me, but I started taking Korean lessons, I started making an album, I wrote an essay. I was meditating on placing that time and money on something else that I thought would be more fulfilling… You’re not a bad person if you consider trying something else because it’s not working for you.”

So, when grief looms and threatens to take over, you try out different outlets until you find ones that work for you, that make you want to keep going. You do what you can to not fall headfirst into the looming fog.

Zauner shared how depression interrupted her life as a teenage and left her fearful of how she would process a traumatic loss in the future. She explained, “I was so afraid that when a bad thing happened to me-and for the longest time I thought losing your mother was the worst thing that could happen to anyone- that I was going to fall into another depression like that, where I was completely unable to work or get out of bed.”

I found myself recognizing my own behavior and fears in this answer. How my life had been interrupted by debilitating depression in the past, how this made me afraid to connect to my emotions because I was afraid of the emotions again shutting down my life.

She continued, “I knew that it would be very disappointing to do that to my family. I had just turned 25 and it was a really big time in my life to figure out what I wanted to do, and to be an adult, and take responsibility. I felt like I didn’t have the option to fall into depression.”

Self-protective strategies can be powerful methods of taking care of yourself through difficult times. Sometimes, this can look like emotionally turning off. Or disconnecting. Or retreating, like a turtle hiding in its shell, into your own world of safety. While these urges to take care of ourselves are beautiful things, the difficulty lies in reconnecting to your emotions once it feels safe to do so.

Zauner told me, “I had checked out emotionally and was trying to relearn how to feel.”

Partially in an attempt to reconnect to a time of hyper-emotionality the albums pull up past instances of frustration, nostalgia, and heartbreak. They untangle past painful, highly emotional experiences as a way of remembering how to feel.

Said Zauner, “I just remember being a teenager, and even though it was a really difficult time in my life, and I was so depressed, I missed feeling so much. A lot of the songs are about past relationships, when I used to feel so much. These petty arguments with lovers used to mean so much, and now, looking back I wonder, ‘How did this ever bother me? How did this ever hurt me? I miss the days where [relationship issues] were a big deal and I was not just contemplating death all the time.”

While the intention of pulling up these experiences is to reconnect to past emotions, they also act as testaments to Zauner’s resiliency. These albums do not paint Zauner as helpless. Yes, they deal with suffering. Yes, they are sorting through loss. But, not as something which destroyed her, but as something which happened and is being worked through.

The albums twist like a conversation one has with oneself in the mirror, and while the bend into hard feelings of grief, of nostalgia, of pain, of heartbreak, they come out in places of clarity and empowerment.

“I like songs to have a narrative arc, like short stories. ‘Road Head’ is a good example of that arc. Feeling like you were taken advantage of, or that you’ve lost something or embarrassed yourself, and then at the end it’s like you’re driving away with your middle finger in the air. Like, that person kept me down in a lot of ways and now I’m leaving… ’Till Death’ is another song like that. There’s a long list of terrible things that happen in your life coupled with the thought, “isn’t it nice that this person is there, standing by through all this shit?”

These bending conversations that Zauner has with herself end in a strengthening of her resiliency and clarity. There are many layers here; many doors to open and find information behind. Zauner lays her grief out, but not to present it as something which destroyed her life.

Zauner said, “What I wanted to convey with [Soft Sounds] was not, ‘Here is this individual, unfair thing that happened to you,’ but, ‘Here is this thing that happens in life and how do we move forward from it in a productive way? How do I try really hard at staying a good person who doesn’t get so negative and lives as this person who is so upset with the world for the rest of her life?”

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Amongst all of the loss, joy is continually celebrated and created on Soft Sounds. There is gratitude given to Zauner’s husband, who she married two weeks before her mom passed away. There is thankfulness given to the small worlds those who have undergone trauma build with each other.

Said Zauner, “One thing that was interesting to me when I went through that experience was how the world just opens up to you. All of a sudden these people who have never really talked about the death in their lives are sharing this in a very natural way and connecting with you. It’s really eye-opening to see. Even going on tour, so many kids come up to me and share their experiences with loss, cancer, and illness. I’m not happy that it happens, but I’m glad we can share it together, and it’s not something we have to feel alone in.”

What Zauner gifts us is not just her experiences with grief, but all of the ways she has worked through pain, in many different forms. These albums are not only dealing with what has been lost, but with what remains. The joy, the anger, the waves of pain, the found places of connection. All of this exists in this project. As all of this exists in the multi-layered, twisting, dense, nature of grief.

see the whole spread in issue #20 here.