By Jordan Yeager
VANCOUVER – Swirling synths and deliberate drum beats support vocals that, upon first listen, sound airy and light, easy on the ears. But beneath the ethereal surface lurks something deeper and darker – much of the music Michelle Zauner has produced as Japanese Breakfast examines loss, mourning, and the aftermath of trauma. Her first release, Psychopomp, was written just months after the untimely loss of her mother, and offered Zauner an outlet through which to sift through the intricacies of an event that no one can ever be truly prepared for. Just over a year later, she released her follow-up: Soft Sounds from Another Planet.
Zauner has been writing music since she was 15 years old. She spent much of her young adult years on the road with bands Post Post and Little Big League, alternating between touring and working (and subsequently getting fired from) service industry jobs to support her musical habit.
“I was in a band and I always just thought that’s how you did it,” says Zauner. “I did that for three years, and my mom got sick, so I moved to Oregon, and then she died, so I wrote a record by myself. I thought I was going to press 500 copies of Psychopomp and sell them over the next 10 years out of my apartment. I have definitely reached the point where this project has exceeded all of my expectations.”
In the wake of Psychopomp and Soft Sounds, Zauner’s success is a far cry from a makeshift apartment-based CD store. “Just give up and then it’ll happen for you,” she jokes.
If Soft Sounds comes across as otherworldly, it’s for good reason: Zauner originally intended to write a “super heavy-handed sci-fi concept record” about a girl who enlists in Mars One after a failed love affair with a robot. The concept was a far cry from the emotional roiling of Psychopomp, intended to give her a clean break from her own mind and imagine worlds outside our own.
“I was like, ‘Psychopomp is my mourning record, and Soft Sounds has to be something different,’” she says. “I quickly realized it was unrealistic to not write about something that had just happened. Emotionally, I felt out to lunch, out in space. But I realized [the sci-fi concept] wasn’t what I needed to be writing and reverted back to writing about my life and the differences in grief I was experiencing.”
One of those differences is the sense of urgency she lives with now.
“I feel like anyone or myself could die at any moment, so I’m just trying to get shit done before that happens.”
And getting shit done is exactly what she’s been doing. After the quick turn-around between Psychopomp and Soft Sounds, Zauner hopes to take her time crafting a third project. In the meantime, expect to hear her on the soundtrack of indie game Sable, to read some non-fiction writing projects – like “Crying in H Mart,” the essay she recently published in The New Yorker – and to see more of the self-directed music videos that have become her signature.
Japanese Breakfast plays at Imperial on September 26.japanese breakfast, Michelle Zauner, soft sounds from another planet