- 17 Jun 21
From woe to joy, life has been a rollercoaster for Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner. She talks about her wonderful new album, Jubilee, and reflects on her literary success, the trauma of writing about the death of her mother, and the rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans.
Life and death, hope and despair, joy and sadness are all bound up in the extraordinary indie-pop of Michelle Zauner, aka Japanese Breakfast. And now, after two cult lo-fi LPs the Eugene, Oregon-raised artist is poised to break through with her most polished album yet, the gorgeously ebullient Jubilee.
“A third record is enough to start thinking about what your albums are in context to one another,” Zauner tells Hot Press over Zoom. “When I think of other bands’ third albums, I think of Bjork’s Homogenic, Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, Beach House’s Teen Dream. An artist has figured out who they are and can move forward with confidence and ambition.”
“Jubilee” refers to the sense of celebration running through a project that proceeds from grunge incandescence to burnished orchestral pop. That elation has been hard-won. In May 2014, when she was 25, Zauner returned to Eugene to care for her Korean-born mother, who was diagnosed with cancer.
Chong Mi Zauner was just 56 when tests confirmed she was suffering stage IV squamous-cell carcinoma in her stomach. The chemo was devastating. When it failed to shrink the tumour, she opted to forgo further sessions.
Zauner tended to her mother across the course of her illness and up to her death. Later, she wrote about that period of her life in an essay, Crying In H Mart, initially published in The New Yorker, and which she has expanded into a book of the same name.
Jubilee and Crying In H Mart arrive just a few months apart. Both are extensions of the process of grieving for her mother and reckoning with caring for someone in their final weeks and days.
Yet tonally they are very different. In the book Zauner writes unflinchingly about life and death and her Korean identity (H Mart is a supermarket chain specialising in Asian food). Jubilee, by contrast, is defiant and shot through with optimism.
“I had written two albums about grief before, and now a book about grief. I knew I wanted to tackle another topic. I had said, finally, everything I wanted to say about this life-changing experience. And I wanted to start a new chapter. I feel this album is the new chapter.”
Jubilee is about “carving out joy and protecting joy”. That feeling springs from a deeply personal place. But, at the present moment in time, she believes it will resonate. “Especially now, it’s something a lot of people will relate to,” Michelle notes.
Zauner played in bands at high school and third level. She studied creative writing at Bryn Mawr, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania – one of the “seven sisters” of universities in the US established as an Ivy League for female students back when they were male only.
Bryn Mawr introduced her to the wider world of literature; until then her reading hadn’t extended far beyond Tom Clancy. She inhaled Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. But it wasn’t until she and her husband moved back to Eugene to tend to her mother than she began writing in earnest.
Crying In H Mart was just her second essay. Published in The New Yorker in 2018 it opened with a gut-punch.
“Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart,” she wrote. There was a huge response and a book deal followed. As she speaks to Hot Press, Zauner sits at the top of the New York Times bestseller lists.
“My experience in publishing has been charmed,” she says. “I wrote two essays that were published: one that won a literary contest and one that was published in the New Yorker, one of the most prestigious places you can get an essay published. And from there I got a book deal.”
She pauses. “I haven’t had any struggles – beyond initially getting my first essay placed. There are writers that have had a tougher time than me. In that sense, I had a much more charmed experience in the publishing world than in music, where I played music for 10 years. I slept on couches. I played to small audiences. There was no real publishing equivalent to that for me.”
Zauner was born in Seoul and in Crying In H Mart chronicles her experiences as a half-Korean woman in the United States (she is estranged from her American father). Both it and Jubilee arrive at a fraught moment, with hate crime against Asian-Americans on the rise.
In March, six women of Asian descent were killed along with two non-Asians in a shooting at a spa in Atlanta. And then there is the nativism and hysteria flowing from Covid, dubbed the “China flu” by Donald Trump. In all, hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Asians are estimated to have risen 164 per cent through the first quarter of 2021.
“A lot of it mirrors what happened post 9-11 with Islamophobia,” says Zauner. “Many countries, not just the US, have this compulsion to ‘other’ minorities and blame them for circumstances outside their control. It’s an easy way to shirk a greater responsibility to a much more complicated issue. That’s what is happening right now. And it’s heartbreaking.”
That said, perhaps there are grounds for optimism. BTS, from Seoul, are the world’s biggest pop band. Would it have been plausible for a group from the Far East to have achieved such popularity in the West even 20 years ago? Possibly not.
“Yeah, it’s a strange time,” agrees Zauner. “The mass shooting happened in Atlanta just after Minari, this Korean-American film, was nominated for all these Academy Awards. There’s this real whiplash and a real divide between what’s happening in reality and what’s happening in media and art.”
Is reality gas-lighting her? In the arts, Asians and Asian-Americans are, as she says, achieving massive success. Yet out in the world, old prejudices endure.
“It’s the first time in my life I’ve struggled with understanding how important art is. Sometimes, it feels absolutely essential. And sometimes it feels completely inessential to the reality of what is happening. Hopefully, reality begins to catch up with what is happening in the arts.”
• Jubilee is out now on Dead Oceans