Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner Is Ready to Feel Again
Header photo by Peter Ash Lee
Michelle Zauner never much cared for nonfiction. “I wanted to write like the dirty realist white male writers who felt truly literary to me,” she says on the phone from Brooklyn in early March. “Philip Roth or Raymond Carver or Tobias Wolff or John Updike.” In high school, she contributed columns to Eugene’s Register-Guard, but by the time she enrolled in Bryn Mawr’s creative writing program as an undergrad, she’d lost interest in journalism and identity-centric personal narratives. “I didn’t really want to write stories frontloaded with pretext, like, ‘My father’s Caucasian, my mom’s Asian.’ I didn’t want to lay that out. I just wanted to dive into whatever the story was.”
When her mother died in 2014, she says, that changed. “There was a sense of urgency. Of just like, ‘I need to get down what happened.’”
Zauner—who grew up in Eugene—is best known as Japanese Breakfast, the name under which she’s released two acclaimed albums of moody indie rock: 2016’s Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet. She’s about to be known for Crying in H Mart, her first memoir, which focuses on Zauner’s relationship with her late mother—specifically, her experience caring for her mother during a brutal battle with GI cancer. As its title suggests, the book also spends a lot of time on food. Zauner’s mother was Korean, and Zauner says she often used mealtime to signal her sometimes-elusive approval: “If I ate well or ate in a certain way that felt distinctively Korean, it kind of made her feel like, ‘That’s my kid!’ From an early age, [food] was what I associated with a sense of belonging.”
In 2016, Zauner won Glamour magazine’s Essay of the Year award for a piece called “Love, Loss, and Kimchi,” which covered similar ground to Crying in H Mart. “After that experience, I was like, ‘Oh, this was really cathartic. I have a lot more to say.’ I learned a lot from writing it, and I wanted to dig deeper,” she says. So she drafted four or five chapters of a book, and sent the first to the New Yorker, where it was published as a standalone piece in 2018. That attracted the attention of publishers and literary agents, and after years of work, including trips to Korea where she wrote sections in real time, Crying in H Mart finally hits shelves on April 20.
The book is extraordinary for several reasons—that a songwriter so sharp can churn out a memoir so wise does not feel fair on a cosmic level—and one is the way it brings Zauner’s mother to compassionate life without sanding down the rough edges of their relationship. There are a handful of potent adolescent blowouts where the two women try and fail to understand each other—one where Zauner tries to call the police, another where her mom coldly tells her she's waiting for Zauner to abandon her musical ambitions. Once she's an adult, Zauner's mother admits “I’ve never met anyone like you,” and you feel the twin force of the statement’s pain and delight.
"We didn’t have a perfect relationship. I don’t think many people have perfect relationships with their mothers, and that’s part of what makes that relationship so rich and so complicated,” Zauner says. “A big thing I discovered in the book is that a lot of these traits: my mother’s criticism, how judgmental she was—these stereotypical kind of tiger mom tropes—I had always just thought they were idiosyncratic parts of her character. I never realized it was the way her culture influenced her, and it wasn’t until I met a lot of other Asian Americans who grew up with mothers like this that I realized it is very common for Korean mothers to have a fifteen-step skincare regimen, or be obsessed with Chanel bags…. In retrospect, I realized she showed her love in a very different way, and grew up receiving love in a very different way from her mother.”
For a book forged in the shadow of grief, Crying in H Mart spends a lot of time in wistful-smile mode, especially in its first third. While the ultimate trajectory is clear from the start (the opening sentence is, "Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart"), H Mart gives a lot of space to Zauner's childhood in Eugene, which she spent crushing on guitar players, eating well, and worshipping PNW acts like Modest Mouse and Elliott Smith. “For a long time, the really tough middle section of the book where my mom’s health deteriorates was at the forefront of my memory, trumping anything else. So part of my desire in writing this book was getting to really stretch into and excavate those [happier] memories and enjoy them again and try to relive them,” she says.
For inspiration, Zauner looked to memoirs like M. F. K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me (“The way she writes about people and food is so delightful without hitting you over the head with ‘FOOD WRITING’”) and Richard Ford’s Between Them (“I know he’s kind of problematic … but I just love the idea that you can write about ordinary people in extraordinary ways, and he does an exceptional job of putting a microscope to people who, on the outside, aren’t objectively extraordinary people.”) Her family is small, and few of its remaining members speak English, so she didn’t conduct many formal interviews as she pieced anecdotes together. “I think part of the book is not knowing things about my mom that these people would’ve revealed. It’s very much a one-sided story, in a way,” she says. She did carry out some informal conversations with her father and aunt, but treaded lightly, learning that "people, especially people who aren’t creative people who want to poke at the wound and find that weirdly therapeutic, don’t want to revisit those memories.”
The release of Crying in H Mart, by utter coincidence, dovetails with the release of the third Japanese Breakfast record, Jubilee, out June 4. Mostly finished in 2019, Jubilee was poised to herald 2020’s lost summer before COVID derailed release plans. The pandemic hit while Zauner and her team were shooting the music video for lead single "Be Sweet," and despite some initial disappointment, she's come to appreciate the timing. "It feels like a really right time. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, and for me, that's very much what the album feels like," Zauner says. "It's a little weird that the book and record are on top of each other, but at this point, I'm just so excited to be able to release things that I worked on for so long that it's kind of two birds, one stone."
Where H Mart turns in, Jubilee looks out—it’s her most bombastic music ever, inspired by Alex G and Kate Bush, featuring emo disco bangers and horn sections and pitched-up goblin vocals. The bigness is by design, though she bristles at the idea that it's because Japanese Breakfast is "going pop." "When I think about third album, I think about Björk's Homogenic or Wilco's Summerteeth," she says. "It just felt like, you should really know what you're doing by now, and really be showing off."
The sound and subject matter are also a response to her creative output from the last five years, much of which dealt with the fallout from her mother's death. “After writing two albums about grief and an entire book about grief, I felt very, like, OK, I’m ready to move on,’” Zauner says. “I was ready to feel again, and write about joy … be it feeling it, sustaining it, fighting for it, preserving it, prolonging it, embracing it, whatever.” Like Crying in H Mart, Jubilee's first words lay it all on the table: “Lucidity came slowly,” Zauner sings over dreamy synths. “I awoke from dreams of untying a great knot.”
She coproduced most of the album with Craig Hendrix, who was also her major collaborator on 2017's Soft Sounds from Another Planet. Zauner wrote the first two Japanese Breakfast records primarily on guitar, but much of Jubilee was forged on the piano, the intricacies of which she understands better. Her chord changes were more conscious, she says, and her creative relationship with Hendrix more solid.
The confidence translates. The album ends with Zauner shredding on the guitar for nearly three minutes, uninterrupted, and songs like "Savage Good Boy" (think Beyoncé's "If I Were a Boy" or Taylor Swift's "The Man" featuring a chorus of imps) poke fun at bluster while containing plenty. Even in its sadder moments, Jubilee centers agency. "The record is about joy, but the songs aren't all zippity doo da. [Jubilee is] about fighting for your own happiness, and that can be about stepping away from a situation or a person that is taking that away from you," Zauner says.
Taken together, Crying and H Mart and Jubilee form a fascinating study in the ways grief can neutralize and then enhance happiness. Closing H Mart and pressing play on Jubilee feels like a decisive page turn, out of the dark into the light—even as shadows persist. Jubilee track “Posing in Bondage” shares a line with a late chapter in H Mart: “The world is divided into two types of people: those who have felt pain, and those who have yet to.” “It was a really heavy thought for me,” Zauner says. “In a way, I feel like my life has been folded in half around this moment. I think about my life before [my mother's] death and after her death all the time, and I feel like a very different person because of it.”
She sees this twin release as a “creative (un)constipation”—an opportunity to exorcise work she’s been fussing with for three-plus years, and (hopefully) an opportunity to play big, loud, horn-filled live shows come fall. It's also a validation of early dreams, as an only child in Eugene, of becoming a musician or a writer.
“Both things seemed like impossible things that could never happen to me,” Zauner says. “I didn’t know if I was going to ever make it as a musician, and I definitely knew it was going to be very hard to make it as a writer—and somehow I stumbled into working it out with both.”