If there’s anything better than catching a band you dig when they tour through your town, it’s seeing them share the stage with equally excitement-inducing tourmates. Such was the case this fall when Japanese Breakfast, the indie project of Michelle Zauner, hit the road in support of its recently released second album Soft Sounds from Another Planet (Dead Ocean) with Philadelphia noise-punks Mannequin Pussy.  

During the tour, She Shreds asked Zauner and Mannequin Pussy guitarist / singer Marisa Dabice to interview each other about their craft and experience of guitar. Their conversation, which encompases their early days on their instruments, their ongoing development as musician, visibility as women guitarists, and more follows.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Marisa Dabice: Michelle, did you start playing music on guitar or a different instrument?

Michelle Zauner: I started playing the piano when I was five years old, like most Asian children are forced into either piano or violin at a young age. I did piano and I hated it.

Marisa: How long did you play it for?

Michelle: I played piano from like five to, I think, 16. I had really wanted to play guitar since I was like 13, but my mom wouldn’t let me because she was afraid that if I started playing the guitar, that it would distract me from my piano lessons, which I had taken for over 10 years. It’s really sad because I’m terrible at the piano. And even when I write piano lines, or synth lines, it takes me a really long time to figure it out, or get to what I want to accomplish.

Marisa: That’s not surprising. Feeling like you’re not that good at something is usually because you didn’t have an interest in becoming good at it. Now you’re really firing on all cylinders, because you’re trying. My mom would have been really impressed with your mom. She tried to get me into piano, but I didn’t have any interest. I always wanted to play guitar. I don’t know if I wasn’t allowed to, or why it took so long, or if I just never asked, but I never really told my parents what I wanted until I was like 16. That’s when I got my first guitar.

Michelle: Why was that the moment that you got one?

Marisa: It was a Christmas gift. I’ve told you that I was a sick kid. I had done ballet—ballet for me was like piano was for you. I started when I was five, and I did it up until I was 16. [At that point] I just didn’t have the energy anymore, to go to ballet class four or five times a week, but I still really wanted an outlet. I’d been asking for an electric guitar, so my parents got me a red Squier Strat that came with the little 15-watt am—the combo starter pack. I took guitar lessons with my neighbor, Chris Robinson, who was a semi-famous session musician and was friends with either Hall or Oates. I remember I was taking a guitar lesson, and this guy came in during the middle…who’s the blonde one?

Michelle: I have no idea.

Marisa: Is that Hall or Oates? I don’t know.

Michelle: I don’t know what either Hall or Oates looks like.

Marisa: One of those guys came in and dropped something off, and I like gave him a really angry stare ’cause I was in the middle of my lesson. It was like, “My parents paid for the time, this is my time.” And my guitar teacher was like, “Oh, do you know the band Hall and Oates?” I was like, “No.” He’s like, “Alright, well you probably will.”

Michelle: That’s hilarious.

Marisa: But anyway, I took a couple guitar lessons with him, but I was never interested in learning notes, or scales, or anything like that. I remember very quickly wanting to write songs.

Michelle: Yeah, so I was the same.

Marisa: So I came in there and just was like, “How do I write a song, and this is the idea I have. Can you help me find it?” What about you, how did you start?

Michelle: When my mom finally relented, I got an acoustic guitar. I really wanted an electric guitar, but it seemed realistic to have an acoustic guitar. I had like a $100 Yamaha Acoustic Guitar that my parents bought from Costco, that came with some sheet music, or whatever. And I had dreams of grandeur that I could teach myself, but didn’t have the regimen for myself. So I started taking lessons at the Applebee’s of guitar lessons at the Lesson Factory, which is attached to Guitar Center. I took lessons from this guy named Brian Hall, and—

Marisa: Not of Hall and Oates?

Michelle: No, not of Hall and Oates. He was just like a sweet, kind of indie guy. I had a huge crush on him, and just wanted to impress him really badly. And I must have been like a pretty cool teenager, because by then, I was 16 and first song I asked to learn how to play was Built to Spill’s “Carry the Zero.” I was really into Iron & Wine at the time, and I think that honestly that impacted my style of guitar playing, because I do a lot of fingerpicking and still write that way.

I was really sad when my teacher left the Lesson Factory. They replaced him with this guy named Jason [Moss]. He was the guitar player in the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, the “Zoot Suit Riot” band. So I took lessons from him for a bit. Like you, I wasn’t really interested in becoming a great player—I was really interested in writing songs, starting a band, and figuring out how to express myself.

Marisa: I started a band really shortly after getting that guitar, with my two friends. We were called Simon and the Mofos, and I don’t think that we ever actually played a show. At that point, other things in my life won over—I think I was just too depressed to do anything as a teenager. So I kind of hung up the musical aspirations I had and focused on other things.

I moved back in with my parents when I was 23. Somewhat similar to you too, I became a caretaker for my mom after she had a stroke. That same guitar was still at the house, and I just started playing on it again. At that point in my life, I was in the right mind space, and I had so much flooding out of me, that all the songs just kind of started writing themselves.

Michelle: That’s awesome. Was that for Gypsy Pervert?

Marisa: Yeah, those ended up being the first songs I’d ever written. Which is why I really look back on that record with such embarrassment.

Michelle: Because you had that break, you were kind of relearning guitar in a way.

Marisa: Yeah. For a lot of songwriters, the first collections of songs they ever write don’t usually become so public.

Michelle: What was the process of Romantic? Was there a natural progression in your musicianship, or do you feel like you really pushed yourself to play more intricate guitar work?

Marisa: I don’t know if it ever really felt completely unnatural. I felt like I had that competitive edge with myself; I didn’t want to just continue to write the same style song. I was teaching myself at that time, and I think it’s very easy to plateau in what you’re able to really teach yourself. Even now, going into the next record, I really want to take guitar lessons. And I want to push myself in different ways, challenge my technique, and really grow. I’ve only really been playing since my early 20s and now I can be like, “Oh shit! This thing that used to be so hard to play, now I don’t even have to give it a second thought.” There’s so much to be said for practice, and just really sticking with something and watching it develop.  

I write most of my songs on an unplugged electric guitar because I know that that’s ultimately the place that they’re going to be played through. How do you usually write? I know the new Japanese Breakfast album has a lot of different sounds/instrumentation on it. Do you still find yourself going back to guitar to write?

Michelle: I am breaking away from writing on guitar. I’ve always written on guitar, since I was 16. I wrote all of Psychopomp and all of the Little Big League albums on guitar. And I think that Psychopomp was a really different album for me because in Little Big League I felt like I had a lot to prove, as  a front woman who played guitar and sang. A lot of the time I would kind of overplay—it was really important for me come up with really naughty, angular guitar lines that dipped back and forth between lead and rhythm with Kevin [O’Halloran]. Sometimes it was successful, and sometimes it really took away from the power of a song. Rhythm guitar is just like an uncool thing to play that I just really didn’t want to be the girl in the band that did that.

Marisa: You’re expected as the front person to be on the rhythm.

Michelle: Right. I really wanted to have chops. When Japanese Breakfast happened, it was like I had nothing to prove at all. It was really sweet music I wanted to make for myself. I played just very simple rhythm guitar parts and I had a heavier hand in overseeing the project, the production, and the arrangements as a whole. And success breeds success; After [Japanese Breakfast’s 2016 album] Psychopomp I felt like I could be a more confident producer and arranger with the new album, and I started writing more of the other parts.

I’ve recently gotten really into writing bass lines. The first bass line I’ve wrote for any project was for “Diving Woman,” which gave me the confidence to do that more. I’ve also started to write more on synths, specifically just finding tones to be the guiding force behind the song, and then adding to that. I’ve been writing songs on guitar for so long that it feels like it’s time to have a new starting point. I also want to become a much better player and push myself, less so in terms of guitar playing, and more of just finding like really good tone. That’s something that isn’t taught—how do you find your tone, and what is a good tone?

Marisa: In that pre-album place, you’re like, “Alright, I have the ability to kind of assess exactly every sound I’d like to find,” and then you translate that into every song that you then put on that record. I’m comfortable enough with my playing now where I also feel like, “Okay, it’s time to dive into this whole new world of guitar playing,” which is also experimenting with your tone, and your sound, and your pedals, and your setup. And really pushing yourself as a player to learn new things. It’s a totally different part of your brain that you’re using.

Michelle: I really value records that just strip things down and just focus on making the bare essentials really, really good, and don’t have a lot to hide behind.I’m trying to learn how to walk away from adding a bunch of pedals and just a huge wash of sound. I’ve always played guitar with a shit-ton of reverb, and a fuck-ton of delay, and just added more and more and more. Now, I’m in this place where I’m trying to figure out, “what do I not need?” How do I make the core just my amp, and my guitar? What do I use to make the bare, empty sound really good? What is really necessary to add to effect the dynamic? That’s one thing I really want to challenge myself to find and feel comfortable with, so I can feel really good about adding extra stuff after.

Marisa: Do you feel that it is important to be seen both as a songwriter and a guitarist? I see on this tour, Peter [Bradley], is playing a lot of those lead lines, and I assume that those are lines that you wrote. Is it hard to allow someone else to play something that you wrote and then like worry that people aren’t going to associate it back with you?

Michelle: Sometimes. I mean, some of those parts are parts that co-producers or other band members wrote, but I think that it’s a tough thing to walk away from. The scariest thing is for me is that people just assume that I’m a singer. I kind of became a singer out of necessity. I feel very comfortable and I take pride in my role as a front woman. I enjoy the performative aspect of it, and I enjoy composition.

Marisa: I feel like a lot of times when people comment on our performances they’re like, “At the end, when you took off your guitar…” There’s definitely is a part of me where I’m like, “I still wrote the songs.” But there are times where I feel very—held back might be too strong of a word—but like my guitar gets in the way of the way that I would naturally perform a piece of music, because I’m so used to using my body to tell a story, or just that performance piece of it is so important to me. The guitar is this thing that’s between you and the microphone, and you can never really engage almost either. You’re like splitting it.

Michelle: It’s sad to say that it used to be really scary for me to like want to play without a guitar. And now when I get to the part of the set where I get to take my guitar off, I’m ecstatic. I like focusing on the singing element, and I like connecting with people.

Marisa: Do you think you would ever give up the guitar completely?

Michelle: I don’t think it would be necessary to give it up completely, but I feel like there’s certain pop acts that I like really aspire to that kind of balance of just like, “See? I can do it.” There are certain solos I play, like on “Everybody Wants To Love You” and “12 Steps.” It’s this weird source of pride, like I have to play at least these solos to just show that I like have the chops.

Marisa: Now that I feel like I’m at the technical place where I’m writing guitar solos, and much more complicated, strange timing and things like that, I still really want to do it. It’s like, a way to like further the practice. And they’re just so fun to play!

Michelle: Isn’t it funny that like there are so few guitar solos in songs now. In the 90s there were so many. Like I saw Veruca Salt live like a couple of years ago, and it’s like in every fucking song there’s fucking, huge-ass guitar solo.

 

Marisa: Yeah, I feel like it’s very rare now. There’s a new MP song that has a very long guitar solo, one that Thanasi [Paul] wrote where we have complimentary solos going on. That’s my favorite part of the set right now. Thanasi and I known each other since we were five, and he’s been playing guitar for as long as I’ve known him. I’ve learned so much from him and now I feel like I’m headed to a place where our styles are really complementary. It’s really exciting. I also love taking off the guitar, and just singing, but there’s a matter of ego involved with wanting to be seen as a guitarist. I feel like it’s important, too, because I grew up for so long with just seeing women as the front person.

Something I really love about this tour specifically—and some of the other support tours we’ve done where like I’ve been one of the only female guitarists—is that a lot of really young girls have come up to me and asked me about playing guitar, if I have advice, and things like that. I’m like, “Just don’t be afraid to be bad at it for a long time.”

Michelle: “Fake it till you make it” is like a really good philosophy for guitar playing. Because a lot of time people just don’t know, you know? There are so many great songs that are written on the same few chords.

Marisa: Yeah. I mean, it comes down to like if you’re a songwriter, that’s coming down to the melody, not as much as it comes down to how complicated your guitar lines are getting.

Michelle: I mean, my most popular song is like the most simple song I’ve ever written.

Marisa: I would say the same for us.

Michelle: I had one last question I wanted to end on: After going on many tours for years and years, what dweeby piece of advice would you give any touring musician? Or young women starting bands?

Marisa: There’s something to be said where you’re—I call it “The wow versus how”—When you’re first starting to play, and you’re still looking at all these other bands, and you’re like, “Wow! Like how are they doing that?” At a certain point, your brain switches over to, “How are they doing that?” It’s an opportunity for you to watch another guitarist play every night and really focus in on their techniques and what they’re doing. I really bounced around from like, I’m watching you play guitar, and I’m watching Peter play guitar, I’m watching Zach from Spirit play. There’s so many lessons to be learned if you just are willing to pay attention to it, and then go home and take those lessons into practice.

Michelle: That’s such good advice. Mine is really embarrassing.

Marisa: What would you say is your advice?

Michelle: Mine is investing in good cables! It’s not a “fun” purchase, you know? But if you buy two really good, like 20-foot cables, it’s like the same price as just buying one sick pedal which is like a million times more fun. I didn’t buy like a single new pedal this year, but I bought isolated power, a new pedal board, and really good Mogami cables that have lifetime warranties so if they do ever crap out, you just take them to the guitar store and get a new one. It saves you so much money in the long run. So that’s the very basic, practical advice that I have for artists. And also, touring in a minivan for as long as possible. It saves so much money to be able to do a full US tour in a Honda Odyssey. They have far less problems, and it’s the only way to realistically like be able to afford this kind of lifestyle is to like make those kind of sacrifices sometimes.

Marisa: Yeah. We did our very first full US tour in an Odyssey, yeah. Don’t be too anxious to jump steps. Enjoy where you’re at. And enjoy like the whole process of it.