Japanese Breakfast is the swirling electro / indie pop project of Michelle Zauner, the frontwoman for Philadelphia punk outfit Little Big League. Launched in 2013, out of a self-imposed song-a-day writing challenge, Japanese Breakfast combines catchy hooks, eclectic electronic experimentations, and dark lyrics that provide a contrast to Zauner’s uplifting melodies. With two cassette releases under her belt, Zauner is set to release Japanese Breakfast’s debut full-length, Psychopomp, on April 1 via Yellow K Records.
She Shreds caught up with Zauner to learn more about the album, which is dedicated to her mother and is comprised of material created over a six-year period. Check out our interview below, and, if you’re at SXSW, catch Japanese Breakfast at She Shreds x Punctum Records Party on Thursday, March 17.
Japanese Breakfast started out of a song-a-day project in 2013. How has that experience shaped your songwriting process since then? Have you used elements of that technique for any of the songs on Psychopomp?
It has me approaching music as more of a practice vs. waiting for inspiration to strike. It also provided me with a lot of raw material. A majority of the songs stem from those song a day projects. I actually put out a cassette tape that comes with the deluxe pre-order that sort of shows that process. I wanted to show that kind of before and after effect. “Heft” for instance was originally on Where is my Great Big Feeling, but I added more instrumentation and another chorus and verse. “Jane Cum,” “Woman That Loves You,” and “Triple 7” all come from American Sound but were also updated for the record. “Rugged Country” started as “Day 6” on June. It’s sort of like a compilation album that spans six years. Ultimately, I wanted those songs to have a proper place, and to be recorded properly. It was put together in a very unique way.
There are a range of musical styles present across your Psychopomp. How did you piece such divergent sounds together? Did you experiment with any new gear or studio tricks to make it all happen?
I think the divergent sounds come from that unique compilation effect. Also, I had friends that helped with the album that definitely left their own mark on the songs. The album started in Oregon. I’d brought the songs to my friend Colin Redmond who had a bedroom studio to engineer the record and then him and Nick Hawley-Gamer and Peter Bradley helped me with a lot of the arrangements. Those boys have a sort of folky/country influence, and I think that definitely comes out on a lot of the songs. I sort of sat on the album for two months and then felt I wanted to incorporate more electronic elements and worked with my friend Ned Eisenberg to co-produce and sort of bring out that element. I don’t even know the proper terminology to call out what genre he brought to it. I guess that sort of psychotic pop sound, almost like, DDR music. He plays under the moniker g6la deli. You can hear his music and hear his mark on the album. So yeah, I think there are different things that shine through and also are affected by how my songwriting changed over the course of six years.
The album (and the opening track “In Heaven” in particular), is a beautiful tribute to your mother. Can you share a little bit about how your work helped you deal with your feelings surround such a devastating loss that you couldn’t have gotten through other outlets? Did that affect your decision to release this material under Japanese Breakfast, rather than Little Big League?
This album came together after I had to leave Philadelphia, my job, my friends, my partner, and my band Little Big League behind and support my mom through treatment, and then later support my dad emotionally after her loss. I’d left my whole life behind and I was just stuck in Oregon for about a year with nothing to do but be a body of support. Most of my friends had moved away from my hometown and my parents live in the woods, so it was extremely isolating. Making a record was something that felt productive and also very therapeutic.
Some of the lyrics on the last couple Little Big League albums are informed quite a bit by gender and the idea of safety, which appear again in Japanese Breakfast songs like “Rugged Country” and “Triple 7.” Can you tell me a little about why you gravitate towards these themes, and how your perspective has changed (if at all) over the years?
They are just experiences I’ve had that effected me the most, I guess. Little Big League’s first album was a lot about what it felt like to move to a bigger city. A lot of those songs wound up being about feeling afraid to walk home alone at night, all the stories you’d hear about these terrible things happening to women. I was really struck when I first moved there that instead of people just saying goodbye or goodnight when you departed it was “be safe!” I was also involved with a really possessive man at the time, so I was very haunted by my role as a woman. The second record was largely about infidelity, and feelings of inadequacy, so I think that was pretty informed by gender too.
With Japanese Breakfast, all of the songs are stories from different times, or have voices of different characters. “Rugged Country” is about a time in high school I watched a friend beat up a girlfriend of mine for no reason. It was the first act of violence I’d ever witnessed and it was something we all handled so poorly. We were so young and it was so complicated because the guy was a friend of ours and just so out of character. It was really frightening to think someone could just snap like that and do that to someone.
Remembering that, and moving back to my hometown with my partner and wondering why the fuck are we here? On songs like “Triple 7” and “Woman That Loves You” I wanted to channel that feeling of old country love songs. A lot of these songs really explore that feeling of being stuck in your role as a woman, and even though it’s somewhat antiquated, I think there’s something really hauntingly romantic in that sentiment. “Take Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man, “sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, giving your love to just one man.” Like, damn. It seems so simple but it encompasses so much. What a mood.
With Psychopomp coming out on April 1, what are your plans through the spring and summer with Japanese Breakfast, Little Big League, or anything else?
I’m not sure about Little Big League. We all have our new projects now, Deven is in Strand of Oaks, Ian is in Sheer Mag, Kevin is in Mercury Girls… It’s so funny to think that we all wrote those LBL albums together! We just had a run of reunion shows and we’re probably all focusing on our new thing for awhile, but who knows if we’ll pop back up again. As for Japanese Breakfast, I’m on my way to SXSW next week, I’ve got a release show on March 31 at Shea Stadium w/ Emily Reo, Adult Mom & Bethlehem Steel, April 1 at Ortliebs in Philadelphia w/ Littler & Myrrias. I have a great music video coming out soon thanks to House of Nod and Adam Kolodny. Then I hope to get a tour going pretty soon. Lots of big news coming up