An Interview with Michelle Zauner, The One Big Boss Lady Who Is Japanese Breakfast

A mellow crowd of young-20s-year-olds shuffles around under Brighton Music Hall’s ironic, still silver disco ball. It’s quiet. Too quiet. Too quiet on a Wednesday night in Allston Rock City. That is until Japanese Breakfast, more affectionately known as J Brekkie, takes the stage, opening for Mitski’s sold-out show — a show so in demand that show-goers scoured StubHub and social media dry for tickets. Japanese Breakfast’s tiny frame is backlit by the periwinkle smoke that rolls off the stage; the soft burn of the old-fashioned bulbs overhead bathe her opalescent face in a warm glow. She’s a dreamy, ephemeral mirage that could disappear in the blink of an eye — yet she plays not-so ephemeral music. She’s a captivating rock princess with a vicious breakdown of both guitar and self. With a determination in her voice, she weaves lo-fi candy-floss pop creations in an endearingly off-kilter tone that leaves listener a patient of introspection, making Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” the theme of the night.

Just a few hours before, Michelle Zauner, the woman behind Japanese Breakfast, sipped bubble tea (from Kung Fu Tea, just a tapioca pearl’s throw from the venue) and chatted with me about her April-released Psychopomp. Zauner casts an image of adorability, comparable to the delightfully-colored little mochi sold in shops along Harvard Avenue, an area dedicated to the distribution of many an Asian treat. (Korean Garden, anybody?) But don’t let her nymph-like features or the glittery star pin pushing back her pageboy cut fool you; she is a badass girl boss, and the sole member of Japanese Breakfast.

It’s no secret that the music industry is often a male’s stage on which females only occasionally nab a guest spot. Aside from the everyday misogyny women might expect of male venue staff at this point, Zauner has had to experience more egregious acts such as being questioned whether she’s a mere groupie for her touring guitar players (ironically while sitting at her own merch table, reading Kim Gordon’s “Girl in a Band.”) Meanwhile, Zauner had, “written all the songs, booked the entire tour [her]self, including a drum kit at every venue… tour[ing] more than the three guys,” playing in her live act. If that’s not enough, she carries an eighty-five pound Vox AC30 amplifier in and out of each venue herself, as well as finds housing accommodations at each tour stop, all of which are kept on what she describes as her “dorky Excel document.”

“And still I get asked if I’m the f**king groupie,” she exclaims. She’s even had to take to social media to point out to fans and bands that message her for favors that she alone is Japanese Breakfast. It’s such reminders that cause her to think, “Wow, [I’ve] really come from a boy’s world.”

That’s what makes Japanese Breakfast’s current tour such an incredible feat: a bill featuring only female-led, not to mention Asian-American, acts. This is Zauner’s ultimate dream tour, as well as a dream for Dead Oceans, the record label to which she is newly signed, and to which Mitski is also signed. But Zauner decided only recently she would begin touring as a music artist again.

“When I made [Psychopomp], it really felt like it was going to be my last record.” After losing her mother to cancer in 2014, she found the idea of continuing as a touring musician, and thus being away from her loved ones for extended periods of time, too difficult to bear. Packing up, Zauner moved to New York to work a 9-5 job in sales, wanting a more “routine life.” Zauner told Yellow K, the label that put out Psychopomp, that she wouldn’t be touring to support the record — or doing much of anything with it — since she simply wanted to “release it out into the world.”

But Psychopomp resonated with her fans and it didn’t hurt that she hated that 9-5 she was working, causing her to think, as she said, “Maybe I’m not done yet.” Zauner likened the record to a “conversation with [her]self,” in that she wasn’t sure others would even hear it. But it was also a way of encapsulating her mother in a piece of art, which she described as part of her “process of closure.” On the record’s cover her mother is  “kind of reaching out…like she’s being unfairly taken away…but also simultaneously like she’s saying ‘I’m okay,’” in an old photo. A third of the album — including the tracks “Heft,” “In Heaven,” and “Rugged Country” — was written in the wake of her mother’s death. The rest of the songs were compiled from a series of projects such as her song-a-day collaboration with Eskimeaux’s Gabrielle Smith, but they have a similar feeling of what Zauner describes as “sadness and also trying to move past that sadness.”

So how does Japanese Breakfast move past sadness? By getting a bunch of her friends plastered in a Korean karaoke room for her “In Heaven” video, of course, and all on her label’s dime. Ahhh, musicianship. What a dream, right? By playing with mood boards (an idea stolen from her designer friend at Anthropologie), brainstorming with her friend Adam of House of Nod, and drawing from filmmaker Wong Kar Wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Zauner decided to mash up a drunkenly-induced on-camera charisma with some good ol’ trope subversion: donning an all-white suit and a coy little smirk, talking frankly to the camera while shirtless, “Craigslist model bros” sulk about in the background.

As for what she’s up to now? Zauner just released her video for “Jane Cum,” where The Craft meets True Detective, complete with rockin’ witch coven and an eerie twilit shot or two. In a counterpoint to interior spaces, the video highlights women’s place in both the great outdoors and indie rock.

In the time not spent dropping rad new music, Zauner finds herself playing the ever-so-“therapeutic” farming video games which populate the internet or making cooking videos (for Korean food, rather than Japanese breakfast interestingly enough). If you’re wondering what a Japanese breakfast is? Zauner recommends Google images.