Most of us have lost someone we love. Our only wish as that we could immortalise them in the way we feel their legacy deserves. For Philadelphia indie punk band Little Big League, front-woman Michelle Zauner did exactly that with her side project Japanese Breakfast. And it's taken her places she never thought she'd be.

Psychopomp is out now on Dead Oceans.

Good morning. What did you have for breakfast?

I had a sandwich melt thing nearby the Secretly office. I woke up like an hour ago.

Well that's acceptable after a night of drinking in the UK. Well, I was scrolling through your Twitter and I found a tweet that read, "I spent the last year working a job I hated after a year of hell and death and illness after I had totally given up on my dream," so how do you feel right now?

I feel so great. It's been kind of an emotional past two days. It keeps setting in more and more and I keep waiting for the trap door to open. I've been with a punk project for years and we've toured the US many times and played a lot of basement shows. We played a cornfield in Indiana to like 10 people and it was a really fun time but I wanted so bad to reach a larger audience and it just wasn't happening for me. So when my mom got sick, I was like, I can't live this lifestyle anymore. I can't be away from my support system for months at a time, I have to go work a normal job in New York and maybe it's time to just let this go. But before I did that, I wanted to make a private album for myself and I wanted to put it out on vinyl so if anyone wanted it, it would be available. So I would make like 500 copies and over the course of 10 years or something, it would sell. But it did really well and I think it resonated with a lot of people. I've had people relate to the record in terms of people who have lost someone family members and I think it touched a lot of people. And now I have the opportunity to come to the UK. I've never even been here. It's just been really lovely.

So the album Psychopomp was originally released stateside. So what was the process of signing to Dead Oceans like to re-release the album and what has it taught you about your creative journey and where you could really take this?

I am involved with this amazing label now and they have the resources to take it to another level. That's what I'm starting to realise now that there's such a dedicated following with this label and I follow a lot of these artists. It's funny, our bass player played in Strand of Oaks which is another Dead Oceans band and on the last Little Big League tour we went on, he had a very solemn meeting with me that was like, this has to be my priority, they just signed to Dead Oceans, we're going to be Jimmy Fallon big, or whatever. And I wrote a song kind of about that experience called 'Jimmy Fallon Big' which I think is going to be on the second LP and it's just so serendipitous that they were the label we signed to two years later. I'm just so sad that I wasn't able to give him that opportunity. He had to leave to go to this band and make that band his priority. I felt like I was losing a brother. And that's another reason why Little Big League didn't work. So it just felt really amazing and satisfying that two years later, I got my own email from Dead Oceans about my solo project. So they were this label that they had the potential to make your career. So we'll see. So far it's just at the beginning but things are amazing.

So what is so special to you about Japanese Breakfast as just a musical presence opposed to your previous work and what is the most fulfilling aspect of all of this, for you?

It's the first time that I pursued a project in a long time that was fully my own voice. I was able to put it in a direction that I loved every turn, be it through the entire process of producing the record. I didn't have to negotiate with anyone. Everyone was helping me achieve what I heard in my head and I have full creative control over the project. The lyrical content is really special to me. It's really great to watch people relate to it or interpret it in their own way. So many people come up to me after the shows and tell me how it's helped them. It's a really amazing thing to have different people unload completely personal information to you, because they feel so close to you and your work.

That relates to another tweet I saw from you where you said, "To those of you who feel isolated in this experience, make art and your people will find you." So what has it been like for you to be this representation of the stages of grief in a way?

It was crazy. I grew up this half Korean girl who felt like she could never write about her own experiences, because it would be too niche. I wanted to be a fiction writer or a screenwriter and I always would write from a white male perspective or feel like that was a voice that I had to have. I couldn't ever explain my experiences, because that would be like such a niche market. Then to write this essay, which is specifically about being half Korean and having lost a parent of that heritage and struggling with that. And that to have all these people find me. I've had dozens of emails from half Korean people who lost a parent to the same disease that it's just like so incredibly specific, but it just reminds you that the world is full of people and even though it's full of loss and pain, it's easy to not feel like "Why me?" I feel so heartbroken that people have shared these experiences with me but there's some solace that we can share it together.

Japanese Breakfast

And the album is all about juxtapositions. Life and death, happiness and pain. So what is inherently beautiful and ugly about the contrasts of life and where do you find the balance now that things seem so bittersweet for you?

I think about it all the time. It really feels I've had this winning streak and it feels so gratifying but it also feels somewhat hollow, to be honest. I wish so badly that my mom could have seen it. My mom never saw my band play and she never got to witness any kind of success when I was working. As a parent, I think that she was incredibly concerned that her only kid was taking a less-beaten path. A path of an artist is generally associated with struggle so it hurts that she can't see that. Initially, I think a lot of the record is about not being religious and figure out how to work through your feelings about death when you're not someone who believes in anything too spiritual. And I think that what I told other kids that have come to me about their struggle with it is that, if you need to believe in something, you should allow yourself to believe in it. I would get so mad at myself for being vulnerable and believing in certain mystical things. Even to leave flowers at my mom's grave and then have some feeling like she knew that I did it. But it helps me. It helps me in my success in some way that I believe that my mom can see it. And I think that it's a double-edged sword, because I would have never created this album and wouldn't have worked as hard if I hadn't had that but it helps.


And it even comes down to the title of your project. Psychopomps are the mythological creatures that are responsible for guiding the deceased into the afterlife. What were your stages of figuring out that's what you were for your mom and working through those stages?

I think it's a really natural, human instinct to want to immortalise people or encapsulate them in some timeless piece of art. So I guess that's what I did. That title just speaks to how I felt. My mom went through very few chemotherapy treatments so it was a short fight. I think that I just felt like it was my role to accept that. It's hard not to get mad at somebody for not trying harder but it ultimately is their choice.