On her most recent visit to London I caught up with one of my current favourite artists, Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner, about the new melodic directions of her album Soft Sounds From Another Planet, coping with grief long-term, the thrilling proliferation of women of colour in indie rock, and why euphemisms will always be funny.


Just before I get to the album I'd like to discuss your tour with Slowdive; because that is really cool and I'm gutted I missed out on it; how was that experience?

Phenomenal, it's like the greatest tour I've ever been on. It was great for so many reasons; it was the biggest shows we're ever done so was really nerve-wracking. Just huge venues, I remember packing in this beautiful palace theatre in St. Pauls Minnesota, and being "fuck, can we do this?" It's also just an insane co-sign for them to agree to do this, a validation. They're all such amazing people and I got to check out their gear every night, and I was actually a little bit intimidated by how gracious they all were. It was hilarious actually, the first show we played with them every single member of Slowdive played with every single member of Japanese Breakfast for taking half an hour overtime on the soundcheck. On the last day of the tour Rachel gave us such a great pep talk about how she believed in us and how we'd go far, it was unreal.

I was listening to the Talkhouse Podcast with you and Rachel recently, nerding out over the Juno synthesisers.

Yeah, I was like "well the gear nerds are going to loooovvveee this one."

Were there any good gear souvenirs or tricks you managed to pick up from this tour?

We have a thing in our van where we're the pro-gear team, so we've taken onboard some of their methods. They have both their guitar amps stereo, so they run two jazz choruses out of the left and right stereo, Christian especially likes using that reverb. I was so in awe every night that I forgot to take a picture of all the pedal-boards.

So Soft Sounds From Another Planet has a lot of shoegaze undertones, along with other stuff; the album was obviously was recorded before your tour with Slowdive. In terms of that sound, do you think having toured with Slowdive do you think that aesthetic might be something you explore more in future?

It's hard to say, I don't know. I can't really imagine making that sound without a band; I think that Neil writes a lot of the parts, and it's hard for me to consider how he does it because it must have been created in a room with a group of people, that epic sound of people layering over each other. So I can't imagine doing that. For me, my goals are pushed way forward in the front than any shoegaze stuff. I really value pop vocal melodies and lyrics, so I like to showcase that a little more than most shoegaze bands. Though I've always been a big fan of those tones, of reverb and washed-out sounds, and layers of sounds. It's hard to predict what I'll do, but I think those elements will always inform my music at least.

Even in Psychopomp there's a lot of those shoegaze harmonies - between melancholy, and exuberance and light in there - and it's maybe just more pronounced in Soft Sounds. Moving onto the album now, it's naturally bolder and more experimental than Psychopomp, although that record had some interesting interludes and tonal outliers. Soft Sounds seems at the same time more divergent and more cohesive. What is it you were focussing on, musically?

I think I went into it in a similar way to Psychopomp, without any expectations of what the songs will turn into, just adding and retracting things to make sure the song sounds right. And I also don't try to make a cohesive album sonically, I just try to make every song its own world, and then develop the sequencing to make sure it fits beside the other tracks. With this record I think the biggest difference was that I wanted a small cast and crew, so it was really just Craig Hendrix and I who engineered and co-produced it, and we played every single instrument on the record besides sax and trumpet. With Psychopomp it went through more hands and collaboration, and I felt I wanted one other person who I trusted in helping me make this piece, and Craig's someone who plays in the live band and is integral to that. Craig is maybe a little more invested in classic sound, he studied his major in music with vocals; so there's a ton of vocals, synth strings, and new horn arrangements that have been added. I also felt I went into the record with a lot more confidence and maturity. This is my fourth record - my second as Japanese Breakfast, but my fourth as an artist - I think I just have a lot more experience to tackle different sounds. And we had more time, more concentrated time; we had a month in the studio, and we could play and experiment.

There was quite a short timespan between Psychopomp and this; what was the writing process like for you given the brevity, did you write while touring or did it all just come out after touring?

I think I collected a lot of ideas when we were touring; people ask a lot whether we write on the road, but I think it's largely impossible as you're always busy and never really have any privacy. Spending time on the road reading and observing things is instructive; so we started demoing in October and recorded it in December. But Psychopomp took a while to get out; it was finished for quite some time and then once no one wanted it. I shopped it to maybe ten small labels, and when it did come out on a very small label in the US it did really well, and then it was released to the rest of the world and people liked it.

Going back to the style of the album; as you say each song is very distinctive; 'Boyish' sounds almost like a Northern Soul song, or something The Supremes would do, 'Machinist' is very New Romantics - especially the sax outro - and 'This House' has an ambiguous, folksome, patient intimacy. In the marriage of these aesthetics, were these deliberate in tying together with the themes of the record?

That's exactly what we're going for! Something Roy Orbison would come up with. I think I wanted to write a science fiction musical, originally, and the first song I wrote was 'Machinist'. I wrote it for a blog, and they wanted to give me $2000 dollars for two songs and I was like "okay I'll take it". So I wrote this song and they didn't like it so I didn't get the money. But I thought it was a great song; at that time I think I just wanted to ban myself from writing about my mum, because I felt like the narrative of that album [Psychopomp] is so rooted in my grief over her death that it was my responsibility to close that chapter and write something new; even if that's something totally insane like a woman loving a machine and struggling with that issue. I wanted to make a full record about that concept. When I started to write the full thing it felt so restrictive and so phoney to make that when I still had some much to say. While Psychopomp was written two months after my mum passed away, this is written about a year and a half, so your grief changes quite a bit. I still had a lot to say, and some new feelings about it. I was also really focused on resilience and routine, and sometimes it felt like I was mechanically moving forward to try and forcibly move this traumatic memory behind me, so a lot of the songs could be about being so devoid of emotion for a while that I felt shut off from most experiences. And 'Body Is A Blade' is a song about treating your body as a machine to move forward and eventually get back to the other side. So yeah, I think sonically the instruments we used to create that feeling. We used autotune and sax on that song ['Machinist'] because it felt like an '80s sci-fi thriller song, and then we used more shoegazey elements on 'Diving Woman' because it's a slower, six-and-a-half minute song about being on the road and exploiting routine to keep focussed; and to be a good partner, and find balance in your life. The dreamlike shoegazey element really speaks to that aspiration for harmony and balance. And then 'Boyish' is about feeling jealous about your partner's flirtation with another person, or infidelity, and the lack of virility. So in my head, it's such a melodramatic ballad that needed a huge movement in the chorus, and that sad, sweet Roy Orbison movement, so we had a ton of vocal harmonies and synth strings and horn arrangements.

I'm glad you brought up 'Body Is A Blade' actually, it's my favourite song off the album.

Oh thank you, mine too!

Ha, great taste in music thinking alike, and it's one of my favourite songs of 2017. It's profoundly moving, and I love that guitar line which opens it. It may be overtly particular but I'm fascinated by it, was there a specific genesis for that song different from the others?

Yeah no worries. I had that verse already; I used it before on an old song 'A Great Big Feeling', and it was the first verse I wrote after I found out my mum was sick. I was just so angry and I think that a lot of anger is disguised as a sense of justice or righteousness. You're angry that someone cuts in front of your car, and you feel righteous because that that was not a noble or unjust action. It was not fair to you and so makes you angry. But I just felt that I'm an angry person; I get angry very easily, and a lot of it is rooted in that song. But it's also such a worthless feeling, and in some ways it can be a good thing, driving you to work harder and push yourself, but I was thinking that at the time of writing that I really needed to shed a lot of that anger, to purge myself of it. When I see an 80-year-old woman with her 40-year-old daughter walking together in a Costco or something I'll just get really angry because it's so unfair that I'll never get to have that. Or if I ever have children that my mother won't be there. I was so angry but at the same time I knew my mother wanted me to move forward so I had to shed those feelings and I needed to channel being a good person in the world. So that song's about that conflict, about keeping going - day-to-day - until the lows are more okay.

There's a real trend of that brand of self-empowering music emerging this year, with Diet Cig and Julien Baker, Mitski. These artists have galvanised 2016/2017 indie rock music with these uplifting, unflinching songs exploring identity, selfhood and mental health, real progressive issues. There seems to be a sense of community between these artists, is that tangible in reality?

Yeh absolutely! I think it's also when you're a musician, you don't have much of a Homebase, so your friends at home don't get to see you very often cause you're usually on the road, so your community is made up of vagabonds like you who are in the same city playing the same venue and reading the same journalists or all those same experiences, and we're all on social media a lot too promoting ourselves, so it feels like that's your group of friends in a way. I met with Lætitia [Namko], Vagabon, in Paris recently. She had a gig and had PR, but after we were both done we went to a bar together. It's great because we had that moment where we were just like "isn't this crazy? We're in fucking Paris!", and we just drank wine and talked for three hours about our shared experiences. With friends at home they might sometimes take it as bragging talking about having the best job, but it feels like a community where you can just casually chat about these experiences. Also, there's a lot negativity that gets sent our way - a lot of positivity too of course - but with the negativity we can relate to each other "yeah I get death threats too" or "you're not alone and not an imposter, I get that too". It's refreshing having an artist, maybe a little bigger than you, telling you that they went through the exact same thing. Sometimes it helps to hear someone so talented also feels that way, a little insecure.

I guess in the world of rock music where it's been straight white male dominated for forty years -

That's another thing too, there's a strong community of women especially, and women of colour, and we're like "our fucking time is finally here, now let's fucking kill it", and we're bigging each other up to feel that way.

It's not just artists though, reading the scene at large - as a group - you're inspiring women and women of colour fans to get engaged with rock music, now that they feel there's a space for them, beyond, not naming names, but the conventional idea of indie rock bands.

I know it's so weird, I feel like they're shooting themselves in the foot. It's hard for me, and you're immediately ageing yourself if you're saying music isn't how it used to be. Maybe you're not trying hard enough, or it's just something you're not interested in. I think there's something really exciting happening at the moment with a lot of different voices, and we should applaud that.

Moving onto the thematic side of the record, we've briefly touched on the sci-fi trimmings, but were there any concrete inspirations or touchstones?

Wong Kar Wai's beautiful 2046 was definitely an inspiration; I love that movie, I think it's a better version of Spike Jonze's Her. I don't know beyond that though. I was listening to a lot of Roy Orbison and that so-melodramatic-but-sad music, that's almost happy sounding. There are a lot of love songs on this album, a lot of songs about marriage. I think I just realised what love could be this past year, and I think that song 'To Death' was really encompassing my feelings on it, listing really horrible things you can endure but survive with someone you love by your side. When I was a kid, whenever I was sick my mum would always sit by my side and say "I wish I could just take this away from you"; a really deep feeling love, of wanting to shoulder that pain. But it's very difficult to shoulder someone's emotional pain. You literally have to just stand by their side as they endure it, and I really felt that my partner helped me with that. They helped me go through the ringer for two years. I really felt lost as an artist for a while, and my partner stood by me and believed in me, so a lot of this album is about that too.

A really interesting aspect to your lyrics is the way you write about sex. In pop music, sex is normally heavily glamorised or reductively depicted, and - especially in rock music - it has a history of male gaze issues and face-value misogyny. But you write it as this far more complex thing, imbued with difficult signifiers and tacit meanings.

Yeh, I think sex can say a lot about where a relationship is at a particular stage; and is sometimes more truthful than anything you say verbally to your partner, it's unconscious communication in a way. It can change anything with small gestures. The little boy in me also loves innuendo. With 'Roadhead' it's oral sex and funnelling gas, which I just felt was a funny image I wanted to use. I think that the death rattle of a relationship can be heard when the sex is totally routine, and you know that the relationship is dying but you try to resuscitate it with something that seems wildly romantic or crazy and fun, like having sex in an alley or giving roadhead. But it blows up in your face at that moment that this is really not working out; and how ugly that moment can look and feel. Also, you never really hear about women feeling sexually frustrated in a relationship or if their partner is less virile than them, so I wanted to write about them.

As the earth looks increasingly doomed, can we find optimism in the stars, as Soft Sounds at times suggests?

I think it's a bit scary to say that; I don't want to relish escapism. For me the more I think about it, it's been more personal than grand, more about what the past year of my life has been like. This complex dichotomy; I found love, got married, got recognised as an artist for the first time in my life, been able to support myself as an artist too. I've been fighting to do this and experienced a lot of rejection, and now I have this amazing thing, but it's in the long shadow of this grief I've been struggling with. Then I've been touring almost six months out of the year, away from your support system. A lot of the songs are about that personal complex. I've talked about my grief over and over again, and I've met so many kids who've lost their parents at a young age or had a friend going through chemo. I didn't think of the title's implications that much at the time, but now I like the idea that Soft Sounds From Another Planet could be us from another planet; that you're just, as a person, a soft sound, like everyone else experiencing these things. Psychopomp was so, so personal, and here I'm looking at my grief objectively and through the lens with people who've shared grief over the past year. I know I'm not alone in this, and death is very real, but I hope people listen to this and know that their grief, their struggle, their pain, and use this record as something they can live in for a short time, but know they can move forward.

Soft Sounds From Another Planet is out via Dead Oceans July 14th, and Japanese Breakfast will be performing at London's The Dome on November 7th.