Japanese Breakfast Blends Darkness and Light for a Colorful Meditation on Loss | KCET
Japanese Breakfast Blends Darkness and Light for a Colorful Meditation on Loss
To watch Japanese Breakfast’s “Everybody Wants to Love You” video is to experience pure celebratory joy. The video follows Michelle Zauner, the Philadelphia musician and songwriter behind Japanese Breakfast, through a night of raucous drinking in Philadelphia. Among other activities, she vapes in a bathroom stall, gnaws on a Slim Jim, shotguns a tall can of beer, and hitches a ride on the back of a friend’s motorcycle. “Everybody Wants to Love You” itself is jubilant guitar pop, lifted by a shout-along chorus.
The video is made all the more joyful, of course, by the fact that Zauner does it all in a hanbok, a traditional, elaborate Korean dress, adding an irreverent juxtaposition to every shot she downs and every bubblegum bubble she blows.
There is, of course, more than a touch of sadness to the video, too. The hanbok was Zauner’s mother’s, which she wore at Zauner’s wedding just two weeks before she passed away from cancer.
“Making the video was emotional because that dress means so much to me,” says Zauner. “But in the same breath, I wanted to have fun with it. There is a deep, sad meaning behind the video, but ultimately it’s about experiencing joy. And I think that’s the music that I want to make in general — pop music that really resonates but has a more deeper meaning behind it."
The video crests with a shot of Zauner in the light of a clear blue day, ripping into a solo on a cream-colored Strat as she sits on the hood of a semitruck. When Zauner and co-director Adam Kolodny started brainstorming for the video, “My number one moment was that I wanted to stand on a semitruck in this dress,” she says, laughing. "It felt like something that Lana Del Rey would do."
In much the same way, Zauner’s debut album as Japanese Breakfast, 2016’s “Psychopomp,” looks fiercely into dark corners of her psyche while boosting its reflections with big melodies and hazy dream-pop arrangements. “Everybody Wants to Love You,” for all the giddiness of its chorus, is a reflection on the loneliness and absurdity of the one night stand, that intense entangling of intimacy and desolation.
The album itself is a product of Zauner’s time in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon, where she moved for a stint to care for her mother after the cancer diagnosis. (The “Psychopomp” song “Heft” largely deals with the terrifying uncertainty that came before her mother’s diagnosis. "What if it’s the same dark coming?” she sings, of the cancer that also claimed an aunt. "Then f--- it all.”)
Later, after her mother passed, Zauner's life at home was split between caring for her bereft father and managing her own grief. In Philly, she had played with indie rock outfit Little Big League; back in her childhood home, she pieced together “Psychopomp” as a purely solo exercise. The record is composed of seven years of previous songwriting, as well as new songs that elucidate some of the complex feelings Zauner dealt with upon her mother’s passing.
“I was stuck in Oregon for about a year and a half, in my childhood home,” says Zauner. “I had just turned 25. I was feeling stunted — I felt like I was running out of time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I just didn’t know where to put all that energy, so I put it into making this record.
“A lot of [making “Psychopomp”] was a huge healing process for me,” she says, "to have a project to inch away at and focus on, to try to distract myself from these really horrible things I was feeling."
“Psychopomp" directly confronts loss from different points in the grieving process, at the same time meditating on other crises — for instance, the nature of broken relationships, or the lasting psychic damage of one’s hometown — though the songs are often not written from Zauner’s perspective. Her voice is girded with a power derived from punk, and infused with a lightness that cuts through the heavy subject matter.
“The Woman That Loves You” is a brief, shimmering sliver of perfect lethargic pop, with lyrics vague and fascinatingly passive, like a snippet of an overheard conversation: "You should try to do as little harm as you can to the woman that loves you,” Zauner sings. The woozy “In Heaven” dwells in the crushing reality that surrounds losing a loved one, an exercise in rich and poignant detail that evinces Zauner’s strength as a writer. "The dog’s confused/She just paces around all day/She’s sniffing at your empty room,” she sings.
“Rugged Country” combines several of the impulses that run throughout the record — of ambivalence toward one’s home, of the bluntness of the universe, of the sting of loss. "And this is where we lost you,” Zauner sings, "Despite every effort to bring you back/And the hope’s the one that haunts you/And this home's the rope that’s wrapped around your neck."
“The house is 20 minutes outside of town,” she explains. “There’s a thing with the Pacific Northwest, and there are lots of pieces of art that explore it — "Twin Peaks" is a great example. There’s an eerie undercurrent about what happens when people are really bored here, all this nature and silence. For me, this space I grew up in [had become] suffocating.” Of all the tunes on “Psychopomp,” “Rugged Country” bites hardest.
“Everybody Wants to Love You” is in some ways the outlier, the brightest and least melancholy of the bunch — though as Zauner points out, the light attitude itself is a bit of a mask. “There’s this dark undercurrent, of being young and partying in general — this really joyous time that can also be a really dark time for a lot of people,” says Zauner. “I know in my early 20s I felt like I was having the time of my life, but it was also really confusing and lonely."
If the song itself is an exploration of the undercurrents of a certain kind of early-20s revelry — she wrote it several years ago — the video finds Zauner a few years older, exploring some different concerns.
For instance, the hanbok, along with the heavy wig and long fake nails she wore in the video, is in a way a response to how she was perceived and discussed by the music press.
“I hate referencing this, because Woody Allen is a terrible person,” Zauner says, "but there’s the scene in 'Annie Hall' where he goes to have dinner with his WASPy girlfriend’s family, and he just feels like everyone is looking at him like he's an Orthodox Jew in full Hasid gear. And sometimes I feel like as an Asian-American artist, that’s sort of how people see me — I get asked a lot about my heritage and what it means to me, and as great as that is, and as much as I enjoy talking about it, it can be frustrating sometimes because I feel like you get pigeonholed as an artist that way."
After finishing “Psychopomp” — a process that entailed bringing her original recordings to the East Coast, where she fleshed out the arrangements with Ned Eisenberg — Zauner decided it would be her final album. She was emotionally exhausted, she says, and also tired of the indie rock tour grind. She focused on other modes of expression: she learned to cook Korean food, for instance, and wrote an essay about it for Glamour, which she says will be the basis for a memoir she’s writing.
Thankfully, however, a tour with Mitski and a deal with the highly-respected indie label Dead Oceans helped change her mind. In fact, she says a second Japanese Breakfast record has already been recorded. And with “Psychopomp” as great as it is — with its complex play of darkness and light, and Zauner’s honest, impressionistic mode of expression — it’s a relief to know we’ll hear more in the near future.
Top image: Michelle Zauner started Japanese Breakfast as a solo outlet, creating her debut album “Psychopomp” while living at home in Oregon. Courtesy of Dead Oceans and Phobymo.
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