Japanese Breakfastâs Michelle Zauner hopes to uplift people with Jubilee
After Zauner’s first two albums spoke about the grief and trauma of losing her mother, the indie singer-songwriter (also known as Japanese Breakfast) does the unexpected and writes about joy in third album.
STAR/ File

Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner hopes to uplift people with Jubilee

Nathalie Tomada (The Philippine Star) - April 27, 2021 - 12:00am

Shortly after Japanese Breakfast made its late-night TV debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the woman behind the US indie rock act — Korean-American artist Michelle Zauner — met virtually with Filipino journalists to talk about her new album Jubilee.

Michelle is no stranger to Filipinos. Thanks to her fanbase in the country, she got to tour here in 2019 for the music festival Summer Noise.

“That was like the first festival we’ve ever really liked, the first outdoor festival that we played in Asia. (Prior to that) I had so many people online saying, ‘Come to Manila.’ And I was like, why? How do people know of us there? And so I was really curious what our fanbase was like over there.”

And because she’s Asian, she was set on touring more of Asia, including Manila. “I just remember it was so humid. And it was like a really chaotic festival. The sound team was very like... there’s just wires everywhere. But it was so much fun. The vibe of the people is what I really remember, a sweet crowd. And I felt very, very welcomed there,” she told The STAR and other press during the recent Zoom interview.

“Manila holds a very special place in my heart and I really hope that by next year, we get to return again and so, you know, stay safe and stay healthy. And I hope you guys take care and that we get to have a really, extra fun reunion next year,” she added.

Michelle had never imagined her music would bring her to places with different time zones, or even a roomful of Filipino reporters.

She fronted an emo band before creating what started out as an experimental pop side project — Japanese Breakfast. “I came up with the band name in 2012 or 2013. And it was just like a goofy side project that I never thought was going to put me in a room with a bunch of Filipino journalists,” she laughed.

“I had a Tumblr that I would just upload, you know, little demos, and I would always attach it to like, a picture of some animé, GIF of food. And a lot of them were like Japanese breakfast. I just felt like the image when you think of a Japanese breakfast is very neat, soothing and pleasant. I felt it would make a good band name, but I didn’t realize that it would not make very much sense later on.”

But here she is now, about to drop her third album titled Jubilee after her critically-acclaimed Soft Sounds From Another Planet (2017) and Psychopomp (2016).

If her debut and sophomore records spoke of her grief, trauma and suffering over losing her Korean mom to cancer, in Jubilee, she is all about finding and fighting for joy. “The title is Jubilee, which is this kind of Biblical year of release. It’s also the Asian X-Men character. And I wanted to write an album about joy because you know, my first two records...were a lot of really dark, heavy material.” For the new record, she just saw in her head a yellow image and lots of warm tones that “I wanted to do something really unexpected and write about joy.”

The first single released is Be Sweet, which she wrote with Jack Tatum of the band Wild Nothing. The original plan was to sell the song to pop artists. “I feel like the style of writing was maybe a little more pop-oriented, kind of like a sassy ‘80s diva like Janet Jackson or Madonna or something. And we just wanted to write something really fun. And then as we were writing it, I just really fell in love with the song and decided to keep it. That’s how it came together.”

She wrote the album in 2018 and started recording just before the pandemic. The irony of Jubilee as a title is not lost on her, as it’s released at a time when joy seems to be scarce.

“It definitely didn’t feel like the right time, but right now, it makes a lot of sense because the album isn’t just about joy, it’s about fighting for joy, struggling to feel joy and preserving joy. I think that’s something that a lot of people had to really face this year and I think that will really resonate with people. I hope. I think people would like to hear an uplifting record right now, which I feel like I have to offer.

Jubilee’s sound also reflects her growth as a composer and producer, as Michelle described it as a more mature and ambitious record with a lot of instrumentation.

The goal was just to make a good album, if not better. “I thought a lot about the third record, and specifically what a third album means in terms of the sort of discography of an artist. And for a lot of artists, the second record you make is a lot of pressure. There’s this thing called the sophomore slump in the US… but like the first record, I thought it was maybe successful for an accident. And so I had so much pressure preparing the second album. I was really, really stressed out. And after it did quite well, I feel like I had so much relief. For this third album, it felt like I had this new confidence of like, okay, you know what you’re doing, it wasn’t an accident. Now, you can just be really ambitious and put your best foot forward.”

Michelle credited the experience of writing her own memoir, dedicated to her late mom Chongmi, for being able to do Jubilee.

“I felt like there was so much unsaid about this thing that I went through, and I was able to really explore that and spend a lot of time like putting it together in a way that was really cathartic for me and I was able to kind of move on. I feel like actually writing this book really helped me be able to write a record like Jubilee that was about something new.”

Crying in H Mart was just released last week, while Jubilee will be dropped on June 4. The album can now be pre-ordered on https://japanesebreakfast.ffm.to/jubilee via Dead Oceans.

Meanwhile, as half-Korean, Michelle finds it exciting how K-pop has become a huge part of the mainstream music scene in the US. “It’s really exciting that K-pop is doing so well in the US. I never would have expected it, I guess, but it’s certainly a thrill to watch happen. My cousin was really into K-pop growing up, but beyond like a couple of bands that I knew growing up, I didn’t really listen very much  to K-pop. But I do like the idea of K-pop. I just started watching the BTS like In the Soop show to help me learn some more Korean.”

Michelle expressed her thoughts on the reports of attacks directed at Asian-Americans. “I think a lot of the issues that are happening, with the violence against Asian-Americans, are largely because people in the US think that we all look the same. They’ve targeted Asian-Americans, I think, largely because of the coronavirus and blamed Asia as a whole for the sort of suffering that came with this year.

“And I also think in part, there are more people that maybe usually wouldn’t have said something about this kind of thing? But because more time has gone by, and there’s a younger generation of people who were raised in the US or even born in the US that are Asian-American, we have a more righteous sense of entitlement to start speaking out about this kind of violence that has maybe gone on for a really long time. I think our parents’ generation, a lot of the people (who came) to the US feel very humbled and indebted to the sort of opportunity that they came into, so they kind of allowed this kind of harassment and mistreatment for many years.

“I think, we’re entering this new generation that’s no longer willing to just put our head down and accept what’s going on because a lot of us feel like, you know what, I am American, I was raised here my whole life, and I’m not going to be quiet about it. So, I think, we’re seeing just a lot of reckoning with that kind of violence.

“I will say that this is a really new thing for me, too. It’s a difficult thing to speak about. But I’m trying to learn, especially because I have a platform and it’s a largely Asian-American platform. I do feel a responsibility to talk more openly about it and be better prepared for this kind of dialogue. You know, just try to raise awareness and encourage people to speak up and no longer allow for this kind of mistreatment, and let people know that this is something that’s been happening for a long time.”

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