Michelle Zauner doesn’t have all that much to do at the moment. And she absolutely hates it.
It’s the middle of March, and life hasn’t begun crawling back yet. Sure, she has the Zoom interviews to promote two big projects that are finally seeing the light of day, the memoir Crying in H Mart and Jubilee, her third album as Japanese Breakfast, out Friday. (The book is as wrenching as the album is life-affirming, which is a neat dyad.) Zauner, 32, also recently directed a panoramic, single-take live performance for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, so at least the creative rust has started to come off. But it’s been too long since she’s been able to lose herself in something big, to let an artistic work subsume her until she comes out a different person on the other end.
Instead, she’s been having to sit still. And that doesn’t sit well with her at all.
“I feel like for the last six years I’ve always had another project lined up,” she says while Zooming from her Bushwick apartment. “It is hard for me, definitely. I feel like so much of my mental health is rooted in working on a project, and so not knowing exactly what that’s gonna be is a little nerve-racking, but I’m ready to live in that for a little bit.”
There’s been a lot of binge-watching over the past year. (The Queen’s Gambit gets a thumbs up; that last season of Westworld gets a thumbs down.) And like many of us, she spent the pandemic trying new dishes.
“I tried to bake like everyone else a little bit, and that did not go well,” she says. “I’ve learned how to make a number of Middle Eastern dips for the first time. I got really into the Headbangers Kitchen, which was this Indian guy who is really into metal and Keto Indian dishes.”
She takes food very seriously. It’s all but the essence of culture itself to her. Before Crying in H Mart, she wrote a 2018 essay for The New Yorker of the same name, an ode to the popular Korean American supermarket chain often located on the edge of town. She regards it as “a holy place,” and a safe one for her to mourn while searching for the cuttlefish, rice cakes, and other assorted ingredients to re-create the dishes of her childhood in an attempt to hold on to her mother’s memory. It’s now the book’s opening chapter. (It was a pretty hands-off editing process for that essay, by the way. She just had to tweak one word and cut the last sentence. Nailed it on the first take.)
But while many of us struggled with our sourdough starter kits, Zauner followed through on her big pandemic projects, finishing a final revision of her book. Crying in H Mart lovingly but not sentimentally tells the story of Zauner’s mother, Chongmi, who died of cancer at the age of 56 when her daughter was 25, and the difficult transition from child to caregiver.
Chongmi, a Korean woman who moved to Eugene, Oregon, to be with Zauner’s American dad, was a tough woman who could only give tough love. “A love that saw what was best for you 10 steps ahead, and didn’t care if it hurt like hell in the meantime,” Zauner writes. They were able to bond through food, at least—Korean as well as American fare, like the fries she liked to order from McDonald’s.
Zauner looked to Joan Didion’s grief-stricken memoir The Year of Magical Thinking and Richard Ford’s Between Them: Remembering My Parents, as well as Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, and his food writing in The New Yorker. “I read a lot of memoirs and stole what I thought was working well for other people,” Zauner says. In H Mart she proves equally adept at describing the mouth-watering texture of noodles and deep-fried battered pork “with its rich sauce on the side,” as she is conveying the void of her grief with breathtaking precision, rendering it as a room without doors. “There’s no escape, just a hard surface that I keep ramming into over and over, a reminder of the immutable reality that I will never see her again,” she writes, crafting the sort of sentence that might make one put the book down for a second and say “damn” to no one in particular.
Aware of what some might think, Zauner didn’t mention her music career at all in the first draft, and admits that she was a bit nervous that some people would think her book was “about how I came to be Japanese Breakfast,” she says. But she knew the time she spent taking care of her mother, watching helplessly and trying her best to be strong because those were the only available options, was something unique, something that could resonate even if you think Stereogum is an exotic flavor of mint.
Zauner’s literary agent, Brettne Bloom of the Book Group, met her after she won an essay-writing award for a Glamour piece about how learning to cook kimchi helped her feel connected to her mother. At the time, Zauner’s focus was on her music, but they stayed in touch, and after finishing the New Yorker piece “with tears in my eyes,” Bloom knew it was the first chapter of a book.
“She is a born storyteller, and this instinct influences everything she does—from the way she cooks to the way she approaches her personal style to her songwriting to her prose,” says Bloom, who is glad her client waited just long enough to begin writing. “I think Michelle wrote this book at the perfect time in her life—she had some distance from the trauma of losing her mother and therefore she was able to examine it from all angles. She was able to see how this loss shaped her work and her sense of self, but she was still close enough to the experience that she remembered it with tremendous specificity.”
Bloom also has no regard for anyone who might think 32 is too young to write a memoir. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if a writer of Michelle’s talent is 22 or 42 or 92. Michelle writes with eloquent precision about experiences that are incredibly universal—the unique love between mother and daughter, the yearning to belong, the anguish of watching a loved one suffer and die, and the healing power of food and memory.”
Crying in H Mart received rave reviews upon its release in April, and debuted at no. 2 on The New York Times’ Best Sellers List, leading to this priceless tweet about the masterpiece that kept her from the top.
But still, we all know How the Internet Is, and Zauner did receive some criticism for the New Yorker essay from those who felt that a biracial woman with a Caucasian father and husband wasn’t an authentic enough source to write with authority on Korean food or identity.
“I was definitely the most worried about what, specifically, Korean people would think about the book. But ultimately I’m writing from my own personal history,” she says. “I’ve actually felt really relieved and excited, because I’ve talked to a lot of Korean American journalists who’ve felt this story resonated with them really deeply as a Korean person, and so I feel like I am OK.”
(Note: This interview took place a week after the mass shooting at three Atlanta-area spas and massage businesses that left eight people dead, six of whom were Asian women. Through her publicist and Twitter account, Zauner made it clear she wasn’t in a space to publicly comment on the horrific, rising wave of violence against the AAPI community, and didn’t want to come off like she was using a tragedy to promote her work. The Asian American Studies Program at Cornell University has a comprehensive list of resources for the AAPI community, if that might be of interest to you.)
Eugene, Oregon, was, in retrospect, a serene place to grow up. But at the time, Zauner felt isolated, “an indoor kid put in a very outdoor environment,” and H Mart recounts the many times she wished she could erase all but the white parts of herself. She got into indie rock as a teenager, as teenagers often do in the Pacific Northwest, finding comfort in the alienation anthems of Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie.
She began playing guitar at 16 as a solo artist, “just ’cause I don’t even think that being in a band seemed possible to me,” she says. “It’s like internalized patriarchy.” Not seeing anyone who looks like you can be discouraging, and she was getting discouragement from all sides.
“Growing up with an immigrant parent, it was something that [my mom] felt like was her job to protect me from how unrealistic that kind of goal was,” she remembers, with a slight grimace. “She forced me into piano lessons when I was 5 years old that I hated, but value now. But yeah, I think it’s really a funny paradox that many Asian parents force their children to learn an instrument at a young age, but God forbid they become genuinely interested in doing it and pursuing it as a career.”
Chongmi never got the chance to see Little Big League, the emo-ish group Zauner formed after graduating from Bryn Mawr College with degrees in creative writing and film, and moving to Philadelphia Rock City. “I think she had seen a couple of my shows when I was 16, a teen playing in Eugene,” says Zauner. “Everyone’s parents always say the same thing. ‘What are you saying? I can’t understand the words.’”
Zauner moved back to Eugene in 2013 after her mother’s stomach cancer diagnosis, taking care of Chongmi for the last year of her life and marrying her boyfriend and bandmate Peter Bradley shortly before her mother passed. She began channeling her pain into a series of homemade recordings, which she would later (in between working at a “hipster pizza place”) turn into Psychopomp, the official debut album by Japanese Breakfast, which was eventually released by mega indie label Dead Oceans in 2016. She quickly followed it up with 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet.
Channeling and updating the indie rock she grew up with, the albums were born of pain and confusion, but Zauner wrapped her ballads in enough chilly synthesizers and waved-out guitars that you could become lost in them, until a line like “I ran a mile and then another / Spent my nights by hospital beds” (from “Heft”) jostles you out of your reverie.
2017 was the year that, as Pitchfork’s Jillian Mapes wrote, indie rock was starting to finally become not so thoroughly dominated by white men. That fall, Japanese Breakfast headed out on tour with Mannequin Pussy, a ferocious and tuneful Philadelphia indie-punk band fronted by Marisa “Missy” Dabice. They’d had a lot of mutual friends in common, and had been online friends for a while. (It’s extremely worth pointing out that Mannequin Pussy recently released the Perfect EP, and it whips very hard.)
“There weren’t a lot of young women as the front people of rock bands, and so we felt a lot of camaraderie for each other, which is really nice considering you’re supposed to feel competition toward people,” Dabice says while calling from Philadelphia. “But we never really gave in to that. We started realizing that we might not be able to really hang out unless we went on tour together.”
Dabice recalls the 2017 outing as “definitely the most comfortable and at home I ever felt on a tour just because of how inclusive it felt,” she says, pointing to the “women performing and people of color performing and just, like, queerness on stage and seeing a crowd that was so diverse every night.”
The two became intensely close very quickly, bonding over a shared understanding of the pain of cancer and the terror of living with the uneasy knowledge that your body can betray you and life can be brutally unfair. Dabice is a teenage cancer survivor, and also moved back home for a while in her 20s to be a caregiver for her mother after she had a stroke.
“We have a lot of those same fears still,” she says. “Going through something that people don’t usually go through until much later in their life, this wall kind of starts to exist whether or not you want it to be between you and other people. And it takes years to find people who really understand what it felt like to be in that place. People can have sympathy and people can be empathetic, for sure, but it is different when you meet people who understand in a different way.”
And when you understand someone in a different way, it makes it easier to see when they’ve changed. Dabice spent the beginning of the pandemic rarely leaving her apartment, fearful because of her health history. But eventually, she and her partner began joining Zauner and her husband for epic, hours-long drunken nights of Settlers of Catan, replete with Renaissance Faire music blasting. (As is often the case with high-achieving individuals, Zauner is quite competitive, apparently.) One those nights, Dabice could tell her friend was in a different place.
“We’d spent an hour talking about how everything’s so fucked up, but it was really just finding the joy in being together and having fun and laughing and playing and doing really ugly makeup on her face,” Dabice says. “When I’m with Michelle, I definitely access the joy a lot more too. We’re both kind of like going, ‘We definitely exist.’”
If you feel bad that you didn’t get around to finishing your King Lear during quarantine, do know that Zauner finished Jubilee before everything shut down. Which was kind of her, because finishing off two magnum opuses in a year would have made the rest of us wonder what we’re doing with our lives. (Though she did drop an EP as Bumper, a collaboration with her friend Ryan Galloway of the band Crying, a collection of dance pop so exuberant it makes Carly Rae Jepsen look like a wallflower.)
The two projects informed each other, she feels, and closing the book on the worst era of her life has allowed her to start a better one. “I think after writing two records about grief and suffering and trauma, and then a whole book about that experience, it felt like I was ready to write about something else in my life. I felt like flinging myself to the opposite end of the spectrum and challenging myself to write about something new,” she says. “It’s been six years since my mom passed away, and I am someone that is capable of joy and fascinated by it.”
The newfound desire to fight for happiness, to allow sadness to be just a part of her, is right there on the album cover, an explosion of color and life compared to the more muted images associated with her earlier. Zauner is eating a persimmon, a popular snack in East Asia, a “very hard, bitter fruit that matures into this very sweet dried fruit.” The album is drenched in yellow, a color of joy and rebirth. Being a fan of geek culture, she knows some will think she’s referencing the X-Men character Jubilee (one of the most high-profile Asian superheroes), and she’s fine with that too. “It was the first time that I also really allowed myself to be front and center in an album cover.”
She originally planned to release the album last year, and was all set to film a video for “Be Sweet” that would have involved “kids running around New York City and touching each other’s faces.” She didn’t want to sacrifice her vision for the live shows, “and music videos have become such an important part of the Japanese Breakfast Universe, and not having that was really devastating.” So she decided to wait until she didn’t have to scale down, even if she would occasionally look at the fervor around Fiona Apple’s acclaimed quarantine staple Fetch the Bolt Cutters and think, “Am I being too markety about finding the correct time to release this? Someone like Fiona Apple is just such a true artist that does not give a shit about this kind of thing.”
In H Mart she says there was a time in her life when she entertained the idea of being a music journalist, and often thinks of her catalog in terms of narrative. She worried about the sophomore slump for Soft Sounds From Another Planet, and having survived that, she knew it was time to level up.
“I found myself looking at other artists that I really admired with tremendous third LPs, like Wilco or Björk, and feeling like, ‘OK, it’s the third album,’” she says, “It’s time to flex every muscle and really assert who you are and what you’ve become as a musician and the skill set that you’ve developed, and open up the world to other musicians that you know and have met.”
Jubilee is indeed a big step forward, one concerned with the hard work of cutting out toxic people and forcing yourself into the light, making yourself feel grateful for what’s good in your life. Coproducing alongside longtime confidant Craig Hendrix, she took music theory lessons and pushed herself to cowrite string arrangements for the seasick ballad “Kokomo, IN,” an ode to enjoying a moment even if it won’t last or isn’t perfect. For closer “Posing for Cars,” she steps up to drop, frankly, the sickest solo indie rock has seen since, depending on how deep you go into the emo scene, the War on Drugs’ “Up All Night” or Foxing’s “Lich Prince.” It’s a pull-down-the-sky moment reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Sonic Youth at their most grandiose, one only capable of by an artist who knows they can do whatever they set out to achieve.
Originally, she planned to ask her friend Meg Duffy of Hand Habits to handle the solo but decided it had to be her. Noting that “I was really inspired by the Wilco song ‘At Least That’s What You Said.’”
“‘Posing for Cars’ starts as this very sweet observation of how two people in a relationship can love each other, and I wanted to have this long, sprawling solo, this kind of sonic narrative, where everything that can’t be said in the lyrics or in that moment out loud can be expressed through the guitar.”
Jubilee was introduced to the world with “Be Sweet,” a Janet Jackson–inspired indie-pop banger she wrote with Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing. With its effervescent, dancing-on-molecules mien, it looks to be this era’s answer to Phoenix’s “Lisztomania,” the Song of the Summer for a certain type of music listener and the soundtrack to house parties and new beginnings that will, at least, be better than what we all just lived through. (Right?)
Zauner directed the endearingly goofy “Be Sweet” video, which was equally inspired by Spike Jonze’s video for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and The X-Files, which fits into the whole “I want to believe” lyrical motif. (She swapped out FBI agents for cop show tomfoolery, “’Cause, like, fuck the police. We’ll be special agents that are observing aliens.’”)
She’s been directing her own videos, working alongside her director of photography Adam Kolodny, since he handed over the reins after they codirected “Everybody Wants to Love You.” She’s grown into one of the most imaginative music directors in the field with a sharp eye for the beguiling power of color contrast. Her latest video, for the rich-guy takedown “Savage Good Boy,” stars Michael Imperioli, the Sopranos star turned popular indie-rock Instagram influencer. But the “Be Sweet” video was just a bit more personal, as she recruited Dabice to be her co-agent, thus cementing the public image of the pair as the indie Tina and Amy, aspirational friendship goals for anyone who’s ever felt attacked by a low Pitchfork score.
Dabice was impressed by Zauner and Kolodny’s attention to detail (the lyrics to “Be Sweet” are written out in binary code in one scene), but she’s even more impressed with the relentless generosity of her friend, who pushed her to start directing Mannequin Pussy’s videos, starting with “Drunk II.”
“It was definitely something I was interested in, but didn’t think I could do. I had written this big treatment and asked Michelle to direct it. And she was like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And then I just said everything I wanted in the video and all these things, and she was like, ‘You are a director. I know you. You’re like the same as me. You already thought of everything that a director would do. You should just do it,’ and that gave me the confidence to be like, ‘Just because I haven’t done something before doesn’t mean I couldn’t learn it.’ When your friend is Michelle and she believes in you, it’s definitely infectious and you believe in yourself as well.”
(Ever a bestie, Zauner also stepped up for Dabice when the buzzy HBO drama Mare of Easttown wanted the show’s high school band Androgynous to cover a few Mannequin Pussy songs in a scene. Since they were on tour, Zauner showed up on set and coached the actors on how to look like they were really in a group.)
Zauner is already an impressive multi-hyphenate who’s directed for other artists (including a video for the Phoebe Bridgers–Conor Oberst collaboration Better Oblivion Community Center), hosted a Vice cooking show, and acted in an episode of Search Party at the behest of director Carrie Brownstein, and she’s currently working on the score for the video game Sable. But it’s possible we have yet to see the full scope of her vision just yet.
“I’m working on a feature, and I know that she’s working on a feature, too. So we’re kind of planning a getaway to get into that headspace of just writing all day and then like sharing our work,” says Dabice. “I think we’ll be seeing a feature film directed by Michelle Zauner sooner than we might think.”
Until then, the hyperproductive Zauner is still planning her next step. “I’m kind of just really looking forward to the world opening back up and hopefully getting to go on tour again and having some life experience to figure out what I want to do next,” she says. But of course, she can’t help but think about what her next book might be.
“I don’t know when I could possibly have time for this, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely Korean in some ways or connected to my Korean heritage without becoming fluent in the language,” she says. “And I’m sure that once I become fluent in the language, I will still suffer from feelings of not belonging, but I think that I would love to create the space for myself to study Korean for a year and actually live in Seoul for a year.
“I think even people who don’t have this mixed identity, there’s also something that’s really interesting about being an older person, someone in your 30s ... ‘Am I too old to learn something?’ I think everyone has that anxiety, and I would like to explore that.”
Even though she has found some healing, much of the Michelle Zauner Cultural Experience is still heavily associated with grief. The trauma of the pandemic, and the loved ones many lost—often through the callous neglect of an unfair system—is still fresh, even as the world begins to reopen. And it’s an obvious but sad statement that someone somewhere loses someone dear to them every single day. For them, Zauner also has wisdom to offer.
“It’s different for everyone. Be incredibly gentle with yourself, and find something or someone to help keep you grounded,” she says with a weary and knowing smile. “Let yourself really feel it and go through it. Because it’s just gonna take time.”
Michael Tedder is a freelance journalist who has written for Esquire, Stereogum, and Playboy. He is currently working on a book about the Myspace music era for Chicago Review Press. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.