If her larger-than-life Coachella 2022 performance is anything to go by, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast has mastered turning her emotions into art. That same spirit of exorcism and celebration has driven everything she’s done over this past whirlwind year.
Last November, the Recording Academy gave the singer-songwriter’s experimental indie rock band nods in the Best New Artists and Best Alternative Music Album categories for their breakthrough 2021 album, ‘Jubilee’. In spring of the same year, her memoir Crying In H Mart made the New York Times best-seller list.
The novel – which sees Zauner writing with painstaking detail about experiencing the loss of her mother to pancreatic cancer, her deep connection with food, and the reconciliation of her Korean-American identity – is now being made into a feature film. It all looks great on paper, but how has it felt to live it?
“It’s been a dream come true,” Zauner tells NME. “I feel very at peace and happy. This year is about enjoying myself. I’ve been saying this very nerdy thing, ‘My number one job is to have fun.’ This year is about enjoying these gifts.”
The band’s jubilant Grammy-nominated record opens with ‘Paprika’, a track comprised of synth, strings, and Zauner interrogating herself over lush orchestration. In the song (which was inspired by Kate Bush and a particularly productive mushroom trip), she asks, “How’s it feel to be at the centre of magic / To linger in tones and words?” before inquiring, “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers / To captivate every heart?”
Japanese Breakfast’s Coachella set, which takes place under the festival’s Mojave tent on a crowded, dry, and dusty Saturday, kicks off with the same melodic questionnaire.
Performed with a buoyant and brightly-dressed Zauner dancing and striking a gong, she answers her queries by repeating the lyrics: “it’s a rush”, and the song takes on new life. ‘Paprika’ is no longer a prophecy of what her music could potentially mean to people. Now, standing on stage at the country’s most infamous music festival, it’s a living tribute to her self-created reality.
We sat down with Zauner backstage following her set to talk about writing a joyful album as a “grief girl”, where she’s at with the Crying In H Mart screenplay, and how she’s giving herself permission to feel joy.
Hello Michelle. You’re on the other side of a banner year. Do you ever have a hard time enjoying your success?
Michelle Zauner: “Last year I was riddled with anxiety about ‘Do we deserve to be here? How do I work to feel like I deserve to be here?’ Then, we did a lot of touring and got the band and the production to a place where I was really proud of what we did. Now I’m just like, ‘All right, it’s OK to enjoy your rewards’.”
Speaking of enjoying rewards, how was it to get on stage at Coachella? You seemed to be genuinely having a great time.
“Totally! I kept thinking about where we were as a band in 2018 when we played here for the first time, how nervous we were, and how huge of a deal it felt. It feels like a big deal now, too, but totally different. I feel so much more confident and secure in who I am and what we do than I ever was before. It just felt comfortable.”
We got to hear a lot of tracks from ‘Jubilee’ during your set. For you, was writing the album about pointing yourself in the direction of joy, or was it more about realising that joy and grief could exist in the same place?
“I think it’s both of those things. I wanted to get away from writing about grief even after ‘Psychopomp’ our first album and I wasn’t ready to because it was so fresh. So then I had to write ‘Soft Sounds [From Another Planet]’, and then Crying In H Mart in order to say everything I needed to about that experience.”
So putting the second album and book into the world allowed you to exorcise that grief?
“It made room for me to creatively focus on a different part of life, you know? I just thought ‘What a surprising theme to write about as someone who has this narrative of [being a] grief girl’. Also, the genre of indie music is rooted in sensitive sadder stuff. I thought it was a fun challenge and a surprise to write an album about joy. It’s an album about all the facets of joy. It’s about giving yourself permission to feel joy. It’s about questioning if you can feel joy. It’s about struggling to feel joy in music, or joy in relationships, and moving away from people who take joy away from you. I thought it was a broad enough theme to explore from all these different angles.”
Now there’s going to be a movie adaptation of the book. Do you have any updates on where you are with that?
“I’m writing the screenplay. I finished the first draft and I’m working on revisions right now. I’ve never done this before, so I don’t know what the next steps are! I think I finish the revision and we give it to the studio and see what their revisions are and then I do those and then hopefully they go off and make the movie.”
There’s a part in Crying In H Mart where you talk about pretending you didn’t have a middle name to avoid ridicule. Do you feel that through ‘Jubilee’ and the book that you’ve been able to come back to yourself?
“Absolutely. Even when I first started out in bands I never wanted to talk about my race and I always stood in the back of the band and never wanted to be in the centre. I also wanted to be taken seriously as a woman in music, so I dressed a certain way. It’s so funny because it was only when I started really embracing who I was and writing what felt the most honest, that people really responded. It was almost meant to be. I’m really grateful because I love our fan base and it’s so easy to be myself because I built something based on who I really am.”