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#Japanese Breakfast on Jubilee, writing through grief, and scoring her first video game

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Read The FADER’s 2018 cover story on Japanese Breakfast

#Japanese Breakfast on Jubilee, writing through grief, and scoring her first video game

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Japanese Breakfast on Jubilee, writing through grief, and scoring her first video game
Read the full transcript for the third episode of The FADER Uncovered Season 2.
By The FADER, Mark Ronson

Japanese Breakfast on <I>Jubilee</i>, writing through grief, and scoring her first video game”></p>
<p> L: Tonje Thilesen via press | R: Ethan Holland for The FADER </p>
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Every now and then an artist graces the cover of The FADER who I’ve actually never heard of. And that’s no surprise considering the point of The FADER is to be ahead of the curve. Plus I’m not exactly out in the streets like I was 15 years ago. Japanese Breakfast was one of those bands. In fact, until yesterday, I’d never actually heard their music. And then while starting my research for this interview, I hit play on track one of their debut album “Psychopomp” and I had the most wonderful reaction. There’s something so special about hearing a record that’s been around for awhile, but you’re hearing it for the first time and you’re thinking to yourself, wow, I can’t believe my ears have been missing this for five years. All these times I’ve been scrolling uninspired, trying to think of what to listen to.

And this album was just out there the whole time waiting for me to discover it. I was completely taken with the lo-fi shoegaziness of it, with these great synth sounds. Everything’s slightly distorted, bleeding into each other and atop it all, Michelle’s Zauner’s wonderful vocals, cutting through the whole thing. Basically the most sugary sweet you can get while keeping with the whole indie coolness of it. Yes, I was an instant fan of Japanese Breakfast. And as I listened through that and her wonderful follow-up albums, Soft Sounds from Another Planet and her most recent Jubilee, it was very easy to see why the indie world has been falling all over itself the past five years to anoint Michelle Zauner, who is to Japanese Breakfast, what Trent Reznor is to Nine Inch Nails, to anoint her this special force in dream pop, shoegaze, lo-fi, whatever you want to call it.

Okay. So then after I listened to the albums and I did a little more research, I was also slightly embarrassed to learn that she had just released a New York times bestselling memoir called Crying in H Mart based on an extremely popular New Yorker short story she wrote about losing her mother to cancer back in 2016. I quickly jumped on my bike, rode across town to the bookshop, and I picked up a copy. The book instantly draws you in. It’s earnest, heart rendering, engaging, so funny. Zauner and her mother’s Korean heritage figure very strongly from the jump. And you can smell and taste the sensations as Zauner describes walking through the H Mart, the Korean supermarket, devastated, mourning her mother’s loss. Plus it is probably the most pork references that a Jew like myself has ever sat through. I would have finished the book the same night, except hurricane Ida came through and like many New Yorkers by 9:00 PM, I was desperately scooping bucket after bucket of water, out of my basement.

And when you think what happened to many, we were the lucky ones. Back to Zauner, though. On top of the music and literature, she also scored the immersive video game Sable, which she’s been working on, on and off again for the past four years, creating ambient dreamscapes for all these multiple worlds. She directs many of her stand out videos. The last of which starred Michael Imperioli, AKA Christopher from The Sopranos. So expect a Sopranos pitstop later on in this interview. And she’s about to embark on a world tour, which includes four consecutive nights at Brooklyn Steel. Kind of amazing for a band who thought the pinnacle was opening for Mitski at Music Hall of Williamsburg. I started out the day knowing nothing about Japanese Breakfast and ended the day a full fan. But that’s the joy of discovery, especially when you’re talking about a singularly driven creative polymath, like Michelle Zauner, AKA Japanese Breakfast.

Read The FADER’s 2018 cover story on Japanese Breakfast

Japanese Breakfast on <I>Jubilee</i>, writing through grief, and scoring her first video game”></div>
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Mark Ronson: Was it a big deal to you being on the cover of The FADEr? Did you know what The FADER? Oh, you talk in your book that you had a friend who was an editor at The FADER, so you obviously knew what The FADER was.

Michelle Zauner: Yeah.

Did you care about it?

It was a huge deal to me.

It was? Okay.

And I felt really lucky to be honest. I was like, why me? And I was like, oh, did Duncan get an inside?

Was your friend still at The FADER?

He was. Yeah. I don’t know how much pull he had for that, but it was really cool because he always looked out for me, but then he got fired right afterwards.

After your cover?

Did I have a part in that?

Was that one of your first magazine covers as well?

Yeah.

How long have you lived in New York for?

We moved here in January 2020 and I was like, here begins my New York life and just spent the last year and a half inside.

Because you were in Philly before that?

I was in Philly before that. I lived in Greenpoint for a year in 2016. And then once my music career started up, I was like, I don’t think I can afford to live here anymore. So we moved back to Philly for the next few years while my music career was building. And then in 2020, I was able to afford to live here again. So I came back.

Because I do want to ask you back to your friend at The FADER. I guess it was after a Little Big League had stalled. You were like, okay, maybe music isn’t going to make it for me. You were actually coming in to talk to him because you thought maybe you’d get a job working at The FADER. Right?

Yeah. I was a creative writing major in college and thought that I could make it as a journalist. It was a major struggle for me. I’d been playing in bands since I was 16. I was 25 and getting pretty tired of the cycle of go on tour, get fired from a restaurant job, find a new one, go on tour, make no money, sleep on the floor. No one gave a shit about the band. And it just seemed like at 25, I should probably have a backup plan. And also our bass player who was the dad of the band had just been offered to tour with another band that he had been told was going to be Jimmy Fallon big.

Yes.

And so without that bass player, I was like, this band is also probably about to fall apart just because he was that guy in the band that kept things.

Yeah. A little more pro or organized.

Yeah. And also just the peace maker. Just always the chill guy. He was the Mick Fleetwood of our band.

And then you had a song, obviously, “Jimmy Fallon Big,” you wrote as a tribute. Your band ended up being a huge thing. And is he still in this band? Did he come back and join your band again?

He was in that band for three or four years, I think. And they never played Jimmy Fallon. They played Seth Meyers and then they fired him. And then around that time, my band was starting to take off and I was like, come join this band. But when I wrote that song, I wasn’t mad at him. It was a sadness because that’s your brother. And you’re like, I get that you have a better opportunity. I’m just sad that we’re not there. We couldn’t build that together. And then yeah, just this year we played Jimmy Fallon…

I saw. That’s amazing. That must’ve been nice.

It was great full circle moment.

I produced a comedy album for Jimmy Fallon. His one full length music song, comedy record, back in 2000, and I think it was ’03, called The Bathroom Wall and I did a song called, “Idiot Boyfriend” doesn’t matter.

I’ll have to check it out.

But we became friends then because he’s lovely, very funny and charming. And we’ve got to be close while I was producing his record. And it was this pop-punk thing. These songs called “Road Rage” and “Snowball Hit You in Your Fucking Face.” And then he went to go out on tour and I was like, oh, ‘I’ll get you the best band’ because I knew guys who were in these New York punk bands like Civ and Gorilla Biscuits and stuff. He was like, ‘no, no, no, no. It has to be bad band. Because it’s me. It’ll look so cheesy if I’m fronting these super pro musicians.’ Then I was like, ‘well then can I play?’

Because he was going on tour with The Strokes and The Mooney Suzuki, these great bands and we were opening them. We went on and there would be half of The Strokes’ fans or we’d play this K-Roq Christmas thing and we’d be sandwiched between Queens of the Stone Age and Coldplay. And people would just be pelting us with panties because he’s the pretty boy from fucking SNL playing punk songs. But when it was great, it was really great. Were there any flashes of oh, ‘we might make it with this band or the glimmer of hope? Or was it always this sludge?’

I think that we kept it going because we thought we were just paying our dues.

Yeah.

And I think then in a way I was. By the time Japanese Breakfast started to take off, I felt so prepared of just little things of what to do when your pedals are fucked up and how to not freak out if… Just things to avoid.

Yeah.

We were just smart about it by the time that it started working out.

Mark’s microphone drops Do you feel like you are watching a lead vocalist adjust their own mic? We haven’t done any of these really in person.

I know. I wanted to thank you. I just really wanted to see your studio and I feel like my internet is always fucked up, so I don’t want to do Zoom and I’m a huge fan. I wanted to meet you. When I found out that I got to do this, I was listening to all of your Spotify hits.

Thanks. That’s very sweet. Yeah. This is so much fun to do this in my actual studio and walk in and see you looking at synths and gear. When Japanese Breakfast started to gain this popularity and acclaim, did you at least feel like you’d earned it a little because of all the times that you’d spent in these other things, slogging it out on the road?

Yes. Absolutely.

Yeah.

I felt like a late bloomer, but I was really grounded by the time that things started happening for me. I was able to build a really good thing. Whereas I think that if it had happened right away for me, I would have taken it for granted.

Yeah. For me that moment happened a little later in life. I was already 31. I think you were how old? 24.

Oh gosh. I was 26 when Psychopomp came out I think.

Yeah. I definitely thought that my career was… I’d been knocking at it for 10 years. Maybe even 13, counting 18 years old when I got my drum machine making demos. And at 31 I’d had a record that came out that sold 10 copies. Also, a lot of people that I really liked that were my peers, hard to even believe, but Kanye, later on Danger Mouse, just were skyrocketing. I had to just look at it and not in some really sad, sobbing myself to sleep. I was like, maybe I’m not as good at this as I thought I was. I love journalism actually. Like you said, there was a lot of things. I was doing music for Hyundai commercials in Japan just to keep the lights on. And I just was like, well fuck it.

If I’m not good enough to make hits, I might as well make the music that I like. And I just started making shit that I liked. And then I made this record Version, which at the time, and I was making, and then I met obviously Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen and people who had enormous amounts of talent. But I think it was because I was just like, well, if I’m never going to make a hit, I might as well make the shit that I like. And there’s something about, they call it what? The power of surrender, do you think?

Oh my gosh. Yeah. I’ve never heard that, but that is absolutely what happened to me, I feel like. I mean, after my mom died, I was like, this is the sign that it’s over. I was already floundering from after I got out of college to 25 in this band. And I was like, this is a sign. You’re 25 years old. It’s time to grow up. And after my mom died, I moved to New York to get a job in advertising or literally was out to just get a job doing whatever it took to make money.

Yeah, I know you must be so exhausted talking about your mom when you just wrote a book about it, but just for people who might not know the full story, because it is quite woven and we don’t have to overdo it. But this story that the book is about ,the grief of losing your mom, who you’re extremely close with. And that really happened in between these two bands. Right?

Yeah. So I moved back to Eugene, Oregon where I’m from in 2014 and my mom had a really aggressive stage four cancer. And I lived there as a caretaker for six months. And after she died, I lived there for another six months helping pack up the house. And my one quiet insular thing that was separate from just the slog of helping my dad pack up this house was I would go to this little shed at the bottom of the property. My parents lived out in the country and I would write songs about what had happened because I just didn’t know how to communicate with other people, which is odd because I’m very open book, chatty gal. And I just didn’t know how to talk to people about what had happened. And so this was my way of communicating that to myself or sorting through it. And I just had no ambition at all of this record that I was making in this cottage. It was just for me. And then over the next year I worked on arranging it.

I had a friend, Ned Eisenberg, who had an apartment in Crown Heights and I would just go over there and the two of us would mix it after I got off of my nine to five job. I would drive in rush hour traffic to Crown Heights. And he would work on the songs in FL Studio. He was a brilliant producer and originally we were just going to be mixing it, but he started adding all these samples and synth lines to things I had recorded in Oregon. And then I just thought I’m going to trick a small label to put out this record. And I sent it out to 10, very small, not even known indie labels and no one wanted to put it out, except for this very small label in Frostburg, Maryland called Yellow K Records that was funded by this guy’s vape shop in Frostburg, Maryland. I told them up front, I’m not going to tour. I’ve done that. It’s not going to happen for me. I have this nine to five job. I just want to press 500 copies on vinyl. And over the next 10 years, maybe we’ll slowly sell them.

Yeah.

And then he was like, okay, I’m going to hire a PR person. I was like, why? Waste of money. In the press release, I didn’t tell anyone that it was this record about losing my mom, but I had put her photo on the cover and had been very open in the interviews that followed.

Is this the first full length?

This is the first full length.

Psychopomp.

And so I think because I had surrendered and decided that this was never going to happen for me, the universe was like, oh no. Now it’s your time.

Yeah. It’s strange because listening to it and knowing a little bit about your story, just from reading that FADER cover, it’s deceptively joyful in some ways. I thought that record, it combined so many things that I love. It has the snythism, these amazing melodies. It’s just a swirl of sound because everything’s just distorted the right amount where it’s just bleeding into each other and you can’t tell what instruments doing what. My Bloody Valentine meets The Go Team. It’s a lot of shit that I really love. And I probably should go back and read the lyrics at some point, because I was just like, oh, this is, I wouldn’t say fun. That sounds trite. But I always am a little bit melody and beat first and then lyrics second. That was the record that you were really channeling your grief and what was going on with your mom through.

Most of the songs on there. Some of them were old songs that we kinda revamped.

I think the first thing that struck me about Psychopomp was the guitars. I just assume because it was just some super cool alternative band with a Sci-fi name, that it would be some eccentric post electronic thing. And I guess there’s some edict in my head that guitars have stopped being cool. We’ve run out of ways to make them interesting. And now synths and program music are the dominant force in alternative music, whatever alternative music means. You get these indie bands falling all over themselves to reinvent themselves, to sound like new R&B. And I find it all a little exhausting. So when I heard Psychopomp and the guitars, I was like, fresh. I mean, maybe it’s the old guy in me, but I do miss guitars and I’m not even really a guitar guy, but an instrument is really only as cool and progressive as the person wielding it and the songs that it’s being used to play.

It makes sense that in this reinvention of shoegaze and indie pop through Michelle Zauner’s lens, it does feel vibrant and exciting because she is vibrant and exciting. I came up listening to bands like Lush, My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth who made wonderfully inventive music with guitars by playing with sonics and tunings. And I feel some of that here. As Zauner’s music progresses, the production and sonics do evolve, but inversely it’s some of the more conventional alt-rock elements that make her music really stand out to me.

So was it quite a guitar record until you got with Ned and started adding the samples?

Yeah.

It’s not like I was some fucking indie rock or a punk kid, but I do sometimes lament the lack of guitars in any cool music. It’s almost impossible to make something cool now and of its time and have guitars in it. You’d have to be doing something really interesting and new with the thing or you just have to be so fucking cool yourself and interesting that just by nature of you being of the time. I did love that about, even though your music has all these other things. What were your first loves? It seems guitars and that’s quite an important thing that you’ve stuck to through your… Is that an Oregon thing? Is that just what you love?

Yeah. Because I grew up in Eugene, I grew up with Pacific Northwest indie rock.

Right. What is that?

Very vulnerable, confessional lyrics with dynamic softy guitars.

Yeah. And who were some of the…

Elliot Smith and Death Cab for Cutie. We were really into Modest Mouse, Built to Spill. Bands like Granddaddy.

Right.

And also all the K Records bands like Mount Eerie and Microphones.

We’re going back to the 90s and early 2000s. Were there any bands contemporarily doing it at the time you did it? Or was everybody listening to this older generation?

Well, I feel like Modest Mouse and Deathcab were like coming out with their records in my teens, and so that was what I was really into.

So when you put out the first record, was there a moment that the show started to get bigger? People are hitting you up, however it is, social media. Was there a moment that you were like, oh, something’s clicking in?

Yeah, I mean, I think there was a, you know how it is, it’s like there’s a series of moments that happens. Like, I have exceeded all of my grandest ambitions at this point in time.

Yeah, yeah.

But we literally started touring in a Honda Odyssey minivan. Our first north American tour was five weeks opening for Mitski in a minivan, with a little turtle top where we put all of the merch. And even then I was like, ‘something is happening’ because it was the first proper north American tour that we were on. We were getting paid $250 a night. And I was like, this is great, I’m doing it. And then from there it was just like slowly getting bigger. And I remember being on that tour and being like, if I ever get to where Mitski’s at now as a headliner, selling out Music Hall of Williamsburg with our name on the marquee, I’ve made it. I can just retire. And then you get there and we did that maybe like a year and a half later. And as soon as you get there, you’re like, what’s next?

Yeah, of course. So in the FADER, you’d just sold out two nights at, what’s the one in San Francisco? The Great American Music Hall, or something? I think that’s where you were playing at the time. Yeah.

Yeah.

And you say an interesting quote actually in the, I mean, you say a lot of interesting shit, but you were talking about how you sort of have no children and you’re sort of laughing about it and slightly apologizing for your energy, but you say something that I think a lot of people know, but maybe don’t know how to either say it in the right way, or like to pretend that they’re modest or humble. You say, “I’m aware I have this magnetism and this energy, that when I’m in a room. Yes, like I’m aware of it, and sometimes it’s great and sometimes I like it, and sometimes I’m like a little bit embarrassed of it.” But I liked that because I think most people are aware. I think that, I’m sure Lady Gaga is aware. She’s sitting in a room, she cannot be normal.

Right, right.

And it’s not just because she’s famous. I think people who do something really magical on stage, it’s not like that’s the only part of them. There’s something somewhere else in your body.

Yeah. I mean, I don’t even think that you have to be famous to have that. I think I just have always been a clown, you know? Like, I mean, I think my mom was like that too, where she had this kind of energy, where she was just chatty and social and unembarrassed and confident with who she was and just had a way of connecting with people in a room. And not everyone, I don’t know, I’ve always …

So you don’t think it’s an extra, so now are you feeling embarrassed or overly modest? Because like you don’t think that you have an extra …? I do think that the people that I’ve worked with, not to keep bringing it up, but the Amy’s and those people, they don’t necessarily court that attention. Like you said, you don’t have to be famous. There’s just, there’s some kind of like unquantifiable energy around.

I mean, I certainly hope so, but I also feel like part of that is just, I’ve never shied away from being the center of attention. It’s always come fairly natural to me to be like a clown. Even in after school activities, we were always just like leading some kind of tirade. I remember doing an interview with Pitchfork and she was talking about reading my book. And she was like, when you’re talking about starting out in music, you never talk about being nervous. And I don’t really remember ever feeling that way. In a weird way I feel more nervous about where I’m at now and proving that I deserve to be here, than when I first started out, because it was just like, who cares? This is me. And this is my creation. And I think it’s amazing and I want to share it and that’s the path.

You don’t have that moment even, like a lot of people have the five minutes before you go on the stage? Like those crazy nerves?

I do. But I feel like it’s exciting. I mean, you would be like a sociopath if you never felt anything.

No, I have the worst, I mean, even going out before a DJ gig. It could be 300 people, it could be 10,000 at a festival and like vomiticiously nervous. I mean I’ve learned to control it a little bit because I realize that some of those are just imposter syndrome issues, or whatever you want to label it.

That’s incredible that you have imposter syndrome.

Yeah. And that’s another episode. I mean, even in that FADER cover, you say you’re a shark, like you had a lot of anxiety and depression that you dealt with from adolescence on. So you just had to always keep busy and keep making things.

Yeah, definitely. It’s weird to hear this back, things that I said back in 2019, but yeah, I feel that’s true. I feel like that’s probably a lot of creatives where you just feel like, I need to make something otherwise I will just dwell on festering thoughts.

Yeah. And luckily you’re good at a lot of things. I mean, actually I love your videos.

Thank you.

Is “Savage,” what’s it called?

“Savage Good Boy.”

“Savage Good Boy.” Is that the most recent video or …?

Yeah.

Okay. I’ve been re-watching the entire Sopranos because my wife has never seen it.

Oh, it’s so good.

So every day we watch at least three hours of Michael Imperioli. So to suddenly having really not seen him, he’s frozen in my mind as like the year 2000, Christopher Moltisanti. And in your video…

He looks so good.

He looks amazing. And he’s still the same beautiful sort of Italian, like a fucking marble sculpture face, but white hair, beard, a much different Christopher… First of all, what was the idea behind casting him? Were you a big Sopranos fan?

Yeah, my DP and I are really big Sopranos fans and we had seen through his social media that he’s like in the scene. He likes, he loves shoegaze.

Oh really?

He loves My Bloody Valentine. He loves Moses Sumney. He just seems like he would be down.

Oh, that’s so cool.

And I felt like it was kind of a role that, it would be a really funny cameo. Like you would not expect him to play this type of character. And he’s instantly recognizable. And yeah, I was watching a lot of The Sopranos and you know, he’s like such a iconic character. And I couldn’t believe that he was down.

Just down.

Yeah.

And that song is about, well you tell me what the song is about.

Yeah. I had read a headline about billionaires buying bunkers and I just thought that the alliteration of that was nice. And the reality of it was haunting and timely. And I think that it’s really an interesting exercise to write from the perspective of a villain who’s psyche, you’re not really sure how to understand. And that’s one thing that’s so great about The Sopranos is that these are murderous, sometimes abusive, sexist …

Sociopath.

… racist men. Yet you can’t help but root for them. And there’s so much gray area in villainy, I guess. Or there’s, no one thinks that they’re the villain, and I think that what makes a villain so haunting is that they rationalize what they’re doing is for something good. All of these men are doing these crimes because that’s how they put food on the table, that’s how they protect their family. And when I think about billionaires rationalizing that high level of wealth, I think that they’re all just like, well, what if this, this and this happens and then I’ll have nothing. Or I need to play this game. This is how capitalism works and I’m just doing a good job and I’m doing this for my family. I’m doing it to protect our lineage.

And I just thought that taking on that voice would be a really interesting way of trying to understand where that sort of rationalization comes from. And so in my mind that song is about a billionaire kind of coaxing a young woman to live with him in this bunker as the world burns around them. It comes off as maybe somewhat romantic initially, and becomes more and more menacing as the song goes on.

I have to say while I was watching the video and you can just nod or say nothing, but I was just like, oh, this is Elon Musk and Grimes. I mean, that must be like the first thing that, or have you had that already? I guess that’s just somebody, that’s probably the only billionaire that I know of that definitely has a bunker, or that’s just like agitated us.

I feel like every billionaire probably has a bunker. I mean, I wasn’t thinking of Elon and Grimes and I’m such a fan.

I figured that you were.

Yeah, I mean I love her. I think that she has inspired so many women to take on production and engineering. And I think that she’s an incredible artist. And we excuse so many men for whatever. I’m like afraid to have this take.

No, no, no, don’t worry.

But yeah, I think it’s unfair. I don’t know, it’s just unfair to judge her and who she’s involved with.

Yeah. I was not even judging, but I was just like, wow, is that what their bunker looks like? I also was listening to the lyrics and it was almost just too much, the irony of, there’s a line in the thing where you’re talking about the floods, the streets are flooded, right? What is the line?

“When the city’s underwater, I’ll wine and dine you in the hollows.”

Yeah. And I’m still wringing out the towels and are like thrown everywhere because of New York basically being underwater last night… You’ve been published in The New Yorker. Was that a piece that became the book?

Yeah, that was the first chapter of the book.

How did that come about? Did you just submit it? I mean, that’s quite a huge accomplishment, especially if you were a creative writing major before music.

Yeah. It came about in a very strange way, where my label Dead Oceans had a connection to Michael Agger at The New Yorker. And they were like, we think it’d be really cool if you pitched an interactive website to help promote the album, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, my sophomore release. And I was like, I have no idea what that is, but I’m sure I could figure something out. And so we got on the phone with him. And he immediately, it was just like, I have no idea what an interactive website is, but if you have some writing, I will read it.

And in 2016 I had won Glamor magazine’s Essay of the Year for this other piece and had some response to that. So I had been slowly working on what I thought would be a book.

Right.

And so I turned in the first chapter of the book as a standalone essay. And it was pretty incredible because I only had the experience of being really torn apart in the editing process. And so I thought, oh, The New Yorker‘s really going to rip me a new one. And he just suggested that I change the ending. I deleted the last sentence and it went up as is, and it just was a huge, I mean, that’s how I got my book deal and had a huge response I never anticipated.

In your lyrics, in your music, there’s room for a lot of playfulness and irony. And I’m sure you’ve had to talk about this line a hundred times, but of course, when I was listening to “Boyish” for the first time, as soon as that line comes, is that “I can’t get you off my mind, I can’t get you off in general.” Just great lyrics, but …

Thank you.

… playful, ironic. And then your writing is actually quite earnest and almost like, I would have just pictured a different, yeah, like somebody who writes for The New Yorker and like a more earnest, like just a, I hate to say, but sort of nerdy, like not tattooed … I mean, I know these things are horrible stereotypes, but are you aware of that dichotomy between the two things that you do?

I mean, obviously you have just so much more space. And I think that the nature of songwriting lends itself to allowing things to be up for interpretation, whereas in prose you have to really guide someone to feel a certain way or understand a narrative arc.

Yeah.

So it’s very different. When I’d started, I was maybe a little bit cocky and thought I’d already overseen a number of large creative projects, that writing a book wouldn’t be too hard. But it was very different. I mean, I also just think that the subject matters, just a very intense, earnest thing to talk about. There’s not …

That’s what I mean. It’s also because you’re doing justice to the weightiness and the respect and the honor of this. And you talk in very honest ways about your relationship with your family and stuff. It deserves a different tone. Is that something …?

Yeah, certainly. There are definitely borrowed lines and I think that was one thing that was really interesting about writing a book. There were certain musical elements that I felt like I was bringing into it, even just like naming all of the chapters. It was kind of like naming the songs on a record and playing with a track list. But yeah, there’s a lot of lines in the book that are just borrowed from different songs, but they get to be kind of expanded scenes. Like on Psychopomp, “In Heaven” starts with “The dog’s confused, she’s pacing around all day, she’s sniffing at your empty room.” And that was about watching our 12-year old golden retriever just be like, ‘where the fuck is my owner,’ you know? And her just sitting outside of the room and she started licking her paws.

And so I went to the vet, thinking something was wrong. And the vet was like, has there been a big change? Because that’s what dogs do when they’re grieving. And I was just like, that’s so nuts to think this animal has no idea. Her mom just disappeared and all of the things that I have watched happen, she’s just had no idea, and how sad that was. And so that’s just a line that you can interpret probably in so many different ways of someone moving away or a relationship ending. And you get the dog and the partner’s gone, or whatever. There’s so many different ways to interpret that. But in a book you have to really show what is happening, and there can’t really be any mystery. You have to guide the reader in this very specific way.

Or in “Rugged Country,” there’s a line that’s “It’s a heavy hand where I wear your death as a wedding ring.” And in the book, I have to show that whole scene where my dad takes the ring off my mom’s finger and puts it on my finger. And I talk about how it feels like a physical weight because I’d never worn a wedding ring. So just this weight of this loss of being with me. But again, like in music, there’s so much sonically that’s going on, that you can interpret that to mean so many different things whereas it’s just the cold page in a book.

I’m very much beat first, lyrics last when I’m listening to music. When I think of my favorite rap songs, my mind instantly goes to the beat before I think of the lyrics. Although I have to say the very best ones do manage to marry both. “Hate It or Love It” by 50 and The Game, or “Reminisce Over You” by Pete Rock. I’ve actually never really grasped the magic of Dylan till much later because Dylan is lyrics first. And it’s also why my own music didn’t have much emotional depth until later on because I was always thinking like the DJ. What’s that fire beat that’s going to make people move or bob their head ferociously?

So after really enjoying the joyous sugariness of Psychopomp, I was a little embarrassed when I later realized the opening lyric of “In Heaven,” track one, was “The dog’s confused , she just paces around all day, she’s sniffing at your empty room.” The lyric refers to Zauner’s mother having passed and her dog doesn’t understand why she’s not there in the room. And here I am bobbing along to the sugary bop, unaware of the sadness of its meaning. But then again, what is music, if not the emotion that elicits in you, the listener? You don’t have to feel a certain way when you listen to a song. It’s however the music makes you feel. And it’s okay to tap your foot to a song about emotional duress. I mean, hell, that’s more than half of the classic R&B that I love. Try “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” by Stevie Wonder for starters. In some ways I’m glad I didn’t know the subject matter of the music till later, because I was allowed to have that first visceral reaction to the tunes, and then be taken in by the weightiness.

I have worked on albums when someone has written the entire thing based on a single event of grief or heartbreak. Back to Black, and most recently, Dawn by Yebba. It’s really tough to watch these artists go through it while we’re working on the record, reliving all these painful moments again and again, through the writing and performing of these songs. But you also watch them heal somewhat in the process. I imagine the making of the record was quite cathartic for Zauner, but you’re also aware it must affect her constantly having to address it and answer questions about this devastating life event.

I actually teared up, not to be corny, but you told the story about your mom. You’d gone back to Korea and you were just trying to get her to hold on because you wanted to bring her back to Eugene. And you actually decided to get married because of where she was.

I never really thought much about getting married. It was never really an important thing for me, but I knew that if I ever got married and she wasn’t there, it would always be very sad to think about, like what would she think of the dress? What would she think of the flowers? It would just be haunted by her. It would never be enjoyable. And I just felt like we had just lost everything. I mean, we had gone to Korea as a last vacation. We had found out that the cancer was terminal. She had only done two chemotherapy sessions, but her younger sister had done 24 chemo sessions before her. So she was like, I’m not doing that. And I want to live my life and I’m going to go to Korea. I want to say goodbye to my sister and my home country. And we’ll just have this really nice time together.

And then we went there, and we just immediately landed in the hospital. She got like horribly sick. She went into septic shock. They were about to put her on a ventilator. And when we came back into the room, she had kind of miraculously gotten some of her strength back. And I was like, okay, we have to get back to Eugene. And I called my boyfriend who I’d been with, for, I think like a year. We hadn’t been dating that long.

Right, and he’s in the band as well.

And he’s in the band, yeah. And I said to him, if this is something that you see us doing in the next like five years, and we don’t just do this now, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive you. And he was just like, ‘okay.’ I went back in the room and I was like, ‘mom, you have to get better because I’m going to get married. And we’re going back to Eugene, we’re going to throw a wedding.’ And it was kind of like a celebration of her life without having to say that. And we put a wedding together in three weeks and threw it in my backyard, my parents’ backyard. And a week later she went into a coma and passed away. Like she really held out to be there. And it was like a really beautiful, happy thing. But it was just like so much had, we just had nothing to look forward to, that I was just like this, we’ll look forward to this.

The thing that really got me is there’s a moment in the article where you tell the writer, you say, anytime she started to kind of wane, we’d be like, what color the chair’s going to be? And I kind of like, I lost it.

So Jubilee is the next record that you made after this. And you were like, I’m going to make a joyous record, I’m going to channel all this grief because I’ve been writing about grief and do that. So how did you go about making that record?

Yeah, so I had turned in the rough draft of Crying in H Mart. And I think even after Psychopomp I was like, I’ve written an album about grief, I want to write about something else. And I had tried to write this like sci-fi concept record, but it was two years after my mom had died and not much had changed mentally. So I still had so much to grapple with it that it ended up being about the sort of other stage of grief. So by the time it was the third album and I had written two records and an entire book about that experience I felt I had sort of said everything that I needed to say about grief and loss and it was time to tackle different subjects of the human experience. I wanted to shirk this grief-girl narrative I had come to be known as, as an artist. But, I also thought it was funny, in indie rock we’re all supposed to be really sad and broody. To write an album about joy that’s uplifting just seemed like a fun subject to tackle. It was just the total opposite end of the spectrum of human experience after writing about these fairly heavy topics. I wanted to write something lighter and forge a new path.

Did you make some of the record… Was it finished before lockdown or were you making that record during the pandemic?

It was all done before lockdown.

Okay.

We finished the record, I think, in December 2019 and, I think, took the album cover photo in February and it was set to come out in the summer of 2020. And then we just pushed it a year.

It’s amazing that you stayed on… You seem like you have a true indie spirit and an ethos, but I’m sure there’ve been offers to come and go to bigger labels and this kind of thing. But you put this out on Dead Oceans as well, right?

Yeah. I have a three-year record contract with them, or a three-album record contract them. But I like being on an indie… I’ve never recorded in a professional studio.

Right.

I think that that’s maybe the last album I’ll do in a friend’s warehouse studio space. I’d say it’s like the studio where we recorded Soft Sounds and Jubilee was Craig Hendrix’s studio who co-produced the last few records with me. And it’s definitely a tier higher than a bedroom studio, but it’s not like-

And it’s still a friend…

Right.

… So you just can’t help thinking of it as a friend, no matter what…

Right. Which was important to me because I think there’s a certain level of experimentation and playfulness and comfort of just being able to have that shorthand with one another and not be afraid of feeling stupid, especially having imposter syndrome and still figuring it all out. It was important for me to have that. And the two of us have a really wonderful working relationship, but I definitely see the benefit of being in a proper studio. And I’m excited to try on that new thing that we’ve never even done before.

Have you got to do any shows yet? Or do you have them on the cards?

Yeah, we went on tour last-

Oh, great.

… A couple of weeks ago.

Okay.

We did a two and a half week run and next week we’re going to do five weeks.

Wow. Where was the first show?

The first show was in Silver Spring, Maryland, outside of D.C. At the Fillmore. It was the first time I’d played at Fillmore, which was crazy because I remember seeing a DVD of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play the Fillmore in San Francisco. And so that let you out of that room was really exciting for me.

Yeah, it’s so legendary…

That was actually the biggest show that we’ve ever… Biggest headlining show that we’ve ever played. But yeah, it was strange because we were coming into tour during the honeymoon period of COVID where it was like, it’s over. We were vaxxed and there’s nothing to worry about anymore and we get to go back to our livelihood. But then a week into it, it was the Delta variant and getting masks and vaccine proof in place. And now it’s just kind of like, I don’t know what the future is going to look like. I don’t know when this is ever going to come to an end and if shows are even the right thing to be doing now.

Right. I imagine… Not only was it your first show, but I’m sure it was probably most people in that crowd’s first show. I’m just trying to get a sense of the energy. Was it just electric in this way or were you just…

It felt great. I felt shy a little bit. I don’t know. I don’t really have like much of a…

The banter?

Well, no. I’m fine with banter, but I don’t like leading the charge on a major communal issue.

Right.

It’s difficult for me to have confidence because I’m always thinking about so many different perspectives of the thing. It didn’t feel right to give a speech. I just wanted it to be an enjoyable evening where we just ignored the elephant in the room kind of.

Oh sure, yeah.

But yeah, I felt like my tour stamina was definitely majorly impacted by a year and a half off of just being around nine people all the time in a bus or having to talk to a large group or just… I used to be able to do multiple things on tour. A lot of the book was written on tour in my downtime, and this was just survival. I have to just do the one thing because I just don’t have the capacity to do multiple things right now. I think a lot of us are still just getting used to getting back to work.

Yeah. I had my first DJ gig and I don’t really play as many shows. I used to do five gigs a week. But a year and a half off of something that I’ve done at least 200 times a year since I was 18 years old, I really was sort of having… Not an existential crisis because I knew I was going to do it and it was probably going to be okay. But I was just readying myself with the fact it was going to kind of suck and I was over practicing and… There’s something bad also about over practicing or-

Wait, was this for a show, for a set show?

Just a DJ gig.

Oh, a DJ gig.

And I came off and I kind of thought it was terrible. I thought they were all going to pat me on the back and be like, “It’s okay. It’s been a while.” I thought I was going to get that. And everyone was like, “That was amazing.” I think people-

Right. The standards are much lower because just a loud sound is exciting.

Yeah. It’s true. And I think that everybody was excited. I think it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was. And actually, yeah, my first session back in the studio with somebody who I hadn’t met before… It was kind of a big star, I nearly canceled three times the week before because I’m like, “I probably don’t have any idea…”

How does that kind of session… I can’t even imagine. I mean, I guess I have some insight into that world, but…

Yeah. It was with Lizzo. We’d never worked together before. She’s a giant star. She’s extremely talented. I can tell she’s a creative force as well. And I was just like, “What am I going to do? I don’t have the fucking crazy drums. I don’t have the thing that everybody’s shit sounds like with huge 808s and things. I’m going to go in, and what if I just sit at the piano, I pick up the guitar and no chords, no intro progressions come out?”

But do you have chord progressions at the ready or do you just sit there and see what happens on the day?

No. Well, I had just been so cold and rusty through COVID because I’d been in an Airbnb for the first six months in England. And I was like, “I’ll finally learn Ableton and I’ll learn that shit.” And I’m glad I learned it and taught myself it, but I will never be as good at Ableton as people that started on that. And I was starting to hate my music because I do need…

Is it a Pro Tools rig here?

Sorry?

What do you work on?

Well, I just miss having all my outboard gear and weird effects shit to put things through that might make one sound that inspires me. Or there’s something maybe because of… It’s how I came up, that’s sitting at an upright piano will sometimes inspire me more and something better will come out then a mini keyboard. Or just any of this old gear probably because I’m used to it. It’s not so much a crutch as it’s I think it’s just part of my DNA.

So I was already hating all the music that I was making, and then I was about to go into the session with this big star. And then I was like, “Well, I’ll go four hours early and I’ll just try and fucking get out a couple little rough ideas so at least when she comes in there’s four things. Hopefully she’ll like one of them.” And then it worked, it was fine. And I actually surprised myself and I was like, “Oh, I love doing this. This is still the thing that when it locks into place that I’m probably supposed to be doing.” I started doing this podcast during lockdown and other shit because I was like, “Maybe I’m funneling out of music into the guy who makes music to the guy who talks about music. That’s fine.” I’m sorry to turn your at FADER podcast into my shrink session.

It’s really interesting too. There’s a lot going on that has changed everyone in this industry’s feelings about music, I think, because it’s just very different. What we do requires being in a room with other people or a lot of people. I don’t know, I think a lot of us are grappling with what… There’s so much unknown of just what is our purpose right now?

Yeah.

I’ve always had this very pure feeling about art and music that it is the most important thing. And it was the first year where that really faltered. And I was like, “I don’t know if it’s the most important thing. There’s so much going on in the world that it doesn’t really feel like my little song is very important.” And I think that we just do a very different kind of thing. We contribute in a very different way, but it’s certainly reliant on being able to survive first and coloring the world in this way that makes it enjoyable. But it was the first time that I think I really questioned what I was doing.

And did you have an idea… Were there thoughts in your mind of what you should do instead? Or were you kind of…

Just devote my entire life to climate activism or volunteering to take care of people without housing or something. You know what I mean?

Yeah.

Or get involved in politics. But I’m not… Maybe just everyone feels like, “Oh, but I’m supposed to be doing this thing, but we’re all supposed to be doing this other thing.”

This pandemic has had such an enormous impact on music. I’m starting to DJ out regularly for the first time in 18 months. And I have no idea what music to play. I mean, especially anything that came out in the last 18 months. For nearly 30 years, the only way I had to gauge if a song worked or if I really loved it was partly by playing it for a crowd. So I’m thinking to myself, have there even been any new songs in the past 18 months that are actually bangers? Or am I just going to play “Truth Hurts” and “Going Bad” by Meek Mill and pretend the last 18 months didn’t happen? Also maybe do people want to forget the last 18 months happened? Do people crave a different kind of mood while in lockdown? I.e., Is “Blinding Lights” forever tethered to our feelings of isolation?

But the truth is there’s no real way to know until you get out and play it. And that seems to be the same for many musicians I know going back out on the road, this fear of, “Do I still have it? Can I still connect? Will the crowd be removed? Well, they know how to let loose. Do I need to address the audience and the elephant in the room, i.e. the trauma of the past 18 months?” We all know the connection between band and audience or DJ and dance floor is one of the best feelings ever from both sides of the equation. But when you haven’t done it in such a long time, it’s very easy to have all these anxious thoughts bounding about your head, that is, until you just get out there and do it.

You did the entire score for… Can you explain to me the video game? Is that old news or…

No. That’s coming out at the end of this month.

Yeah. What is that called and can you explain?

It’s called Sable.

Okay.

And it’s an indie video game and I grew up playing video games with my dad when I was a kid. And I’ve always really appreciated that art form. And there are these two guys based in London who run a gaming development… I don’t know, it’s really just the two of them making this open-world desert exploration game called Sable. And the art is really beautiful. It looks kind of like Mobius meets a Studio Ghibli artwork. And yeah, I’ve been working on the soundtrack for four years and it’s about to come out at the end of this month. And I spent a lot of my lockdown working on Ableton just making ambient music.

I mean, I used to be into video games when I was growing up, but I don’t really know that much about it now. So now are video games… Do you literally mean it’s like a game you buy for a console, or is everything online and sort of played…?

It’s going to come out on Xbox on Game Pass.

Okay, so it’s a legit… Right.

It’s a legit indie game.

Yeah.

And I don’t know, I’ve never done it before. It’s a very new thing for me.

Is it hours and hours of making music and you give it to them and they do what they want to do? Or are they giving you scenes almost like a film to score?

It’s been different over the years. I was so excited to get started. And they invited me on very early.

So it’s been years you’ve been working on this.

It’s been four years. Yeah.

Holy shit.

When they first brought me on, it was a lot of just documents of just explaining what areas were like and then seeing little animated gifs of what they were working on, of what the character looked like, what the desert looked like. And then they’d send me this doc that was like… There’s glow worm cave, and there’s the dunes and the bad lands, and it has a lot of mountains in this area. And so initially I was just so excited to get started that I would imagine what the glow worm cave would look like and I would start writing… I was doing a lot of it on just MIDI plug-ins in Ableton in the van. I remember touring Europe and I was in the Sprinter working on writing what I thought would look like a glow worm cave.

And then a year would go by and I would see more photos or videos of the actual area and I’d be like, “Oh, that’s not what I envisioned.” And I would have to write a new track. And then another year would go by and I would actually get a playable build where I would go in and play the game and realize, “Oh, what I thought this campfire moment was going to be like is totally different when you actually play it,” or, “This area is totally different.” And so then I would write more material. But then, because I had started so early, I had so much material that then whatever didn’t work that I redid, I could find other areas to place it in.

Right. You seem like you have a good attitude about it. But it must be kind of annoying… Made me instantly think of the time when I’ve worked on a song, the singer leaves the studio and you work on it all night adding all these arrangement things that you love. And you even come in the morning, they kind of just like, “What did you do to the song?” Just that instant dejection that… I mean, honestly it only takes three minutes tops to get over it. But did you have that a bit, when you’re just like, “Fuck…”

I think because what I do is… I don’t do what you do ever.

Right.

And I’ve never been… Not to sound reductive, but, for me, I’ve always just directed everything. And I was so excited to be a cog in a creative-

To be directed.

Yeah. I just wanted to be the perfect creative employee, in a way.

Yeah. That’s nice.

It helped that I just really trusted their vision. I think that they’re incredibly talented. I think I just got really lucky where they didn’t really want that much changed. They were just happy with whatever I came up with. Very few times they were like, “Oh no, it’s more this vibe.” And they were just like, “Great. Put it in,” or whatever.

Have you ever written a piece of music by collaboration or creation, or is it always you and then you bring it to maybe the co-producer or something like that? Is your creative process… Does it all, lyrics, melody, music, have to come out of you, or do you write with people?

On this new record, it was the first time that I wrote with someone from the beginning. For “Be Sweet,” I worked with Jack Tatum from Wild Nothing and it was the first time that I just came… I went into a room in LA with nothing and came up with a synth line. He came up with the bass and the beat. And then I kind of started writing the progression from there with the melody and then the lyrics.

Did you like that process?

I think I’m more open to it now, but it is harder for me. Oh, I did this side project called Bumper with this guy Ryan Galloway from this very underrated band called Crying who is an incredible producer. And it was the first time that I kind of just wrote top lines on a couple of his very fully formed tracks. And then I maybe had a couple of small suggestions of what to do musically. But it’s not as fulfilling for me if I’m not… I actually was so miserable when I was… I was trying on in LA for a brief period of time writing with other people to send out. I don’t even know-

Not for yourself, but just to write.

Yeah. To see if I could write with someone. And I hated it because I also think that maybe just my role was always just like, “Oh, you’re the top line writer.” And it’s not as exciting for me to…

Your main instruments are guitar and keys when you write, maybe it would be even interesting to switch it the other way… If it wasn’t for you and you weren’t as precious about it because I always feel like great artists make amazing stuff when they’re writing in their head for someone else. I think Sia talks quite publicly that her whole last album was songs that other people didn’t take. But I know-

Totally. That’s what “Be Sweet” was. I thought I was going to be giving it to someone else.

Right.

And then when we were finished with it, I was like, “I love the song.” And it was this back pocket single I had for two years, three years.

Maybe that would be interesting as well for you to actually make the beat in the music and send it off to somebody else that you’d like to do the top line, and you completely…

Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if I feel like as competent or confident as a producer in that sense to do that. But I am really interested for the next record in two very different things. One, where I just completely produce it myself, and one where I work with just fucking eight writers and producers on… That’s one thing that I never

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