Grief supposedly takes place over five stages, but when one is expected to constantly discuss it, perform it, and revisit all of its correlated emotions and memories, that process is a bit more complicated. Michelle Zauner wrote Japanese Breakfast’s debut album, Psychopomp (2016), two months after the death of her mother, and has achieved critical successes and non-stop touring opportunities ever since. With her new album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, out today via Dead Oceans, Zauner has decided to take a step back. “With this new album, I think about death and tragedy in a much more objective way,” she explains. “Part of that comes from having to talk about it so much for the last year, and also having so many kids come up to me after shows, that I realize that my personal experiences are so small in the grand scheme of the world.”
Before Zauner began Japanese Breakfast, her experimental pop solo project, she fronted indie rock band Little Big League. When her mother became ill, she moved from Philadelphia back to her childhood home in Eugene, Oregon, where Psychopomp materialized. If Zauner’s solo debut album was her mourning record, Soft Sounds From Another Planet is perhaps about time: the time that flows before, during, and after a tragedy, continuing to live life without necessarily ever moving on. But the record is not only about grief over time; on Soft Sounds, Zauner discusses getting married and relationships, band member breakups, and even a fictional account of falling in love with a robot (“Machinist”). Although the record is not the sci-fi concept album that Zauner originally coveted, each song has an atmospheric, three-dimensional feeling, letting listeners float through the reflective and mournful space that Zauner lyrically and sonically evokes.
When Interview spoke to Zauner by phone, she was in a Texas parking lot, on the road opening for (Sandy) Alex G. Come fall, she’ll have a tour of her own—her first ever headlining—which is something she’s looked forward to since the release of her debut. “When you support for so long, it feels like you’re always the bridesmaid and never the bride,” she says. “There’s all of this pressure all of a sudden, like these are people that I brought to this space.”
NATALIA BARR: You released Psychopomp just over a year ago. What’s happened since then that made you release a whole new album?
MICHELLE ZAUNER: Originally, I had this idea for a sci-fi concept record and I wanted to make it like a musical, and so “Machinist” was the first song that I wrote for that. When I started trying to write other songs for the album, I realized that it was really restrictive, and really phony feeling for me to not write songs that came naturally to me. The catalyst for wanting to do that was that Psychopomp was such a personal record and had such a narrow lens, and I wrote it two months after my mom passed away. I wanted to do something fun, and I’m just not ready to do something fun. I spent a lot of time on the road, and I thought a lot about death and trauma and sadness in a very different way.
I also got married, which was a really big deal. I originally wanted to title the record “Here Come the Tubular Bells.” I got married two weeks before my mom passed away, and then a year later, I was receiving some kind of artistic success that I’d never had. All of these really beautiful things happened where I was in love and I had a career I loved, but it was all kind of under the shadow of this really dark and painful thing. “Here Come the Tubular Bells” sounds sort of joyous but simultaneously sarcastic to me, and I feel like that was sort of where my life was at the time.
BARR: Why did you want to have a sci-fi concept record originally?
ZAUNER: At the time, my friend had just gotten rejected from the Mars One project. Also, the Time article came out with the 100 profiles of all the people that had been whittled down to colonize Mars. There were people with families and jobs and that was really fascinating, that they were just going to put their lives away for science and progress. I had this idea of writing a sci-fi musical about a woman who falls in love with a robot and realizes it’s a love that can’t be, and enlists in the Mars One project. It’s not something I want to do, but I think it’s really interesting, like what kind of life would breed. Once I started writing songs and trying to fit it into that concept, it was just too restrictive and unnatural to me, and I still felt like I had so much stuff to say and explore in my personal life that it was an intuitive thing.
BARR: Do you have a specific writing process?
ZAUNER: I try to not beat myself up about anything. I think that’s the biggest thing. Sometimes it really helps to have another person in the room that you trust to say, “Is this okay?” and for them to say, “Yes, it’s okay.” There are two songs on the record where that happened. I was writing the piano line for “Till Death,” and I asked my co-producer Craig [Hendrix], “Is this too cheesy? Should I stop?” He was like, “No, no, it has this great Carpenters feel.” That was all I needed to have the strength to keep going. If it sounds like the Carpenters, great. The same thing with “Machinist.” I did this spoken word introduction, and I was like, “Am I totally out of my element?” And he was like “No, this is great.” It really helps to have one other person that you really trust help you keep going.
BARR: Has being from Oregon influenced your music?
ZAUNER: Totally. I think it’s a really special place. It’s sort of that Twin Peaks-y thing with the Pacific Northwest where the environment is super majestic and really beautiful. I grew up in the woods and swimming in natural bodies of water and being surrounded by trees and greenery. There was almost something eerie about being in a small town in the woods. Sometimes it’s really rainy and kind of dreary, so I think a lot of the music reflects that. There’s a lot of heart in the Pacific Northwest, kind of like sad hearts, [laughs] and I vibe with that.
BARR: You recorded Soft Sounds in Philadelphia. Since you’ve now done recording and writing on two different coasts, do you think place affects the music?
ZAUNER: Definitely. I think that Psychopomp is very much a Eugene, Oregon record. It’s a lot of feeling super claustrophobic about your childhood home and feeling stuck in a place that used to be really happy and is now tainted with this really awful experience. This new record, I feel like it’s more mature and more deliberate, and I think being in Philadelphia makes me feel that way. I chose to go to Philadelphia and I really grew up there in a way. I became an adult and started living on my own in Philadelphia, and so maybe it sounds like that.
BARR: What made you re-record “Boyish,” since it used to be a Little Big League song?
ZAUNER: That song actually started as “Day 6” of this tape called June, where I wrote and recorded songs every day for the month of June. It was 30 lo-fi tracks. I turned it into a Little Big League song, but I don’t think even the band enjoyed the way we recorded it. I love that chorus line, “I can’t get you off my mind, I can’t get you off in general.” I like the melody and I thought that the lyrics were just so pathetic. [laughs] It’s an experience that’s not talked about very often as a woman. I felt like the chorus needed to sweep up in a certain way that we never quite accomplished. I wanted to give it another try.
BARR: What’s the story behind the title “Jimmy Fallon Big?”
ZAUNER: Before my mom got sick and Little Big League went on indefinite hiatus, our bass player had to leave to play in another band. He got a better opportunity and this band was going to be “Jimmy Fallon big”—they were going to play on TV and stuff. I think that it’s about that feeling of hurt. When your band member goes off to be in another band, it sort of feels like you’re being broken up with in this really bizarre way. Part of it was feeling bitter about that, and it was also feeling frustrated that you don’t have those successes, and also feeling sad that you’re losing a brother, in a way.
BARR: What is “This House” about?
ZAUNER: So much of the record is about self-healing. A lot of the songs are remarking on how impressed I am that I survived this thing that was so sad. When I was a kid, I remember whenever I got sick, my mom had this real desire to physically transfer illness. I think that that’s something that your friends and your partner shoulder often: wanting so badly to be able to shoulder this pain that you’re experiencing, but not being able to, and just having to sit there and watch you and be by your side. I think a lot of the songs are about that, being thankful that those people were there to do that.
SOFT SOUNDS FROM ANOTHER PLANET (DEAD OCEANS) IS OUT TODAY, JULY 14, 2017. FOR MORE ON JAPANESE BREAKFAST, VISIT HER FACEBOOK.