Natalie Mering is finding moments of delicacy within grand settings of reflective musing.
We tend to think of prolific creatives as operating in a sort of manic typhoon. Insular, driven and pushing themselves beyond boundaries, they carry a mythical aura, spoken of in hushed tones with raised eyebrows. In truth, it’s usually exactly that. Occasionally, it is an exercise in control. A cathartic pummeling of life situations and imposed expectations. For Michelle Zauner, also known as the driving mind behind Japanese Breakfast, it’s a mixture of both, framed by a desire to exert creative influence and introspection on the world around her.
In her earlier years, Zauner crisscrossed the United States touring with various bands, from the Northeast to the Northwest, grinding out dates on the road and honing a sound that would come to encompass both a geographic and sonic expanse.
She created a frothing wake of breathless reviews with 2016’s Psychopomp, and somehow managed to top that with 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet. During her rise, she managed to find time to write several essays, two of which appeared in Glamour Magazine and the New Yorker, leading to a television show, a book deal, and a hosting gig on the VICE Munchies series Close to Home. It’s a heat check of fairly unmatched proportions, especially for an indie artist whose visions of greatness were frequently tempered by living in the music industry’s version of a ‘flyover state.’ Growing up in Eugene, while not bereft of creative punch, left something to be desired for an aspiring musician as she watched bands skip straight from Portland to San Francisco.
Zauner remembers those moments. Today, as she prepares to bring the act back to the homefront and headline the Crystal Ballroom, Eleven had a chance to catch up with one of the hardest working people in showbiz and chat about her creative drive, the challenges of switching from writing songs to writing books, and expectations for her upcoming music project.
ELEVEN: We have a ton of questions for you because you’re kind of a Renaissance woman! You’re working on a memoir, you scored a video game, you’ve hosted a food and travel series. And then, on top of that, you’ve produced music videos for yourself and Better Oblivion Community Center. Where does that creative drive come from? How do you have your fingers in so many pies and keep everything afloat?
Michelle Zauner: I don’t know where it comes from. I think that I am just a sensitive person and have this real innate desire to make things and try to connect with people and have people understand me. I think that it sounds like I am involved with many different things, but I think at their core, all of those mediums revolve around telling some type of story. I think that that’s what’s really entrancing to me, is trying to tell a story in different ways. As the band grew, and it started as a way to just express… It was the first project that I really felt like I was my own in every way. So, Japanese Breakfast was me, not only musically, but also how I represented it visually. All of the things that surround this project are things that I felt like I could creatively direct.
From that, I just started getting these other opportunities and wanting to a good job at them. Just getting approached and that igniting my journey in creating through these other mediums. They all just snowballed into each other, I think. The Japanese Breakfast album resulted in me directing a number of music videos for the project. People liked what I made and asked me to direct their videos. There were bands like Better Oblivion Community Center with Conor Oberst – he’s always been a hero of mine – and Phoebe Bridgers, whose music I really enjoy. How could I say no to that? It was just finding different ways to express myself. I just think that I try to stay busy, because I think that I’m running away from something, mentally.
11: Realistically speaking, do you say no to projects? It seems like if you get approached to do something cool, you just jump on it. Is that the case if it aligns with your creative ethos? Do you just want to go for it?
MZ: I think for the first three years, I really tried to say yes to most things that were remotely interesting to me. And now, this year, in order to preserve quality control, I have to say no to a lot more stuff that seems really cool and is a little bit harder to walk away from. It’s just prioritizing more so this year, more than any other year, I think. It’s a really great position to be in.
11: Good problem to have! It seems like most of your projects line up closely with music and art, so I’m wondering, how did the VICE Munchies show come up? Did you pitch it or did someone pitch you on it? And then moving forward with it, what was it like? Were the challenges different than maybe producing an album or creating a music video or things like that?
MZ: I was approached to do the Munchies show by Clifford Endo, who’s the head of video at Munchies. He’s half Japanese, and he’d read my essay, “Crying in H Mart,” in the New Yorker. I wrote the beginnings of that essay in 2016, around the same time that I wrote my first record, Psychopomp. My mom had just passed away and I was connecting to grief in a number of different ways to just process what was happening. I wrote a piece called “Love, Loss, and Kimchi” around the same time that I was working on Psychopomp, and won Glamor Magazine‘s Essay of the Year in 2016. I worked on that concept some more about food and grief and Korean heritage and turned that into another essay that was published in New Yorker, which Clifford Endo read.
He had this concept for this show that was like, what is fusion cuisine? And, from what I interpreted, how fusion food has gotten a bad rap, and that there are these sort, “authentic” versions of fusion. It’s about migration cuisine, and how a group of Japanese immigrants can create this kind of food in Peru when they immigrated there as workers, and how they adapted to Peruvian ingredients in the Japanese style to create this type of Nikkei cuisine or Turkish Chinese cuisine. We wanted to meet with people in New York that had this kind of experience, because I think that he really related to me growing up in America and how my mom would make two different meals. So, a lot of times, fusion was just eating part of my dad’s dinner and my mom’s dinner. I think a lot of immigrant kids have that kind of experience.
He thought that I would be a really good person to be in that role, and it was definitely very scary and challenging. Any web content series is a really fast turnaround, and it’s a really sensitive subject, you know? I felt this real pressure to learn a lot about a type of history that’s actually not very commonly taught, or there’s not a whole lot of resources. So, it was very scary and sensitive trying to cram in all of this history about different migration patterns of migrant workers and how that impacted families in a very short period of time. It was also the first creative project where I wasn’t a creative director – I was just the host. I had some input, but it wasn’t really like I could guide the project the way that I wanted to. But it was a really interesting experience. I’m glad that I was a part of it.
11: Did you find that lack of creative control a little bit liberating, in that you didn’t have to necessarily carry the full weight of the production, but you still had a prominent voice in it? Or are you someone that really likes to have that end-to-end fingerprint?
MZ: I think I just didn’t have the capacity to take that… It was really hard for me. It’s really, really hard for me to not have complete creative control. So yeah, I think that… Yeah, I don’t know. It was really hard for me. It was harder for me than it was liberating, I would say.
11: There’s a connective line here: the domino effect from the essays that you were writing, into being approached to do this show, and then now a full-fledged memoir that you’re working on. Earlier, you mentioned you like to tell stories and it’s important to you to have that narrative. It sounds like there’s some strong narrative threads here across these projects. As you dive into working on this memoir, how are you incorporating some of these other elements of your creative persona into it? And do you find that starting to inform the music that you’re making as well?
MZ: I feel like with this book, because it’s a memoir, there is very little persona. I think that it’s just a ruthlessly difficult retelling of what happened. I think that the main thread between a lot of these projects, particularly the Japanese Breakfast albums and the non-fiction and this part that happened with Munchies, is just my mom passing away in 2014, and how it just informed my work for the last almost five years. It was a really big thing, and I think that for the next Japanese Breakfast album, it’s the first time that I’m wanting to turn away from that and write about other parts of life. But I think that for me, in order to do that, I felt like there was so much more of the story to be told. And what better way to tell it than a 90,000 word book?
I think that, if anything, I’m in this place now where I’m taking a break from writing the book, because I turned in my rough draft and the editor has it and it’s a really long back and forth now. It’s not anywhere near being released, but now starts the clean-up process with the editor. And so I am in this new chapter where the editor has it, she’s going to have it for probably a couple of months, and I’m going to go off and not think about it and work on new projects. But, after spending a lot of time with the book, it really had me appreciate the album writing process, and bound back into these comforting arms of writing music again. And for a while, because it was just album, touring, album, touring, I wasn’t really very excited to make a third record, and I really didn’t want to push myself to make something that I wasn’t really excited or ready for, because I think that people can hear that.
I think that just trying on a new project and focusing on that really made me excited and want to return to making a record again. It was a project I really wanted to do and push myself to take on, but it also helped me take the space that I needed from music. So, it wasn’t just like, I don’t want to make a record just so I can start the touring process over again and make money. I want to make a substantial piece of work that resonates with me and, by extension, resonates with other people. It really gave me an appreciation for doing something I think I took for granted for a little bit, because I’ve been making records since I was 16 years old, for almost 15 years now. I think I needed some time away from it to really appreciate it. I think you need to do that sometimes.
11: You said the “familiar arms of recording an album” and making songs. What’s your favorite part about that process and why do you enjoy that process so much? And then secondarily, what specifically right now that you’re working on, maybe from a musical perspective, that’s got you the most excited about the new project?
MZ: I think that I’m excited to collaborate with some new people. Soft Sounds from Another Planet was such an insular record, and I wanted it that way, but it was just me and Craig Hendrix working together and playing all the instruments, and it was a really short and concentrated period of time. This time, I want to just take more time and maybe bring on some new people and some new creative collaborations and see what we can do together to just make it more expansive and bigger and hopefully better than the last one. I guess it’s just nice getting back into the saddle of something that’s very familiar to you.
With writing a book, I’ve never written a book before, it was my first time. It feels very out of your element and thrown into the deep end, and you don’t know if what you’re doing is wrong. And I also don’t have as big of a community of people to be like, is this normal? How did you deal with this? With music, it’s like, I’ve done it for so long that I know. There’s more immediate gratification, is something that I’ve noticed. It’s like, when a song starts coming together, there’s something physically that feels very good about it and you feel like you’re on the right path and it’s very intuitive. I think that writing a book feels way more like… It’s just a lot. It’s just like banging against the wall over and over again, honestly.
I feel like I can trust myself a little bit more with writing an album, and I think that I earned that over the years. With writing a book, it’s so new for me, so I feel like I’m having a mental breakdown every other day, because I don’t know if it’s going well. The highs and lows are much bigger with writing a book. I think with music, I feel like I have a little bit more trust in myself that I’m making something good, and if I feel like it’s good and interesting, I have a little bit more validation in my back pocket that it might be.
11: With that confidence aspect in mind, is there anything, I don’t want to say out of the box, but just out there that you’re excited or that you’re wanting to try or that you’ve been thinking about? Honestly, it seems like you’ve just got that swagger now and you’re ready to attack it, and it’s like you feel like you can’t miss. I’m wondering if that’s given you some confidence to really push into maybe a fairly different direction than you would have in the past?
MZ: I’ve noticed that about myself, every time I go into the record with something in mind, I am really stifled by it. So, I’m just trying to do what I know. I think that just the skillset that I’ve built up over the years has changed, and that, in turn, will change the music. And I think that bringing in some new creative collaborators and possibly working with a couple new producers to help pull me out of my comfort zone will also help. I mean, I want to do a combination of what I know and what I don’t know, so it’s just a matter of pulling those things together. But I’m not exactly sure how it will turn out. I think that one thing that happened over the course of the last two Japanese Breakfast albums and also working on the Sable soundtrack, I’ve become a lot more competent of a producer. I think applying those kinds of lessons that I’ve learned will really help take it to an exciting new place.
11: Along those lines, you’re going to be headlining Crystal Ballroom coming up! Along your musical journey, less at this point maybe from a musical perspective and more from a geographical perspective, you left Oregon for a little while, played in a couple other bands, and now you’re back. I’m guessing, growing up in Eugene, you probably spent a good amount of time going to shows in Portland. How does that play into your creative identity?
MZ: It’s interesting. I actually have a chapter in my book that’s all about going to the Crystal Ballroom for the first time. It must’ve been 2005 or 2006, maybe. In Eugene, a lot of times (and now I understand why as a touring musician) a lot of times touring acts will go straight from Portland to San Francisco and skip Eugene entirely. Understandably so. A lot of times, I would just be so devastated when these indie bands would come through the West Coast and not play my town. I grew up with stricter parents, and so I was only able to go to shows in Portland if I had an adult chaperone and it was a weekend.
The first time that all of those stars aligned was when I saw Built To Spill live at the Crystal Ballroom, and this little band called Denali opened for them. I went with my best friend, and I was just blown away. Denali had this frontwoman who played the guitar, and it was the first time that I saw that. I was 15 years old, I think, and it was such an essential moment for me as a musician, to be like, I just have to do that. She can do it, that means that I can do it, too. Shortly after that, I started learning how to play the guitar and writing songs.
So, the Crystal Ballroom was such an important place for me, I think that I really owe it to that establishment for a lot of the reasons why I am a musician. To be able to headline there is really, really special for me. I hope that a lot of people attend, because it’ll be embarrassing. It feels really special and unreal to me. It was a very big bucket list moment, getting in to play there. We opened for Parquet Courts there a couple years ago with Jay Som, and I said on that stage maybe a year and a half ago that we’d be back to headline someday. It feels really good to have said I made good on that promise.
11: In terms of bucket list moments, have you found that you’ve had more opportunity to check those off in the last few years? What are some other highlights?
MZ: I always say that my career at this point has surpassed even my wildest expectations and fantasies. I honestly never thought I would play the Crystal Ballroom. And even just playing the WOW Hall in Eugene was a really big deal. Or even getting to play Portland as a touring band or do a five week tour was a huge deal for me. I’ve been playing music for 10 years, and touring in DIY bands and sleeping on floors, and it never happened for me. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it started to. It was a really long time coming for me, and I’m almost glad that I was a late bloomer in terms of my musical career, because I feel like I can really appreciate all of the little things. Even just getting to stay in a hotel and spend the night is so amazing. It took a long time to build to that, and so I feel very moved by it all.
Getting to tour in Asia and Europe was really amazing. Getting to travel the world, and especially play in Seoul, Korea, where I was born and I have some family, it was really special. We played Central Park a couple of weeks ago, which was unreal. We opened for Tegan and Sara, my high school heroes, Slowdive, and got to share bills with really amazing people. We got to play Red Rocks in Colorado. So yeah, it’s been an unreal time, honestly. It’s all been pretty great.
And And And is opening, and they’re a local Portland and and good friends of mine. And actually, we recorded the first version of “Everybody Wants to Love You” together in a trailer outside of Oregon. The first album was recorded in Eugene, largely. I’m excited, because Nate from And And And was actually the first vocal on that “Everybody Wants to Love You” chorus, so I’m sure that he’ll probably sing with us that night. He’s one of my favorite songwriters, and And And And is one of my favorite Portland bands, so I’m really excited to get to play with them again.