Q&A: Japanese BreakfastJoanna Zhuang
Apr 07, 2019
Japanese Breakfast is the indie pop solo project of Michelle Zauner, a Korean American artist from Eugene, Oregon. Japanese Breakfast has released two studio albums, including “Psychopomp” (2016) and “Soft Sounds from Another Planet” (2017). Japanese Breakfast performed at Gainesville, Florida’s Changeville Festival on February 8, 2019.
What inspired you to pursue music?
I started playing piano when I was five, but I was not really ever really interested in it. And then cool dudes in my middle school played guitar, and I wanted to learn how to play guitar, and so I asked my parents if I could learn how to play guitar, if I could get a guitar. And then they wouldn’t let me for like a couple of years. And then finally, they relented, and I had a really shitty like $100 Yamaha acoustic from Costco, and it took a little bit to get into playing something that horrible. But then I pretty much learned my first chords, and I think I wanted to use it as a vessel for songwriting pretty much fresh out of the gate. I learned a couple of chords and immediately started writing songs. And I saw some cool high schoolers play at a DIY show at a café in Oregon. That kind of inspired me to write my first song, and I really enjoyed it.
Did your parents push you to play piano or did you want to do it yourself?
My parents definitely pushed me into playing piano.
Were they supportive of you pursuing music as a career then?
No, not at all. I think that most Asian parents force their kids to play piano or violin and then are totally appalled when they actually want to do something with it. Neither of my parents really wanted to pursue a career in music; it was really a struggle for a while.
Did you ever consider doing anything else?
Yeah, I spent my whole life trying to pursue something else, and music just kind of kept being the thing I was most interested in. I thought I was going to be a journalist in high school. I studied English in college and thought I might be some kind of writer or in some kind of publishing world or whatever English majors usually do. And music just kind of kept being this thing I came back to. But yeah, it wasn’t until three and a half years ago [that music] started actually becoming a career. After college, I really wanted to try to do the band thing, and it didn’t work out for quite some time.
How did you come up with the name Japanese Breakfast?
I think I just really liked the connotation it had – I felt like it would present people with a really unique, curious kind of image, and it was really appealing to me.
What does Japanese Breakfast mean to you?
That’s what it means to me. It’s an aesthetically pleasing set of food that I thought would make people curious about what it was. At the time, I was posting songs on Tumblr and retweeting a lot of Japanese breakfast GIFs. So I was like, “Oh, that’s such a nice name.”
How has your background influenced your music – Asian culture or otherwise?
I mean, not much, I don’t know. Obviously, it’s become such a talking point around my music, but there are no like Asian instruments on the recordings. There are small moments that reference that culture, but it’s just infused as much as I feel like my identity is. There’s like a Korean word on the first album that was a voice recording of my mom. I don’t know, it’s hard to say how much Asian background has [influenced my music]. I would say none, literally. There are a couple of songs that reference it, but it sort of was a product of being constantly asked about it. So yeah, I mean, not much. I guess sometimes, I play into it in this way because it’s become such a talking point, I feel like it’s something that clever to reference. But beyond that, in terms of in the music, I don’t really know how to answer that question.
Who are your musical influences mainly?
Well, I grew up listening to a lot of Pacific Northwest indie rock – Elliott Smith, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, Mount Eerie – those kind of very intimate, personal Pacific Northwest songwriters with really dynamic instrumentation. I grew up listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac. I feel like that band is so timeless and inspirational for what we do, in terms of just substantial pop. And for this last record, we were really influenced by really big dynamic sounds, bands like Flaming Lips and another big one between us – we had a lot of Gorillaz references. And I’m also a big fan of The 1975, something contemporary – just like people that are really ambitious in terms of production and arrangement but use songwriting as a real authentic root.
Do you have a favorite song of yours you would recommend people listen to?
I think that our songs have a pretty wide range, so I would encourage people to listen to the full albums. But I think “Road Head” is a pop song that is pretty accessible that I really enjoy, and I really like “Boyish” – it’s very classic and dynamic and sentimental. So yeah, I think those are my two favorites from the last record.
Have you faced any obstacles in your musical career?
Yeah, I mean, before the three [years]. I mean, things have gotten a lot easier in the last three years, but before I started doing this, there [were] obstacles of like your family not understanding your job, and not making money, and struggling to pay your rent, and sleeping on floors that are full of like cat shit. It’s not like the easiest job, and you always have to do something else. But for the last three years, it’s been a lot easier because more people have paid attention and we’ve grown a lot, and I can finally financially support myself, so things have been easier, in that sense.
Do you have any plans for the future?
Yeah, I actually just signed a book deal yesterday, and so, I’m going to be writing a memoir that’s like largely an extension of a piece that appeared in The New Yorker called “Crying in H Mart.” So I’ll probably spend the next year working on that, slowly thinking about another record, and I’m working on a soundtrack for an indie game called Sable.
Do you have any advice to give to aspiring musicians?
Yeah, it’s really boring advice, but it’s to work hard. I mean, I think my career was such a long [journey]. Sometimes, people will be like this all happened so fast, but really, I’ve been making records and playing shows since I was 16 years old, and I’m 29. I’m about to be 30 in March, so it took 13 to 14 years for me to get to a place where I could afford to do this full time. And a lot of this came from constantly staying true to what I found unique about my voice, and working really hard, and completing projects, and then putting them out in the world and not expecting things to happen really quickly and also being very mindful about how things happen very gradually. I managed this project for a year and a half before we brought on a manager; I used to book all of my own shows; I used to do all of my own PR. Every job that has a team member on it now was something I started doing, so I think that’s a really big part of knowing how to manage a team or what you want from someone to work with, and I think it takes doing that first before it happens. And yeah, I think it’s just working really hard and being really diligent on all fronts of like booking great shows, and like keeping up with other bands, and like creating a community and lifting up other people who lift you up. It’s all just learning how to be a good person, and be patient, and work hard and release things. For me, I think the biggest thing that helped me is that I’m not really that much of a perfectionist. I do hold true to my vision but it’s also important for me to have a deadline, and know when to let things go and put things out into the world. And sometimes, I just see tremendously talented artists just work on something for years and years and years and never let it go, and you can’t move forward if you don’t share your work.