... And Indie for All

Michelle Zauner

Michelle Zauner’s domain name uses neither a dot-com nor a dot-net. It has a dot-rocks. Seriously, her website is JapaneseBreakfast.Rocks. And if you click on the tab labeled “Quest,” you enter a custom-made role-playing game designed around characters from her songs. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Zauner, a singer-songwriter and the true identity of Japanese Breakfast, is the coolest cat in the room.

It’s not that she’s has a powerhouse voice. And wow, she sure does mumble sometimes when she sings. But once you get used to her manner, you can appreciate her devotion to songwriting and her ability to share her view of life through her compositions. Then there’s that smirk — on her face, in her voice, and in her lyrics – that gives Zauner an air of wisdom beyond her years.

She’s also one of the most determined touring artists I’ve ever seen. Her gigs calendar shows her booked almost daily for the next few months, playing clubs and festivals all over the US, UK, and Europe. With that schedule, she rarely goes home, but when she does, that home is in Eugene, Ore., where she grew up.

For a few years she escaped the Pacific Northwest for Philadelphia, where she settled in as singer/songwriter/guitarist with a quartet called Little Big League. Despite their standard rock band format (singer, two guitars, bass, drums), Little Big League stretched outside the standard sound and into a kind of faux electronica, with Ian Dykstra playing percussion in an emotionally distant, metronome-like way, and the guitars pulling and bending long notes like synthesizers.

This genre isn’t called dreampop for nothing. The otherworldliness of “Take It to a Weird Sad Place,” from the album Tropical Jinx (2014), is a good example of Zauner’s singing: breathiness, a touch of vocal fry, and diction that she might use for talking to herself. It’s effective, though, especially when combined with those floating guitar lines.

 

The punk tune “Sucker” shows Little Big League’s other side, with a blend of anger and dark humor and a raging sound. The woman in the song is trapped in her marriage and trapped in her house: “I’m a dog, I’m a wife, I’m a dog, I’m nothing, and this calls for some drugs.” Zauner and her guitar know how to scream when they need to.

 

If fate had taken a different turn, Zauner would probably have stayed in Philly with Little Big League. But when her mother became ill with cancer, she felt she needed to move back to Eugene. And so, longing for an artistic release despite not having a band anymore, she created Japanese Breakfast. It’s less a band than a persona, and it seems to suit Zauner well, as a nod to East Asian pop styles both in sound and presentation.

Unlike some solo acts in this age when there’s a recording studio on everybody’s phone, Zauner has not gone full introvert. She relies on fellow human musicians, not just layers of herself or synth samples, on the Japanese Breakfast albums and in live shows. The first album, Psychopomp (2016), uses five collaborators on guitar, keyboard, clarinet, drums, and strings. The album’s name comes from the Greek mythological concept of a guide who leads the souls of the living to the land of the dead.

Given the situation in her family life, the grim mindset is not surprising. And Zauner already had a tendency toward seeing the world through gray-colored glasses even before her mother’s illness. In the song “Heft,” the musical tone is different from anything by Little Big League, more straight-up rock. The lyrics are about how depression never seems to go away for good, repeating the line “What if it’s the same dark coming?”

 

As Japanese Breakfast, Zauner has intensified her exploration of the dreampop landscape. “Moon on the Bath” has no lyrics; it’s 89 seconds of thoughtful electronic exploration that would have intrigued Edgard Varèse:

 

The second and most recent studio album under the Japanese Breakfast name is Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017). Zauner has said in interviews that a line from the song “Till Death,” inspired by her mother’s passing, gives some context to the whole album. It explains what she was going through when she wrote it: “Insomnia, haunted dreams, stages of grief, repressed memories, anger, and bargaining.” “Till Death” points out how unfair it all seems: “All these celebrities keep dying / while cruel men continue to live.”

 

But don’t expect the album to be an endless philosophical slog seeking the meaning of life; that’s not Zauner’s style. There’s also more standard pop subject matter. “Boyish,” originally recorded by Little Big League, gets a splashy makeover on Soft Sounds from Another Planet. (Zauner has a history of re-recording her songs; and why not? Classical and jazz musicians make multiple recordings of the same pieces as a matter of course.) This heartbreak song, in a lonesome style that manages to simultaneously evoke Roy Orbison and Radiohead, is especially notable for Zauner’s crying guitar riffs:

 

The song “Machinist” led to the alien robot character in the game on Zauner’s website, and the song’s manga-inspired music video and its electro-pop sound also urge the listener to hear a science fiction element in this track. But the lyrics deal with an unresponsive lover, using a robot as a metaphor: “Heart burning hot enough for the both of us / I never realized how much you were holding back / All the times I felt so plugged in / You were tuning out.”

 

Sometimes life hands us all pain and loss, and it rips us out of the places we’d prefer to be. Good for Michelle Zauner for making the most of a tough situation and letting it fuel her creativity.