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Michelle Zauner finds joy in success, and success in joy

By TOOTS OROSA Published Jun 11, 2021 5:00 am

It was 9 a.m. here in Manila and late at night in Michelle Zauner’s New York apartment. I sat skittish on my seat, ruminating over the fact that I was 1) overly caffeinated, and 2) face-to-face with my favorite artist. I tried my best not to be an annoying fanboy.

I met Michelle over a Zoom call to talk about the much-awaited “Jubilee” — the third and brightest addition yet to the Japanese Breakfast soundscape. We also talked about her memoir Crying In H Mart, in which she recounts memories of her mother’s battle with cancer, comes to terms with her Asian-American heritage, and finds solace in Korean cooking.

I asked about her experiences writing one after the other — a book, and then the latest Japanese Breakfast release. “Crying In H Mart was the first book I wrote, so it was a lot of being found in the dark, being unsure of myself, and being devastated most of the time. I felt like (joy) was a surprising thing for me to tackle as someone who has written about so much sadness in the past.”

If there’s anything I’ve learned from grief and writing a book for the first time, there’re just no skipping steps. It takes time and a lot of searching.

Michelle is no stranger to finding catharsis through creative release. She allows herself to be vulnerable with every endeavor, offering honest narratives, no matter how dismal or heavy.

“I wasn’t fully satisfied unless (my music) was rooted in figuring out some part of my life,” she explained. “Oftentimes I explore something very personal because it’s really therapeutic for me to search for meaning in my own experiences.” 

The shoegaze- and dream pop-indebted “Psychopomp” was Michelle’s first full release under the Jbrekkie moniker and was made during a somber time after her mother passed. The following album, “Soft Sounds From Another Planet,” was also a by-product of her grief, exploring dissociation and trauma through the sphere of science fiction. 

 “Jubilee” is more than joy itself — it’s a spectrum of human experience. Photos by Peter Ash Lee

And then there was H Mart, a labor of love that started as an essay Michelle wrote for The New Yorker back in 2018. After finishing the book — which I unabashedly admitted was the first I’ve finished in five years — I couldn’t help but ask how she managed to revisit her experiences in such harrowing detail. 

“It was difficult, but you also get better with it over time,” she explains. “There was a lot of free-writing and struggling to put myself back there. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from grief and writing a book for the first time, there’re just no skipping steps. It takes time and a lot of searching.”

After months of self-examination and memory stockpiling, Michelle finally turned over a draft of H Mart to her editors back in 2019. Instantaneously, she began working on what she now considers her best and most complete musical work. Idleness just doesn’t fit into her system.

Michelle’s career as both a musician and memoirist has been a spectacle to behold, and her humility and tenacity make being a fan all the more warming.

“Jubilee” expresses joy as its thematic axis, but there’s so much more to it than being an optimistic record. It’s a statement of Michelle’s progression towards newer, persimmon-colored pastures. “I think this record is about committing myself to move on in a way.” 

We hear this in the opening track Paprika, which displays both her newfound skills and higher ambitions — roaring synths, a marching drum beat, and a blasting horn-section trailing her vocals as she cries, “Oh, it’s a rush.” 

Then there’s Be Sweet — an ’80s-inspired pop song with a chorus exuding karaoke anthem potential. Hearing it as a lead single was delightful, but to experience it in conjunction with the album made for a sweeter soundtrip.

However, masked somewhere between its upbeat tunes and positive tenor, there are heavy, melancholic intimations, similar to Michelle’s previous work. Heck, it even includes what she considers to be the “saddest song” she’s ever written.  

In Hell finds Michelle lamenting the death of her beloved dog. It revisits her agony in piercing detail, singing “Hell is finding someone to love, and I can’t have you” amid upbeat arpeggiated synth progressions. “Sometimes fighting for joy, preserving joy, or searching for joy can lead to sad songs, you know?” 

“Jubilee” is more than joy itself — it’s a spectrum of human experience: the wishful longing of Kokomo, IN. The self-validating greed of Savage Good Boy. The desire for proximity in Posing in Bondage. Every detail is woven and juxtaposed with intention, bringing me to realize that, often, we search for joy because we’ve once wallowed in pain and sadness.

Yet the message here isn’t meant to be grim — in fact, it assures you that there’s always something to search for, to fight for, to preserve. “I think joy is the reason why we live all of our lives, as we sort of wait for these moments of just pure happiness. I think, especially as you get older, you realize these moments are really rare and coveted.” 

At the height of Michelle’s triumphs, I couldn’t help but recall something in Chapter 5 of her New York Times bestselling book. She talks about her musical hero, Karen O: the eclectic frontwoman of the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and someone who happens to share the same Korean-American biracial background.

The passage reads: “Nevertheless, Karen O made music feel more accessible, made me believe it was possible that someone like me could one day make something that meant something to other people.”

This struck a chord in me. I’ve always been inspired by Filipino artists who’ve earned such acclaim — take, for example, Beabadoobee, Jay Som, and No Rome. They inspire and leave me hopeful that my work can touch many, the way theirs do. 

In light of this, I asked Michelle how she felt being iconized and adored by musicians who feel represented through her. “I mean it’s surreal, you know? I don’t sit around thinking about being adored,” she laughs and continues with modesty in her voice.

“I think so much of your time as an artist, and probably for Karen, too, is focusing on what’s at hand. What your assignment is. So, sometimes I get reminded and I feel incredibly warm, appreciated, and moved.” 

Michelle’s career as both a musician and memoirist has been a spectacle to behold, and her humility and tenacity makes being a fan all the more warming. I’d like to think she’s even bigger than Jimmy Fallon Big, with the cover of “Jubilee” glowing on giant LED boards and copies of H Mart laminated in love and tears all over the world. But most of all, I’d like to think she’s bigger simply because she’s always in search of happiness. 

“After the pandemic and a year off, I’m just really excited to embrace being with friends, touring and traveling again, and having the life we once knew,” she said with a smile. “I feel like I’ve always just had a plan. And I love the idea of spending the next year without one and living day to day, enjoying being back on tour and celebrating these big projects I spent so much time on.”