At the core of Michelle Zauner’s songwriting is the heartbreak caused by her mother’s death. Her much-anticipated follow-up to Psychopomp engages with her Korean identity and promises to be just as vulnerable
Once you experience great pain, you unlock this great door,” says Michelle Zauner of American-based indie-rock solo project, Japanese Breakfast. “I met loads of kids who felt they could relate to Psychopomp,” she adds. Her 2016 debut Psychopomp, completed in the wake of Michelle’s mother’s death, is coated with the weight of her emotional pain. Michelle lost her mother to cancer two years ago; it’s the same disease that also took her aunt.
“It’s this weird thing where it comes naturally to people – they become personally invested in someone [else’s] art, and they really want to share that part of themselves,” she says. “They share this tragedy that you never knew [about]. I didn’t realise how many people [around me] had lost close ones. I found myself looking more objectively at how to overcome trauma and grief, and how we keep it with us, but how we move forward at the same time.”
After her mother’s death, Michelle admits that she was “very confused”. Written mere months after her mother’s passing, the themes of loss and grief set the narrative of Psychopomp. “I found it difficult to understand what this confusion meant. Psychopomp was written a year and a half ago, and I spent a year touring and talking about it. I had kids coming up to me after the show telling me: ‘This meant so much to me, I lost my mum a year ago, or three years ago, or I have a friend going through chemo right now. This has really helped me.’”
Michelle’s music is a story of personal growth, and how she deals with extreme trauma – emotionally, physically, spiritually. Today, we’re sitting in a beer garden in Shoreditch, on day two of Michelle’s UK and European press tour. It’s a sweltering May afternoon – with the temperature in the high 20s – and Michelle, dressed head-to-toe in black and wearing large shades, looks the image of a dark, gothic fairy. “I still have days where I don’t understand why my mother had to die,” she says. “I wish I could unsee a lot of things. The biggest trauma is when you’re the primary carer of someone you love and you slowly see that person’s body deteriorate in front of you. Sometimes, I relive moments very violently. It’s very hard to live with. I don’t hear people talking about that kind of trauma.”
Psychopomp is a record made as catharsis; it weaves love and loss, devastation and devotion, and recalls the glistening shoegaze pop of Waxahatchee and Yumi Zouma. Her solo effort is a departure from her previous work in the indie-rock, punk-influenced band, Little Big League. Due out next month, Michelle’s next record, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, draws on the same core of songwriting inspiration as her first album – her mother. While Psychopomp explores the death of her mother, Soft Sounds examines the immediate aftermath of that trauma – where the grief has gone and in its place is a desire to get closer to her mother by rediscovering her cultural roots.”
Read the full interview in our new print magazine, available here.