Michelle Zauner embarks on a space voyage, abandons it and emerges with her best album yet
Much of Japanese Breakfast's 2016 debut album, Psychopomp, dealt with the death of singer and multi-instrumentalist Michelle Zauner's mother. After writing, recording and touring behind the record, Zauner was ready to move on to something completely different. Like space.
“I had just been talking to my friend about how he applied to the Mars One project. I was really fascinated about that idea, [and] I had always entertained the idea of writing some sort of musical without any kind of camp to it,” Zauner said recently by phone from the road. “It was a really intuitive thing to go from writing a really personal, vulnerable record that was hard to talk about in interviews all the time, to writing something that has some more distance from myself.”
The Philadelphia songwriter (and former Little Big League frontwoman) teamed up with co-producer Craig Hendrix to work on “Machinist,” a fictional track about a woman who falls in love with a robot. “I was fascinated by robots, and wanting to embody that kind of strength — being able to compartmentalize my emotions in a rigid way,” she said. “And also just feeling lost in the world, and lost in space, and feeling confused about what I was feeling, and trying to navigate all these really strong emotions.”
In that way, Zauner began to identify with both the woman and the robot in “Machinist,” a song that builds on the indie-pop of Psychopomp, employing vocoder harmonies, wide swaths of airy synths and spoken-word sections. “It's a very silly song, but it also has all these different meanings for me,” she said. “It maps pretty easily onto any relationship where one person feels like they're a more feeling person than another. I've always struggled with that in a relationship, because I'm an extremely sensitive person, and I tend to match well with people who are more able to compartmentalize their emotions a little bit more.”
“But also,” she continued, “I felt like such a robot for a while because I couldn't cry after my mom died, because I was afraid that I would never stop. I felt very robotic that following year, having to be the support system for my dad and trying to pick up the pieces of my life. I felt like I had to be a very shut-off and cold person.”
Eventually, Zauner ditched the Mars One album conceit, opting instead to loosely incorporate the themes into 2017 album Soft Sounds from Another Planet. “I still have so much to say,” she said. “I had just lost my mom and just got married. It felt like a misstep to not write about those experiences. It didn't feel as fulfilling at the time to continue with a very heavy-handed concept record.”
On Sunday, April 29, Zauner and her band will perform Japanese Breakfast songs at a sold-out Ace of Cups show alongside Anna Burch and didi. Some of the tracks on Psychopomp and Soft Sounds, such as “Boyish,” Zauner resurrected from earlier Bandcamp releases. With some time and emotional distance, those songs have begun to change meanings. “‘Boyish' was written at a time where I felt like I was being rejected by a partner,” she said. “It was an angry song at one point: ‘How could you do this to me?' Now that song feels more like someone who's so far in their head that they're over-analyzing things to such a crazy, melodramatic degree.”