The many hats of Japanese Breakfast frontwoman Michelle Zauner

The musician talks about making her debut as a memoirist and her band’s joyous new album in advance of Tuesday’s concert at the Athenaeum Theatre

Audra Heinrichs
Japanese Breakfast

During the ongoing pandemic, many people have kept busy baking banana bread, taking up TikTok (regardless of age and/or level of coordination) and discovering Chloe Ting’s YouTube workout channel, wherein one’s own labored huffs and puffs are second only to the accompanying soundtrack of bad remixes. But Michelle Zauner, frontwoman of indie-rock band Japanese Breakfast and recent New York Times best-selling author, is not most people. Zauner is having perhaps the biggest year of her career thus far, a fact of which she’s acutely aware. 

Amid the enduring and evolving COVID-19 crisis, Zauner released a book and an album, and later this month, on Sept. 24, the musician will release the soundtrack for a video game. 

Zauner kicked off this creative run with Crying in H Mart, a profoundly stirring and sob-inducing memoir about the 2014 death of her mother, which was an extension of her 2018 essay of the same title. The book, which is now set to be adapted into a film, swiftly shot to No. 2 on the New York Times Bestseller list, where it remained for several weeks. 

Just as easily as Zauner drew tears from readers, she compelled listeners to rise from the couch with the June release of Jubilee, her third studio album with her band Japanese Breakfast. The buoyant recording served as an admitted embrace of joy, regardless of how ephemeral or elusive many have found the concept to be during this time. 

Now, the rock star cum Renaissance woman and her six-piece band are giving Columbus music fans an opportunity to take their dancing from the quarantined confines of their living rooms to somewhere a little more public. More specifically, to the Athenaeum Theatre, where the band will perform on Tuesday, Sept. 14. (Proof of vaccination of a negative COVID test taken within 48 hours of the event is required for entry, and masks must be worn by patrons at all times when not eating or drinking.)

Ahead of the show, Alive caught up with Zauner via phone to talk about all things Crying in H Mart, Jubilee, reaching a new creative peak and her band’s triumphant return to touring.

Alive: How’s touring been? I know there's been a little time off the road between your last show and your next, but what's it been like to be on a bus and playing in rooms of people again — especially with all of the COVID protocols?

Michelle Zauner: It's been really surreal. So many things have changed. We became a bigger band in terms of recognition and also the size of the group, and this was actually our first time on a bus, so it was just sensory overload. It was a real adjustment to be around, not just thousands of people and playing shows, but also just to coexist with so many more people. … It feels like you're starting over again, in a way. It's a very strange feeling.

Alive: It's been some time since you were in Columbus. I think you played at both Skully’s and Ace of Cups back in 2018. Are you excited to come back to the city after all this time to play the Athenaeum, this big, antique theatre this time around? 

MZ: Yeah, I can't wait. I feel like we've played quite a few shows in Columbus before. It’s been really surreal getting to play these nice, beautiful theaters. I'm definitely really excited to see [The Athenaeum] for the first time.

Alive: You’ve said in past interviews that Jubilee feels like a more joyful, buoyant kind of record, and a bit of an obvious departure from the past work. But when factoring in Crying in H Mart, your storytelling this year covers the whole spectrum of the human experience — from grief and despair and loneliness to celebrating and recentering goodness in an exceedingly weird moment. Was there kind of any discernible difference or discomfort between writing the album versus writing this book?

MZ: Yeah, you know I turned in the rough draft of the book around the time that I started working on Jubilee in the fall of 2019, and I had felt so out of my element in writing the book that when I came to work on Jubilee, it was just like falling into a familiar bed. I was just so happy to be back in something that I knew and just to have a set of instincts that I knew I could kind of trust and follow. It's also so much more collaborative than writing a book, which is so insular and lonely. 

Alive: We’ve all been forced to deal with some isolation during the pandemic and are now slowly coming out of it. But you, more than the average person, have been bombarded in the last six months with all these reactions to the book and the album. Has it been overwhelming to receive this complete outpouring during this time?

MZ: It's really surreal. It's been like a slow build for us. The last six years have been sort of working toward this moment and I wish I was good at lying during this, but I feel like when you're at the height of everything, it feels like there’s a sadness that comes with it. I have this feeling that's just like, “Is this my peak?” And there's this new kind of fear that sets in with that. I don't know, it's really sad and ironic, too, because this album is so much about joy, and when you think about the word joy, it’s this peak happy moment. I think it's so fleeting and so unsustainable because for me, a lot of the times when I actually reach these really happy places, I start getting anxious, like, “When is this going to go away?” I can't actually just sit in a moment and think, “I made it! It's great! This is joy!” It's immediately like, “What's going to happen that's gonna [mess] all this up?” or, “It's got to be downhill from here.” I don't know if that's just the human condition or my life in general, but it's been mostly just surreal. 

Alive: In Crying in H Mart, there’s this exceptionally moving part where your mom tells you to save 10 percent of yourself in relationships and how she felt that it was so important to keep some part of yourself sacred. You've had so much released this year and had so many conversations about the book, the album, the tour. etc. You've been really generous, in both the art itself but also in the press surrounding it. In this time of hyper-exposure, is that 10 percent wisdom something that you've had to remind yourself of, and do you feel anxiety about how much you've shared or what's left at this point?

MZ: I was reading A Swim In A Pond in the Rain, George Saunders’ new book, and he talks a little bit about how for a long time he really tried to write in this kind of stark, Hemingway kind of style, and it wasn't working for him. And one time he wrote this kind of loose, funny story that he left out on the dining room table, and he heard his wife laughing from the other room. He realized, like, I'm just this guy. George Saunders is obviously a hugely celebrated, exceptional writer, but it was really comforting to see that someone like that hates the talent he was given and wishes he could do something else. 

Unfortunately — and fortunately — you can't do it all. You have to find what comes naturally to you, for better and for worse. I think that this very personal, forthcoming shit is my bread and butter (laughs). I think I always was that way, even in the songs that I wrote. To me, making art — whether it's fiction or nonfiction — has to work out something from my personal life or answer some type of question that is dogging me.

With the book, this huge thing had happened where my life completely changed, [and] it just consumed me and I could think of nothing else. Of course I had to write about it to kind of figure it out and get it to a place where I could live a life where that wasn't the only thing that I thought about anymore. I do think of that [10 percent wisdom] and I certainly try. It’s a piece of advice that has always stuck with me and in some ways, I think I do save different 10 percents of myself. And there’s certainly a lot of stuff that I keep out of my work. Maybe it doesn't seem like it, but I do.

Alive: Now that you’ve purged so much creatively, what’s next for you?

MZ: The next big thing is the Crying in H Mart screenplay, which is a new medium for me and what I'm going to probably spend the next year working on. After that, you know I don't really know. Hopefully we’re going to be touring a lot. I'm honestly very proud of this new band and we've just grown so much. … We sound like a totally new band in this really great way where I feel very invincible.