Japanese Breakfast

Q&A: Japanese Breakfast

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Japanese Breakfast is the solo musical project of Michelle Zauner of Little Big League, a project that she started while tending to her family back home in Oregon when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. About the project, NPR was once  quoted as saying that it, “Mines the dark drama of Vangelis and the melancholic fall-out from Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak.”

With one album under her belt entitled Psychopomp, Zauner recently released a new LP entitled Soft Sounds From Another Planet to wide critical acclaim. She’ll be playing cuts from both at her show at the Swedish American Music Hall on Sept. 21, and in anticipation of what’s sure to be a magical night, she was gracious enough to answer a few questions for us.

For people not familiar with you, how would you describe your music?
Japanese Breakfast is a pop project.

How did you get started playing music and when did you know you wanted to make a life of it?
I started playing music when I was 16 after seeing some high school seniors play anti-folk type ballads at a local coffee shop. That type of music felt really within reach, even after just learning a few chords on a guitar, so I started writing songs shortly after that. As a career, it didn’t really feel realistic probably until last year, though I think I’d wanted to pursue it professionally for maybe seven years or so.

Your new LP comes only a year after your previous release. How do you explain such a quick turnaround?
I generally write pretty quickly. I had a lot of demos I revisited, which helped at least half the tracks come in with a basic structure. I signed to Dead Oceans, so for the first time, I had a budget that allowed me to just work for a full month in a studio without interruption. I also had a wonderful co-producer, Craig Hendrix, who brought in a great voice and also helped move things along.

Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner
Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner

Where did the underlying Sci-Fi concept for your album come from?
I think the initial impetus for it was feeling like Psychopomp was such a personal record, I thought it’d be interesting to take on something that felt a little more fictional as a follow-up. I wrote the song Machinist first, a song about a woman who falls in love with a robot and thought it’d be cool to infuse that theme into some of the other songs and elements on the record.

Can you describe your songwriting process?
It varies. Usually, I’ll sort of collect phrases and ideas for a while. I read a lot, embrace a lot of art and media and kind of soak it up like a sponge. Then I’ll sit down and try to create some kind of bass or guitar or synth line usually that expresses a stanza I find particularly interesting and kind of build off of that.

You’ve done a lot of the DIY touring in your life. What’s the craziest road story that you can recall from that time?
One time we were on tour with PAWS on our way to Chicago and we had to pull over because we were about to drive into a tornado. We stopped at a Subway for about an hour to wait it out. On the highway about a mile out, we saw a semi-truck that had been tossed through a Starbucks.

You’ve got some really interesting videos. Can you describe what “Road Head” is about?
I think it’s about a woman who feels smothered by her partner, who she demonizes, so she eventually kills him. Originally I wanted it to be a story about a woman who kind of overcomes her fear of this hallucination, but when we saw my interaction with the demon (who is actually Craig Hendrix, who co-produced the album and plays drums in the live band) it felt more compelling to kind of hint that I was also responsible and kind of the bad guy.

Being that you’re from Oregon, I imagine you must have toured the coast and hit San Francisco? What do you think of our city and the audience here?
Actually, I’d never been to SF until about two years ago when I booked a DIY tour for us. We played a house show at a place called the Sylvan Annex. There were like twenty people squished in a bedroom and it was a great time. We’ve toured through as direct support & a set at noise pop earlier this year since then and always had an amazing time. It’s always been sold out, amazing crowds. SF is so beautiful and definitely one of our favorite places to play. Plus I usually get to see my buddy Jay Som when she’s around, which is awesome.

You’ve got a show coming up at the Swedish American Music Hall. What can fans expect from your live performances?
We try to give it all! I definitely am proud of our live performances. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of energy.

Can you share with us something that most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I used to be obsessed with playing chess. I used to participate in tournaments and get private lessons from Russian grandmasters. In middle school, I was on a billboard playing chess with the mayor to promote our local chess club. Our high school team won third place at state!

Japanese Breakfast is playing the Swedish American Music Hall on Sept. 21 w/ Mannequin Pussy, The Spirit Of The Beehive / Door: 7:00 pm Show: 8:00 pm

Photos courtesy of Ebru Yildiz

Having released albums under Digital Nations, a label founded by Steve Vai, music critic Louis Raphael has remained deeply connected to the pulse of the San Francisco music scene. Following his tenure as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he embarked on creating Music in SF® to authentically highlight the vibrant offerings of the city's music scene.

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