"Never quite belonging more than anything"
Although Japanese Breakfast is certainly worthy of chart recognition, the Korean American indie artist offers a refreshing departure from the generic, manufactured, overproduced pop plaguing today’s charts.
Michelle Zauner, the singer and genius behind the solo outfit, achieves her unique sound by moving stylishly but yet effortlessly between genres. Gently infusing lo-fi, indie rock, experimental dance and ambient music together, Zauner’s talent not only lies in her voice but in her ability to bridge the unexpected.
From the dreamy and catchy ‘Road Head’, to the dancey ‘Machinist’ (which hits you with an excellent saxophone solo just when you think it’s over), to the tearjerking heartbreaker ‘Til Death’, to her modern take on The Cranberries classic ‘Dreams’, Japanese Breakfast deserves to be heard by all music lovers.
At Resonate, we were keen to find if the Korean American singer had as much success in bridging cultures as she had with her music.
Originally from South Korea, Zauner said she still holds her Asian culture close to her. “I was born in Seoul and grew up visiting my family there every other summer,” Zauner said. “I also attended Korean school every Friday until I was a teenager. My mother was a homemaker so I spent most of my time with her and was exposed to Korean culture quite a bit. I can speak a little bit but I’m unfortunately not very good at it.”
Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, Zauner perviously said she battled with her ethnicity in a town that was “90% white”. “In my adolescence I hated being half Korean,” Zauner wrote in 2016, “I wanted people to stop asking, ‘where are you really from?’ I could barely speak the language and didn’t have any Asian friends.”
Zauner, whose father is originally from Bristol in Bucks County, told us that she simply felt like she did not fit in. “It certainly never felt great. I think I mostly just felt a bit like an outsider, never quite belonging more than anything,” she said.
Fortunately, the Korean American found comfort in her passion for music at a young age. “I was sixteen when I started playing the guitar and writing songs and just really fell in love with it,” she said. “The music community always just felt like where I belonged once I made my way into it.”
Although her mother “was really nervous” about her pursuing a career in music, Zauner persevered and drew inspiration from local artists. “I grew up in Oregon so I was really influenced by pacific NW indie rock like Elliott Smith, Modest Mouse, Built to Spilland Mt Eerie,” Zauner says. “I don’t think I ever consciously chose a genre, I always just tried to make music that I liked and came naturally to me.”
One of Japanese Breakfast’s top songs on Spotify is Zauner’s cover of The Cranberries 1992 hit ‘Dreams’. When asked about the cover Zauner said, “I grew up listening and loving the The Cranberries as a teen. I also love Faye Wong’s cover in Chungking Express and thought it’d be fun to do. Lately we’ve been covering The Cardigan’s ‘Lovefool’.”
Whilst on tour, Zauner enjoys going back to Korea, where a fanbase is starting to develop. “We played in Seoul in 2017,” Zauner said. “We have a small following, I think. My hope is it’s something we can continue to build just because I enjoy getting to visit and see my relatives.”
Reflecting on her home turf, Zauner sees the tides turning for Asian Americans in the music business. “I think it’s changing,” Zauner said about the lack of Asian Americans in music. “I have quite a few friends that are Asian American and in the music industry. I think culturally it’s not as encouraged.”
Outside of music, Zauner revealed that she is a big Game Of Thrones and Westworld fan. She added that she “recently watched Pen15 and really liked it and one of the main characters is half Japanese.”
Fans of Japanese Breakfast have a great deal to look forward to as Zauner hopes to release new music next year. “My plan is to work on the new record this fall,” she tells us. Furthermore, Zauner revealed she is “composing the soundtrack for an indie game called Sable” and is working her memoir titled Crying in H Mart!
The 1975 are also currently at the top of her list for potential collaborations. “One of my favorite bands right now is The 1975 and I’d love to work with them someday,” she said. “Matty (Healy) came to our show in LA and was super genuine and kind. I just think they make super inspiring, personal work.”
To discover more incredible music from Asians around the world, subscribe to Resonate’s Global Asian Spotify Playlist, which heavily features Japanese Breakfast.