Let Mystery In: How Japanese Breakfast Transformed Her Grief into an Album of Soothing Bliss
After losing her mother, Michelle Zauner turned to music and Jungian theory. And though the resulting record may be stormy in substance, it washes over you like a calm and cleansing wave.
A woman reaches out to you from the cover of Japanese Breakfast’s Psychopomp in a way that could be read as either grasping for something, or letting go. An expanse of cerulean sky hangs in the background so still and clear it almost looks like a painting. Michelle Zauner, the mastermind behind Japanese Breakfast and former guitarist/singer for Philadelphia indie rock band Little Big League, found the photograph at home. The woman is her mother, who was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2014. She passed away six months later.
Zauner was in the middle of an album cycle for Little Big League at the time, so she left the band behind and moved back to rural Oregon – where she grew up – to help care for her mum and later comfort her dad. There she wrote new songs and reworked older material for what would go on, two years laterm, to become Psychopomp. A meditation on love and loss, longing and dependency, the album sways from shoegaze-tinged indie to shimmering pop to the same gut-wrenching minimalism that drives some of her contemporaries like Waxahatchee and Radiator Hospital. A far cry from the intricate, knotty indie rock of Little Big League (whose other members were three dudes raised on punk and hardcore) Japanese Breakfast sees Zauner embracing her Pacific Northwest indie roots – inspired more by the Built to Spill and Phil Elvrum schools of songwriting – and embracing the natural urgency of her own.
“I’m a very impatient person,” Zauner tells me from across the table in a quiet bar in East London, taking intermittent sips between a glass of Coca-Cola and a bottle of Cold Brew. “I like things to be done. So I complete a lot of projects, but it helps to partner or collaborate with someone who’s the opposite because they can tell me when to slow down.” This balance, she says, is what helps her achieve her final voice – the passionate but soothing atmosphere that makes up Psychopomp. “It’s so much nicer in that way. Because I’m not really a perfectionist, I really value that [input]. I think a lot of the songs are pretty intuitive and always chasing that sort of emotional bliss.”
Like most musicians teetering between local hero and household name, Zauner is without a home for the next four months, spending her time off the road bouncing between Brooklyn and Philadelphia. The day we meet, she is dressed head to toe in black – matching sunglasses providing a shield from the last 48 hours spent trying to eek as much fun as possible out of the short time she has in the UK. “We went to Dalston Superstore last night,” she tells me, “We were trying to find my drummer a wife... It didn’t happen.” I decide to tell her about the last time I was there and witnessed a drag queen wee in a wine glass during a performance and then neck it, while an older gentleman – nothing on but a pair of white trainers – leaned casually against the bar. “That’s just reminded me! I had the strangest dream...” she starts, “There was a guy at our show that was completely naked and had a weird fake penis that had a fake disease on it. He kept trying to poke me with it and I was like ‘You can’t do this!’”
Born in Seoul and emigrating to the US when she was nine months old, Zauner grew up an only child in the woods of Eugene with five acres of land at her disposal. “I think something I explore a little bit in my music is how there’s this majestic, natural beauty in the Pacific Northwest, but also this kind of underlying eeriness,” she says, “like a Twin Peaks kind of thing. There’s a mystery in the woods.” The video for “Jane Cum” – which Zauner describes as inspired by a combination of True Detective and The Craft – follows a group of women traversing a dense forest, gathering an antler, a feather, and a prism of quartz for a ritual held around a fire. It ends with Zauner levitating, like Sarah Bailey in her bedroom, surrounded by her coven. It was actually filmed in Freehold, New Jersey, but the video captures the same darkness and mystery that permeates her formative surroundings. It illustrates the equilibrium of Psychopomp as a whole, which tilts almost imperceptibly between being light as a feather and heavy as night.
Zauner's teen years were spent the same as any kid growing up in a smaller town without much to do: underage drinking, sneaking out of the house, and fighting with her parents. “Being from Korea, my mom had certain values that were quite strict, like I was only allowed to go out one night a week if that, and I had so many extra curricular activities...,” she tells me. “I was very much a work horse my whole life. My mom in particular was really confused about my interests. Being a creative person, I think, is not really something that’s of value – but it comes out of a place of love, of not wanting to watch your child struggle as an artist. So there was a lot of: ‘When are you going to grow out of this?’ It’s funny that it actually ended up being my career.”
Beginning her foray into music with the piano at age five, Zauner picked up the guitar when she was 15 – not out of a deep love for the instrument, but because she saw it as a vehicle for expression. “I only wanted to play the guitar so I could write music,” she says. “As soon as I learned my first three chords I wrote my first song. It was just a tool to get me to be able to do the thing that I wanted to do.” It was studying creative writing and film at Bryn Mawr (a women’s liberal arts college just outside Philadelphia) though, that exposed her to the novelists (Marilynne Robinson, John Updike, Richard Ford) and structures that would go on to influence her approach to music – taking the experience of focusing on micro moments and operating within small spaces that comes from writing short fiction and applying it to songwriting. In 2013, an exercise in which she challenged herself to write a song a day for the entire month of June became her first release under the name Japanese Breakfast. “I wanted a project where I didn’t have time to edit myself,” she explains. “I felt really stuck and it was a really good way of opening [myself] back up again. A lot of the record has songs that were written in that kind of style… it’s like this sick game that I play with myself to come up with raw source material.”
There are many songs written about heartbreak – the majority of pop music is preoccupied with lost or unrequited love – but there are very few records that document the process of grief, and even fewer that manage to do it well. Bjork’s Vulnicura (meaning “cure for wounds”) is one, expressing the breakdown of her marriage in such a raw way the songs eventually became too painful for her to perform live. Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell – which shares Psychopomp's emotional base in Eugene – is another, trawling through autobiography and attempting to reconcile his mother’s absence both after her death and throughout his childhood. One thing they have in common is their rawness and fragility, but grief never sounds or feels the same, and often takes forms you wouldn’t expect. It may be stormy in substance, but Psychopomp washes over you like a calm, cleansing wave. Lyrics like “Oh, do you believe in heaven like you believed in me?” and “Cause I was lonely here and it’s lonely still” are delivered as if on clouds, but they still hit you like wrecking balls.
After Zauner’s mum passed away, songwriting became a way of communicating when grief left her uncharacteristically withdrawn. “I was really surprised because I just swallowed so much of myself. I think I was just in shock, and I still am in shock. I thought I was going to be way more cathartic and emotional, but really it was very quiet and very stunted,” she tells me. “Going through the process of someone’s illness you have to maintain so much positivity. Even when someone has stage 4 cancer you still have to be like, ‘We’re gonna beat it, it’s gonna be great, don’t worry about it.’ You can’t doubt it at all otherwise you’ll fall into it. I forced myself not to cry as much as possible during the course of her illness, because it’s like if I cry then my dad’s going to cry and my mom’s going to cry and it’s going to be exhausting. Let’s not spend our last moments like that, let’s be positive. So I think I conditioned myself so much that when she passed away, I didn’t know how to release that in a lot of ways. So the album is like a conversation with myself, in a lot of ways. I thought no one would understand me, so I expressed myself in a way that I was familiar with, and I communicated with a whole bunch of people.”
As far as The Kübler-Ross model goes, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Psychopomp delicately touches on them all. Opening track “In Heaven” is a period of darkness and empty shelves; sifting through belongings while the dog “just paces around all day / she’s sniffing at your empty room”. Further in, “Rugged Country” shows the dark underside of having to be strong for someone else (“It’s a heavy hand where I wear your death / as a wedding ring in the rugged country / I tend to your man in the home you had”), and “Heft” is spent fearing the worst while doing the most to hold it together (“I spent the summer trying to be sweeter, I spent the summer staying in… What if it’s the same dark coming?). In the end, something has to give. “Oh fuck it all then,” Zauner sings, her voice ringing out into an explosive clatter of cymbals and guitars.
Psychopomp nuzzles into the chasm between desire and reality, life and death. The album gained its title from The Dream Theories of Carl Jung, which Zauner came to after being unable to find consolation in religion or traditional forms of therapy. “I was getting very angry at myself,” she explains, “A lot of people in my immediate circle don’t really believe in religion anymore, and I think that’s all fine and well, but our new religion is science and technology, and those things can be very cold to have to turn to when you’re trying to explain something very mysterious and sad.” So, Zauner began seeing a Jungian analyst at the suggestion of her husband, Peter – who she married two weeks before her mum died ("because I didn't want things to end that way…” she wrote in a 2014 essay for Heartbreaking Bravery, “I wanted it to end with flowers and macarons and my mom watching her only kid get married”). In those sessions, which involve working to bring unconscious elements of the psyche into a more balanced relationship with the conscious, Zauner found comfort in the space it allows for uncertainty. “You can’t explain everything,” she tells me, “And it’s easier to allow yourself to believe in some mystery. Let mystery in a little bit, you know?”
In Greek mythology, the “psychopomp” is a guide who escorts the living to the afterlife without any judgement. “In a lot of ways that’s how I felt over the course of my mom’s illness and death,” Zauner tells me. “It wasn’t my place to tell her what to do; I had to just kind of be there to love her and support her through that and also my father and just try to be a body of comfort and positivity and not selfishly make it about how much pain I felt.” In Jungian psychology, it also refers to the space between the unconscious and the conscious. “What helped me through my grief was having so many dreams about my mother, and I privately felt like it was her visiting me. I know it sounds really hokey and vaguely religious, but it’s what helps me personally, and it’s something I allow myself to believe because it helps.” But psychopomp is also a word Zauner just thought was “really cute” – bearing resemblance to “psychotic pop”, which is a term she has used to describe some of the songs on the record. “Jane Cum” is maybe the most pertinent case, its vocal take embodying the kind of controlled melodrama that Kate Bush nailed on “Hounds of Love”.
Self-aware and unapologetic, the foundations of Psychopomp are built on needs – emotional, physical, spiritual – and the painful understanding that they can’t always be met. The way it tugs at you from the inside, longing can often feel like hunger; the human impulse to search wildly for something to fill a void created by circumstance. The trick, though, is learning how to live with it instead. “I feel very strong and, honestly, I feel like I’ve already gone through the worst thing that you can go through as an only child,” Zauner tells me.
“Ever since I was young it’s been my greatest fear to lose my mother. I envisioned being a lot older and having to go through it," she concludes, "but I feel like there is nothing in this world that I fear anymore, now that I’ve walked through a nightmare.”
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