Photo: Ebru Yildiz
It’s been a while since Japanese Breakfast first shared the ballads made in her remote Oregon family home with the world. Last year’s second album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, pulled her expansive beauty into a new, spacier dimension. I caught up with Michelle Zauner to discuss her output so far and the upcoming Thekla show.
“I’m so excited to be coming back over,” she says. “We normally come when it’s quite cold and miserable out so it will be nice to come in May when the weather is a bit different.” There will be fresh wind in their sails after performing a huge set at Coachella too. “I guess we’ll be more confident from that, playing something like Coachella really makes you realise this is a real job now.”
The band are aware that it’s an entirely different discipline to playing their own shows though. “It’s a totally different experience because there’s always a sea of people when you play a festival and the setlist is shorter so you have to play the more in-your-face, up-beat material. Whereas, at a club gig, people are there just to see you so it feels like you have to bring a different, more intimate show. So they’re kind of different muscles to flex really but I enjoy both.” Touring as a whole has become slightly more manageable for the band since their second album. “It’s gotten easier over time,” she says, “I used to do a lot of DIY touring so there was a lot of sleeping on couches and things have gotten a little more professional over time. So it’s definitely become a lot easier to just enjoy.”
“This is a real job now.”
Michelle is enjoying the luxury of choice when it comes to the live show now as well. “It’s really exciting to have two albums of material that people know. We’ve incorporated one song that hasn’t been released as well so it’s cool to see how people respond to songs they know and songs they haven’t heard before.” The shift in sounds across the two records so far has also proven interesting in the live setting. She continues, “It’s been great to see people respond to Soft Songs From Another Planet because I feel like it was a little more mellow and melancholy so maybe it took longer to sink in. Psychopomp was so vulnerable yet so in your face, that it was quite easy to attach yourself to in a way.”
“I used to do a lot of DIY touring so there was a lot of sleeping on couches”
Like most musical endeavours, the first two records came together under quite different circumstances. “I had no expectations for the debut, I thought maybe I could convince a small label to put out some copies and I’d sell them in the next ten years,” Michelle explains. “It took about a year really, I was doing what I wanted and chasing my own sound. Anything was a possibility and there was no ticking clock of a label waiting for something.” She says the next album was a much more impulsive beast, “For Soft Sounds we got signed to Dead Oceans and had a month to complete the project, so we did it in one studio and it was a very concentrated process.” Although they were drastically different experiences, the processes did share an outlook on arrangement: “I went into both [records] without anticipating what a live band would sound like; I set no boundaries. We could just be very playful and that was the environment that I wanted to have. I feel like that was conducive to creating some special material.”
Recording the debut in her hometown was also a big factor in the development of the sound we hear today. Michelle gives this some thought before explaining, “I think growing up in the Pacific Northwest was really majestic but also very lonely. It’s this rainy, grey expanse that’s populated by so much beautiful nature. I grew up in a pretty small town, my parents’ house was in the woods outside of the city and they have a house at the bottom of their property.” She remembers fondly, “I wrote the majority of Psychopomp there, deer would just pass by the window and it was a really idyllic place to write that record. It was also such a lonely, suffocating experience in a way. It was a huge part of the landscape the album.”
“I went into both [records] without anticipating what a live band would sound like; I set no boundaries.”
If you listen closely to the records, you can hear the sounds of nature nestled within them. Michelle explains this is important for the overall atmosphere. “You can incorporate any sound into a song and make it fit if you want to. There’re so many ways to elevate music that goes beyond guitar, bass and drums. That’s something I really like to explore in my music and I want to do more of.”
Now though the focus is simply on making the dates ahead as enjoyable as possible. Michelle says, “We’re going to have a diverse range of songs from across our two records, to make the most of it. There’ll be lots of energy – expect to see four happy Americans bouncing around.”
Japanese Breakfast plays Thekla on 16th May, with Soft Sounds From Another Planet out now on Dead Oceans.