“I want to believe in you!” Michelle Zauner hollars on “Be Sweet.” “I want to believe in something!”
It’s a standout track on a new album full of standouts. Jubilee is one of the year’s great indie pop albums, and Zauner — better known as Japanese Breakfast — comes across as exuberant, reveling in the joy of new possibilities. In this song, “I want to believe in you” doesn’t sound desperate as much as hopeful — a belief in the possibility of learning to trust again. True to its title, Jubilee is a much-needed shot of elation following a year of global hardship, loss and difficulty.
It’s extra surprising coming from Zauner, for a few reasons. For one thing, Japanese Breakfast’s two previous albums were excellent, but not exactly known for their cheerful, positive vibes. For another, Zauner herself is coming off her own extraordinarily difficult season following the loss of her mother after a long battle with cancer, an experience she chronicles in her memoir, Crying in H Mart.
“I had written two records, largely about grief and loss, and purged everything I needed to say about that experience in this book,” she says. “I literally closed the book on that part of my life and started this new chapter.”
“And I thought that the most unexpected and exciting thing to write about would be something totally different,” she continues. “Like joy.”
You get the sense that it took time for Zauner to feel like she could honestly express this energy. She had to dwell in her darker seasons, process them and express them through her writing and music before something like Jubilee really made sense. The result is a cohesive album that sounds earned in every way. Given the road Zauner’s taken to get to this point, that’s no surprise.
Winning the Lottery
Zauner was born in Seoul, the daughter of a Korean mother and a Jewish-American father. Her parents came to the states before she turned one and Zauner was raised in Eugene, Oregon, eventually attending Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. It was around this time that she started getting involved in music, playing with indie pop and emo acts until her mother’s diagnosis brought her back to Oregon to move in as her mother’s caretaker. It was during this time that she started recording music on her own, confronting the grief and pain of losing her mom, along with her own feelings of guilt about their relationship. Japanese Breakfast was born, releasing a debut album in 2016, two years after Zauner’s mother passed away.
Zauner was working a corporate job as a sales assistant when her debut Psychopomp released. “I was obviously not very happy there,” she says. “But I had tried to be a musician. I’d worked at being a musician for six to seven years already. And I felt like if it hadn’t already happened for me, it was probably not going to happen to me. And it was time to move on.”
Psychopomp was supposed to be a “private little record,” but it performed well. About that same time, an essay she’d written was selected as Glamour’s Essay of the Year. Music labels and literary agents started knocking on her door about the same time, wanting another album and a full book. It was gratifying. But it was a lot. She decided to pour herself into music because, as she puts it, it frankly seemed like the more realistic career choice.
“Becoming a writer seemed even more impractical and like winning the lottery to me than a career in music,” Zauner says. “I knew booking agents. I knew labels. I knew bands that had made it. I didn’t know any writers.”
Zauner’s sophomore album Soft Sounds From Another Planet released to enormous acclaim, catapulting her to a new level of success. From the outside, Zauner’s success looked meteoric. For her, it was the long-awaited payoff of years of hard work.
“We slept on the floor at people’s houses for the first two headlining tours,” she says. “And then by the third one, it was four of us piled into a Holiday Inn. And now it’s like, ‘Oh, we get two Holiday Inns.’ And then we get to get three Holiday Inns. It has felt like a real climb.”
She decided to take the forward momentum as a sign that it was time to expand the essay that had attracted Glamour’s attention and turn her experience with grief and loss into a full book. It turned out to be far more difficult than she’d expected.
“I went in thinking I’m going to revisit some really beautiful memories that I have of my relationship with my mother and revel in those, because it’s the closest way that I can recreate being with her,” Zauner says. “I wanted to expose how difficult it was to live as a caretaker and just how real that struggle was and purge it from my life in a way and bare the wounds of that experience.”
That was the goal, but what Zauner found surprised her. Not just memories, but unexplored feelings and unresolved tensions. “I think I always lived with this real guilt that I was such a difficult child and teenager,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much I felt like I would learn about my mom and about myself.”
In particular, much of Crying in H Mart deals with Zauner learning to cook the Korean dishes her mother loved. Zauner and her mother came from, as she has it, “very different cultural backgrounds,” which made for a very “nuanced, complicated love.”
“It’s not something we see in mainstream media very often,” she says. “It feels very new.”
That created tension in their bond, but Zauner says writing the book helped her sort though some of those perceived obstacles, even as she strove to be as unsparing in her analysis as possible.
“I came out of that with such a profound appreciation of my mother and understanding of why I am the way that I am,” she says. “It’s in a way that I couldn’t have even anticipated.”
But writing the book was therapeutic for Zauner, and gave her a way to work through her own grief in a tangible way. She not only learned new things about her relationship with her mom. She was able to find grace, too. “I was really able to forgive myself and see it from a totally different perspective.”
The experience gave Zauner a different way to think about the grief of others too, as grief often does. She has compassion for friends who just didn’t know what to say. She knows people feel the need to speak into the hurt in ways that will bring some healing and respite, and she doesn’t judge people for feeling that way, but she does urge them to understand that words have limited power in moments of loss. “I think so much of it is just not necessarily saying something, but showing up,” she says.
She remembers an impulse that she calls a “really sick thing” to go sell her mother’s belongings at a flea market. “I really shouldn’t have done that,” she says ruefully. “I really should have just like, I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish by doing that. I think that it just felt like I had to do it. I don’t know.”
In the midst of a moment she deeply regrets, Zauner cherishes the presence of a friend who simply offered her presence. “She sat there with me and would let me do things like that,” she says. “Would just show up and be there. Not necessarily try to come up with anything to say, but just be an understanding person that knows I’m going through a really difficult time in my life and that she has to be there in order to support me.”
She also credits her husband for, in her words, simply “sitting there.”
“He would just sit there sometimes,” she muses. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if he wasn’t sitting there.”
It’s clear that as profoundly devastating as the loss of her mother was, the ensuing journey has had moments of remarkable gratitude, both in terms of her coming to terms with her relationship with her mother and discovering new depths to her relationship with herself and the people she loves. All of that has helped pave the way for Jubilee.
“It was actually a real relief to explore this new part of myself,” Zauner says of writing the new album. “It’s such a broad theme. I think I just wanted to fling myself to the other side of the spectrum of human experience.”
Jubilee isn’t entirely one-dimensional. There are moments of anger, betrayal and hurt. But the overall attitude is one of celebration. As she puts it, even the songs about sadness end up sounding joyful — a juxtaposition that comes from the maturity of realizing how many layers every experience is made up of.
Compared to writing a book, writing the album was a breeze. “A wonderful experience,” she says. It felt familiar, even comforting to return to the art she’d cut her teeth on. But she’s still excited to get back to writing more books. “I definitely feel like there’s another book in me,” she says. “Just not right now, not for a while.”
But she doesn’t need to do anything for a while. After the seasons Zauner has endured, a break feels well-deserved. But she’s not done. Not by a longshot. In fact, the things she’s endured have ended up making her feel more capable, not less. “I learned so much from this experience,” she says. “I’m really excited to apply this sort of lessons that I learned.”
“Everything kind of seems possible.”