By Lauren Foliart
Michelle Zauner is making an unforgettable name for herself under the alias Japanese Breakfast. Her sound ranges from lo-fi punk rock to experimental pop, situating her somewhere between the likes of Sleater Kinney and Metric. But ethereal soundscapes and inescapable lyrics give J.Brekkie (as fans fondly call her) an offbeat identity from the rest. As indie rock enters a renaissance era, Zauner is proof of what will come. She is as motivated as she is talented -- a female musician who continues to take “steps” despite an oppressive music industry (see: Neil Portnow’s outrageous post-GRAMMY comment towards women artists). And among other things, she turned her life story into a masterpiece of work; that alone is worth a listen.
Zauner’s career started most notably as the frontwoman of the Philadelphian emo group Little Big League. Misunderstood by critics as being nothing more than a “basement band,” they did garner attention locally, upholding the small remnants of a Philadelphia punk scene. In 2014, Zauner left the East Coast and her band behind, returning home to Eugene, Oregon upon news of her mom being diagnosed with cancer. These events, and the death of her mother shortly after, ultimately led to her solo career as Japanese Breakfast.
Her debut album, Psychopomp, she wrote only two months after her mom passed away. Over the course of nine short tracks, Zauner carries listeners across a spectrum of her emotions, touching on everything from unapologetic sex to the existential crisis of losing a loved one. The album is deeply personal -- a tribute to Zauner’s mother (who appears on the cover with her hand extended as if it could almost be touched) and a somber portrait of the daughter who lost her mother.
Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Zauner’s second studio album, continues the story that Psychopomp started. If nothing else, it upholds the honest character we have come to know lying beneath Japanese Breakfast. But the album delivers even more. Her arrangements bring a much bigger sound, emboldening Zauner’s lyrics as if she wants them heard from space. The first single, “Machinist,” is the largest step in this direction, beautifully showcasing her intention to push herself as an artist and solidify her career as a musician.
"This was the first song I wrote for the record. It's about a woman who falls in love with a robot. It started with the synth line, and I had this idea for the spoken word, and sort of like a hip-hop skit in the middle. I got really shy about it at first, but Craig Hendrix, who co-produced the album with me, really encouraged me to keep going... He had the brilliant idea to incorporate the vocoder harmonies. I forget who came up with the idea to do the auto-tune... I had done a cover of Cher's "Believe" around this time, so that may have been its beginning." - Michelle Zauner, NPR Interview
This year, Zauner will embark on a massive U.S. tour with Oakland-based artist Jay Som. Together, they help prove that women can break barriers in the music industry despite the biases of the people who run it. Both of Asian American descent (Zauner, by the way, is part Korean and Jewish; she just liked the name Japanese Breakfast), their talent also aids to close an even wider gap in an undeniably prejudicial profession.