Haruki Murakami once said, “Whatever it is you're seeking won't come in the form you're expecting.”
It's a sentiment that should strike a chord with any music lover who's had the experience of hearing something they need to hear from an unexpected source, those magical moments when you hear something completely new and unexpected, and yet it feels like something you've loved your whole life.
Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner is starting to master the art of creating those moments.
For most people, their first exposure to Japanese Breakfast was the 2016 single "In Heaven." A three-and-a-half minute long swirl of sighing vocals, widescreen choruses, and twinkling instrumentation, at first blush it sounds like a sweet slice of dream-pop. And then you listen to the lyrics chronicling Zauner's coming to terms with her mother's death, and the song turns into a gut-wrencher. For anyone coming to terms with the loss of a loved one, it hits that unexpected Murakami sweet spot.
Zauner's debut album, Psychopomp, continued that delicate balancing act between pop sweetness and harsh emotion. Already an emo vet as the former singer for Philadelphia's Little Big League, Zauner crafted an album that was achingly personal but packed with lo-fi pop hooks. It was an album that sounded like it was recorded in a basement with choruses that were born to ring out in auditoriums.
Earlier this year, Japanese Breakfast created another moment of unexpected magic with "Machinist," the first single off Zauner's sophomore album. A synth-heavy, electro-pop song about falling in love with a robot, it's a striking departure from her past work. And yet, much like "In Heaven," it's the kind of song that sounds like you've been waiting your whole life to hear it.
Zauner is currently touring to support her new album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, which comes out on July 14. We talked with her about "Machinist", her time in Philadelphia, and which albums inspire her.
New Times: Let's start off by talking about “Machinist.” Musically and lyrically, it's a lot different than your past work. Is it kind of an indicator of what the rest of Soft Sounds From Another Planet will sound like?
Michelle Zauner: Not really – I think that song is actually quite different from the rest of the album. I chose it as the first single because we've been playing it live for a really long time. A lot of people have been asking us about it. It was the first song that I wrote for the record – unintentionally, actually. There was a company that wanted to commission me to write and record two songs for them, and that was one of them. I really liked it cause it was fun, but they rejected it. So I had this song, and I thought I was going to write a sci-fi musical because I wanted to take things in a different direction. The last record was just so personal. It had a narrow lens – it was so subjective to me. But when I started going down that path, it felt really restrictive and phony, so I end up infusing a very light sci-fi concept to some of the songs. A lot of the songs are about disassociating and taking days at a time, kinda like you're floating in space. That's what a lot of the new songs have in common.
Sonically, though, “Machinist” is definitely the most different on the new record.
In some other interviews you've done recently, you've described Soft Sounds From Another Planet as a
“Philadelphia record.” What did you mean by that? Were you just talking about where it was recorded, or was there a particular kind of Philadephia vibe or sound you were trying to capture?
I don't think there's a particular sound or vibe of Philadelphia that I was trying to accomplish. It was more a question of, does it feel different to record in Eugene than in Philadelphia. For me, a lot of Psychopomp is about feeling suffocated by your childhood home – that it has this new, terrible association to it. I had a really beautiful childhood in Eugene, and after my mom passed away it became painted with this claustrophobic, terrible feeling. A lot of those songs are about feeling stuck there. This new album doesn't have that feeling because it was recorded in Philadelphia. It gave me more distance, and I felt really comfortable there. So a lot of the new record is about that, about using your friends and your partner to overcome some hardships.
More than anything, I spent a lot of last year on the road. So some of the songs on the new record are about just chugging through those days. Like “Diving Woman” is about life on the road and feeling guilty that you're not with your partner or you're not at home.
Do you write a lot while you're touring?
I've never written on the road. I come up with a lot of ideas while I'm on the road, and I'll jot down lyrics, but I need to have privacy and time to write songs. And those are two things that you don't really have at all while you're on tour.
When you started off as Japanese Breakfast, you did a song-a-month project called June that you posted online. Some of those early tunes evolved into songs on Psychopomp. Did a similar thing happen for the new record? Are their songs on there that grew out of those song-a-month numbers, or is it all new material that you penned post-Psychopomp?
It's a combination of the two. “Boyish” used to be a Little Big League song, but it also started as “Day 6” on June. “Jimmy Fallon Big” was something that was on there, too. The title track was “Day 30” on June, and “Body Is A Blade” is something off of Where Is My Great Big Feeling? I really like creating really lo-fi, raw source material and coming back to it, maybe a year later, when you have more perspective on what songs and melodies stuck with you, using them as a blueprint to structure songs and focus on other elements of the song that you couldn't come up within the moment of creating it. I really like working that way, but there are some songs on there that are totally new, like “Diving Woman.”
Speaking of blueprints: were there any particular albums or artists who inspired you as you were working on the new record?
I think Craig and I – Craig Hendrix is the co-producer on the record, he helped me arrange it and performed half the instruments on the record – we were both listening a lot to The Soft Bulletin, The Flaming Lips' album. When we went in, we wanted to experiment with larger arrangements and really big sweeping choruses. Craig went to Berklee and his primary instrument was vocals, so he helped me with the harmonies. We also used a lot of synth strings, which is something they use a lot on The Soft Bulletin. I was also listening to Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump, Roy Orbison. I was interested in making these Orbison-esque ballads with big choruses. And The Carpenters were an big influence, too.
Going from being in a band format with Little Big League to doing your own thing, do you miss having that close collaborative relationship with a band? Or do you relish being the captain of your own ship?
I definitely relish it. I think there's something confining about the band format, in that you feel really restricted to your role – as a guitar player or... it's hard to conceptualize other instrumentation when you're working with other people. I work really closely with co-producers, like the folks who helped arrange Psychopomp. So you still have collaborators, but the direction is a little more focused.
Japanese Breakfast is playing with (Sandy) Alex on Tuesday, June 13, at The Rebel Lounge in Phoenix.