Space is the place for Japanese Breakfast‘s Michelle Zauner
With 2016’s Psychopomp—a collection of songs deeply informed by the death of her mother and her reach for hope in the face of sadness—Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner bowled over audiences with her intimate, despairing bedroom synth-pop. Whether it was people who knew Zauner from her time with Philadelphia punk band Little Big League, critics, Girls’ Lena Dunham (Psychopomp became a topic of her podcast) or those experiencing similar loss, Zauner’s solo debut struck all the right chords and hit all the tautest nerves and wounded souls in need of healing.
“Getting that attention was nice,” says Zauner. “As an artist, writing work so personal, you feel alone. It was satisfying to see people reaching out to me, that there was a world of people with whom I could share such pain—mine, theirs—and it was more comforting than anything else. Challenging, too, as you can feel so awkward in your experiences, sharing them and such.”
Japanese Breakfast’s latest album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet (Dead Oceans), is no less focused on fragile self-reflection, spiritual pain and death—occasionally all at once—than Psychopomp. This time, however, with the help of a bigger studio (“any studio, really, and not a bedroom,” says Zauner with a laugh) and co-producer/instrumentalist Craig Hendrix, Zauner is seeking healing at the rim of the cosmos, looking toward the insurmountable limits of the universe, space and science fiction for guidance and a sense of a future.
“This album actually started life as a science-fiction musical about a man who falls in love with a robot, but that was just somehow too restrictive to me,” she says, pointing out how steely new songs such as the electro-vibey, Vocoder/AutoTune-heavy “Machinist” is a holdover from her Asimov-specked first thought for a second album. “I ended up just writing all about myself instead of a robot.”
Robots aside (Zauner wanted to borrow from 808s & Heartbreak-era Kanye for “Machinist”), Soft Sounds From Another Planet came from a far more deliberate place than the writing and crafting of Psychopomp. “I used to write, and a lot, without the worry for perfection,” she says. “That time, though, I was stuck in a very bad place and just needed to get out.”
Despair will do that to a person, and the narratives for Psychopomp revolved tenderly around Zauner’s return to her native Oregon before and after her mother’s 2014 death from cancer. “I was in this house in the Eugene woods with my dad, supporting him after losing his wife of 32 years,” she says. “There were things he couldn’t do, like put her clothes and makeup away. I felt, too, as if I couldn’t do anything.”
When Zauner was able to work again, she became obsessed with productivity, packing her days with tasks, a subject she embraces handsomely on “Diving Woman,” on which she claims to be a woman of regimen. “Work was safe,” she says. “I wouldn’t have to think about human stuff, which just may have something to do with the alien thing.”
When she looks at the consciously expanded vision of Soft Sounds From Another Planet and how it broadened her view of the self, she sees Psychopomp as small and focused, a micro-lens observing little but the immediacy of heartache. “All I could see was my mother—everything in my life was directed there,” she says. “I was confused and vulnerable and raw.”
With Soft Sounds, she’s pulling back that lens to a more panoramic view of life, here and beyond. “I’m moving on from death and mourning in general and becoming alive, yet I’m aware of the connection that I have to those who have suffered loss,” she says. “I’m making sense of the world after such struggle.”