Into the light with Japanese Breakfast

Published April 6, 2021, 3:54 PM

by Punch Liwanag

“I wanted to write about joy.” This statement was at the heart of the topic during our recent interview with Japanese Breakfast’s singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner.

“My first two records ‘Psychopomp’ and ‘Soft Sounds From Another Planet’ were largely about the death of my mother and about grief trauma and suffering and a lot of dark, heavy material. Even the colors of those album are melancholy blue, red and dark,” Zauner said.

But all that is about to change for her forthcoming album.

“The theme of the new album is joy, and the title is ‘Jubilee’ which is like this biblical year of release,” exclaimed Zauner. “In my head I just saw this yellow image (and) lots of warm tones for the next record. And I think it was just a natural sort of progression coming from a really dark material and I just wanted to do something unexpected and write about joy.”

The first single titled “Be Sweet” is a sonic representation of Zauner’s current mindset. Upbeat, melodic and seeming to burst with colors.  This song is about forgiveness as she sings: ‘I wanna believe in something / so come and get your woman / pacify her rage / take the time to undo your lies / make it up once more with feeling / recognize your mistake and I’ll let you back in.’” In the chorus she sings in a high ebullient voice: ‘be sweet to me baby /I wanna believe in you.’

Asked whether this is a conscious tweak from her previous efforts, the Korean-American musician answered, “absolutely!”

“It’s been four years since (the last) and we finished the (new) record in 2019 and it has been 3 years but I feel like I’ve learned so much as a composer and as producer. It’s a way more mature sounding record. It’s also ambitious. For the first time I felt confident to try to do string and brass arrangements. There’s a lot more instrumentation and I think the sound are much bigger.”

Zauner also said that “Jubillee” is “also the Asian X-Men character.” This is a nod to her Asian roots and it seems, a timely reference to the discrimination that Asian-Americans are confronting in the America today. Sure enough, Zauner, a Korean who immigrated as a child to the U.S. and has been living most of her life in Eugene, Oregon, was asked what she thinks about the issues her fellows are facing.

After positing that perhaps early Asian immigrants “felt humbled and indebted to the opportunity” of living in America that they allowed for this kind of harassment and mistreatment for many years. Zauner believes that, “I think maybe were entering this new generation that’s like, no longer willing to put our head down and accept what’s going on.  Because a lot of us feel like, ‘you know what I am an American, I was raised here my whole life. And I’m not going to be quiet about it.’ So what we’re seeing is a lot of reckoning with that kind of violence. I will say that this is a new thing for me and a difficult thing to speak about but I’m trying to learn.  Especially that I have a largely Asian-American platform, I do feel the responsibility to talk openly about it and be better prepared for this dialogue. You know just trying to raise awareness and encourage people to speak up and no longer allow for this mistreatment. A lot of people know that this has been going on for a long time.”

As for going out again to promote the new album? 

“The hope is that by the fall or the late summer we might be able to tour again because of the vaccinations. At this point I’m just so excited to let  go (of the album) and move along because it was supposed to have come out last year actually, but because of the pandemic, we thought it would be better to push it a year. (Now) It feels like It could really be a good time for this record to come out because it’s all about, feeling again and like a real release of emotions, experiencing joy again. And I think it’s really in line with all these themes hopefully.’

And the obligatory inspirational message to indie pop and Japanese Breakfast listeners in Manila?

“I guess all I would really say is that I miss them. We had such a good time at Summer Noise (fest in Manila) can’t wait to come back. It holds a special place in my heart. And I really hope that next year we can come back again. Stay safe, stay healthy. And I hope you guys take care.”

“Jubilee” will be released on June 4.