A few years ago, indie singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner considered quitting music altogether after recording her debut album, “Psychopomp,” under the moniker of Japanese Breakfast.
It was an emotional period for Zauner: She had left Philadelphia to return to Oregon to take care of her mother, who was suffering from cancer and later died. Zauner wrote the album two months after her mother’s passing, helped out her father, and then moved to New York City, where she got a job in advertising.
“I wanted to do something that maybe my mom would've wanted me to do,” Zauner told NBC News about that brief career detour. “I just hated it so much. There was no creative element to it all. It was so exhausting for me because I would go into the office, work all day, and leave the office feeling completely unfulfilled.”
“I think that a lot of Asian Americans are pushed to learn to how to play an instrument at an early age, and yet when we do something creative with it, it's kind of a shock and looked down on."
Zauner mixed and later shopped “Psychopomp” to a few labels without any luck. Eventually the record was released last year via the Maryland-based indie label Yellow K to critical acclaim, earning mentions in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Consequence of Sound. Zauner was further encouraged to get back into music after indie musician Mistki offered an invitation to tour with her.
Now Japanese Breakfast returns with her latest record, the atmospheric and surrealistic “Soft Sounds From Another Planet,” which is scheduled for release on July 14. If the songs on “Psychopomp”' drew from Zauner's grief over her mother's passing, then the music on “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” is a work about healing and moving forward, inspired by space and science fiction.
“When you think about a record, it's kind of like an archive of a period of time that you're experiencing, and it surrounds certain thoughts that are already on your mind,” she said. “I think a lot of the songs were written about the experience of feeling really mechanical day to day and trying to use that as a means of working through trauma.”
For Zauner, the circumstances surrounding the recording of “Soft Sounds From Another Planet,” which draws on electropop, ambient, and folk influences, were different from the previous album.
“Lyrically and emotionally I was in a really different place,” she said. “I view the world in a different way after that happened. A lot of the songs [on 'Soft Sounds'] are kind of like a step back, whereas ‘Psychopomp’ was more raw, vulnerable, and concentrated in a shorter amount of time.”
The first song unveiled off of the album is the up-tempo “Machinist,” a love story of sorts whose music video evokes a little bit of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“I was talking to a friend of mine who was rejected for the Mars One project,” she said. “After a little bit of time, I thought this whole record was going to be a science fiction musical about a woman who falls in love with a robot.”
On the flip side, the track “Boyish” deals with the subjects of sexual impotency and jealousy.
“That song was written about being in love with someone and feeling like you're not what they exactly want from you, and wanting so badly to change that perception,” Zauner said. “I wrote that song quite a long time ago, it's a melodramatic romantic plea to someone.”
In contrast to some of the electronic-influenced songs on "Soft Sounds," “This House” has a stripped-down folk sound. According to Zauner it was the last song written for the album after she was touring non-stop and being away from her partner.
“I think it felt fitting to end on a quieter note,” Zauner said. “I just remember waiting in my bandmate's house waiting for my partner, and there was all these women in the house and all of them playing guitar and cooking. It was a really nice quiet moment after a long cycle of touring and waiting for your partner to come home and thinking of all of the things you've done together over the years.”
Zauner — whose father is white and worked in Seoul and whose mother was Korean — didn't see music an option to pursue until she was about 16 years old.
“I think that a lot of Asian Americans are pushed to learn to how to play an instrument at an early age, and yet when we do something creative with it, it's kind of a shock and looked down on,” she said. “My mom was definitely not super supportive of me as an artist. I don't blame her. I think it was truly out of love. She was concerned about my financial stability. I spent a lot of time going back and forth thinking that at some point I wasn't going to be interested in [music] anymore.”
Zauner co-founded the Philadelphia emo band Little Big League six years ago; they had recorded two albums when she tended to her ailing mother in Oregon, and then afterwards started making music as Japanese Breakfast. Last year, Zauner took part in a tour with fellow Asian-American female indie acts Mitski and Jay Som.
“It was really nice because there were a lot of Asians who came to the shows, and I feel like we gained a huge fanbase on that tour,” she said. “I think the landscape is definitely changing a lot and it's really exciting to have people feel that way.”
“When you grow up in a largely white community as an Asian American, you kind of resent that part of yourself, because you so badly want to fit in when you're a teenager."
In addition to her music, Zauner is currently working on a writing project that is an extension of an essay she wrote for Glamour about Korean food and its personal connection with her mother.
“There's so much under the surface of that story, my experience of living with my mom, growing up half-Korean,” she said. “When you grow up in a largely white community as an Asian American, you kind of resent that part of yourself, because you so badly want to fit in when you're a teenager. I really rejected that part of my identity for a very long time. When my mother passed away, I suddenly found myself so desperately want to connect with it in a way that I never had before. I want to write a book that I would've liked to have read when I went through that.”
Given what she experienced her personal life in the last few years, Zauner said she doesn't know if “closure” is the right word to describe where she is now.
“When you go through something like that, it's never closed,” she said. “You're always cycling different feelings. My emotions on 'Psychopomp' are very different from the ones they are on this [new] album. Because 'Psychopomp' was so much about my grief and loss, it was almost like I couldn't write about that anymore.”
“Then I realized you're going to be writing about this for the rest of your life because it changed me so much,” she added. “More than anything, it's really therapeutic to use art to sort through your feelings and explore and navigate them. With these two albums, I really stuck myself in the middle of what I was feeling and waded through it and figured out how I felt and put it into words.”