Michelle Zauner closes the door on H Mart in quest for joy as Japanese Breakfast

Jul 28, 2021 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge Japanese Breakfast. - Peter Ash Lee
Peter Ash Lee
Japanese Breakfast.

It is quite possible that no one has ever looked as happy as Michelle Zauner looks while gripping a petite watermelon on stage in Atlanta. That moment, captured at various angles by various fans, was rivaled only by Zauner's reaction to a marriage proposal that took place the following night in Birmingham, Alabama, during Japanese Breakfast's set.

"Our first proposal," Zauner wrote on Instagram.

Japanese Breakfast fans, too, are experiencing a collective major first.

"It had been 513 days since my last concert," a fan wrote on social media. "Japanese Breakfast was a good one to start on."

Another described a recent performance as "dreamy, magical, and overwhelmingly crowded," adding that Japanese Breakfast was the perfect "welcome back to the world" show.

"First show back was the sweetest," another captioned a distant photo of Zauner playing guitar in Georgia. "

"Could not have asked for my first show back to be this fucking amazing," someone else wrote.

"Oh, it's a rush," another captioned a series of shaky phone videos, a reference to the opening track on Japanese Breakfast's third studio record, Jubilee, which explores the idea that one does not need to be miserable to create meaningful art.

"It's really overwhelming and surreal," Zauner tells Metro Times during a phone call en route to Maryland, the first stop on the band's mostly sold-out 33-date U.S. tour.

"You know, I mean, there's so many changes for us as a band. We've just really grown. We're a six-piece band now with nine people total, and this is the first time we've been on a bus. And then on top of all that we haven't played a show in a really long time. So it's just like a sensory overload," she says. "I don't know if I'm prepared for it. But I am certainly bracing myself for it. It's a strange time, and we're just navigating it to the best of our ability."

What Zauner has also been navigating — both quietly and outwardly — since her mother's death in 2014 has been a bitter, sweet, and umami flight through fermented grief, memory, and, eventually, joy. (See: watermelon photo.)

Born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Eugene, Oregon, the 32-year-old performer, New York Times bestselling author of Crying in H Mart, and soon-to-be screenwriter is ready to turn the page on exploring her mother's life, death, and their relationship, which mostly revolved around kimchi, ganjang gejang, and a repressed longing to understand one another, something they were only able to truly accomplish after Zauner's mother was diagnosed with stage IV squamous-cell carcinoma in her stomach at the age of 56.

"... You'll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom's soy-sauce eggs and cold radish soup," Zauner writes in the opening pages of Crying in H Mart, her unflinching memoir released earlier this year. "Or in the freezer section, holding a stack of dumpling skins, thinking of all the hours that Mom and I spent at the kitchen table folding minced pork and chives into the thin dough. Sobbing near the dry goods, asking myself, 'Am I even Korean anymore if there's no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?'"

The first taste of what would become her debut memoir was teased when Zauner won an essay contest for Glamour in 2016. In her essay, Zauner reamed white dudes offering unsolicited commentary on Korean cuisine, something Zauner credits as being the connective tissue between her and her mother during their life together and in life without her. She describes the extremes of Korean food served scolding hot or on ice or fresh and still alive, still moving. She also details dreams where her mother appears sick and dying and dreams that feature her mother as radiant, healthy, and cancer-free, which only occured after Zauner began steeping herself in learning how to cook the Korean food her mother had never taught her to make.

Even though Zauner excavated the unbearable weight and discomfort of loss on her band's first two records — 2016's Psychopomp, where she describes the family dog pacing outside of her mother's door after she died and the desire to churn like Amish butter in an effort to find and remove "the dark" from her mother's stomach, and 2017's Soft Sounds from Another Planet, a record that grasps the air for something that had already floated away — it was clear there was more healing to be done.

"I mean, honestly, I try not to think too much about other people reading it," Zauner says. "And so much of what I do as an artist I feel like is just trying to figure out and sort through what has happened and what I'm feeling. And I think that somehow by creating a narrative around that, it's pretty healing for me. There were certainly moments that I had pause and was reminded that I was sharing this with a larger audience. Honestly, I had no idea how large of an audience but you know, there are certainly things that I kept out of the book," she says. "But with the book, it became so much more who I am, you know, it is quite overwhelming. I feel really grateful that I have made something that has touched people in this way. In some ways, like, it's heavy."

Before the book was released in April, debuting on The New York Times bestsellers list — to which Zauner tweeted "NOW I'M JUST CRYING," there was already an offer to option the memoir for the big screen. Initially, she wanted nothing to do with it.

"I was approached about it in October, and I had finished the book in August," she says. "It was just too close, and I just felt like I was done writing about this. But then as time went on, I really felt like ... the only person who could take the creative liberty that I felt was needed for the story would be me. I'm really excited."

On her third record as Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee — an album that was supposed to be released well before the book last year but was instead released less than two months after Crying in H Mart this year, a decision Zauner ultimately says made for a stronger narrative between the two — Zauner sheds grief to better embrace the Kate Bush and Björk of it all by going big and bold on an almost entirely sorrowless third entry. Almost.

"I think that it's really fair to say that it's more rooted in the present," she says of Jubilee. "I mean, I remember writing "Kokomo, IN" and it was a really new experience for me to feel like I could write a very sweet song in which I wasn't really excavating any trauma or, you know, exposing something hyper personal and it could still feel like it had meaning. I think because I had turned in the rough draft of the book before I started working on this record, in a way I felt like I had said everything I needed to say about this huge part of my life. And that was really refreshing for me to just try to write about something else for a while and explore different parts of the human experience and my life," she says. "And so I did feel less like I was looking back and more like I was looking forward to this album."

On Jubilee, Zauner combines lush, upbeat arrangements with sunshiney synths that call to mind standing joyfully through the moonroof of a limo, as well as healthy doses of sensual saxophone licks that are equal parts sultry and dancy. But that isn't to say she's completely abandoned the pain that led her here. Sprinkled throughout the record like rice at a wedding or sweaty wads of flower petals on a casket lid, Zauner carefully injects Jubilee with reminders that, while most things are temporary, love is "just a single slow desire fermenting," breaking down and evolving, to be savored again and again.

"They stopped your heart and then you died/And under the fluorescents, another sterile room/Where no one ever tells you just how clinical death looks. And I can't unsee it, the two shots it took," she sings on "In Hell," a song about putting a dog down and a companion to Pyschopomp's "In Heaven." Zauner says it might be the saddest she's ever written.

The pain, for Zauner, is still there, though no longer the predominant feeling bubbling to the surface now that she's closed the literal book on the urgency and slow and constant rumbling that only the death of a mother can impel. But, for now, she's focusing on grinning ear to ear, posing with fruit, celebrating love and catharsis through a record that is nothing short of a miracle, one that can only be forged from the eternal love of a daughter in search of flavor.

"Honestly, I'm in this really unique place right now where I'm kind of a clean slate for the first time," Zauner says. "I've had three huge projects in the works for probably the past five years. Now, I'm trying to just be a bit more in the moment and search for the next big project that I want to focus on. I mean, obviously, I'm working on the screenplay, but in terms of, like, a completely new idea. I really ... I don't know yet. I also just know that we're in a really exciting new chapter of our lives as a band — and I'm so excited to showcase that, and I hope people can come and really experience joy and release with us."

Japanese Breakfast will perform at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 4 at St. Andrews Hall; 431 E. Congress St., Detroit: 313-961-8961; saintandrewsdetroit.com; $34.50+.

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