Japanese breakfast deserves to be here
Japanese Breakfast singer Michelle Zauner is a busy woman.
The band’s 2021 album Jubilee was up for multiple Grammys this spring. Zauner’s bestseller, Crying in H Mart, is being adapted into a film, with Zauner herself writing the screenplay. And Japanese Breakfast’s Coachella sets were hugely popular, with everyone from the average music fan to Conan O’Brien.
Newsweek met Michelle Zauner right after Japanese Breakfast’s Weekend 1 set.
We speak to you a few hours after your Coachella set on the first weekend. How was it? How do you feel?
It was great. It was really fun. I was just saying it was a lot less nerve-wracking. We played here in 2018, and it was such a huge moment for us. And so it feels like a huge moment for us in a totally different way.
How do you think that has changed?
I feel very comfortable. I feel like I deserve to be here. And I think I was so shocked that we were even here to start in 2018. I love our band and I think we put on a great show. And we started, we played here as a quartet. And now we’re a group of six, and we have a bigger team, and yeah, it feels really good up there. I just gotta have fun, you know? I felt like I had nothing to prove beyond “I’m going to have a great time.”
What I love about the sound of Japanese Breakfast is that it’s so lush and flowery. How do you approach creating a setlist for something like Coachella, which is a huge audience?
I think festivals are a bit like flirting with a new perspective. And I feel like playing clubs, headlining shows, it’s kind of like a long-term relationship where people know you really well.
And so, when you’re flirting, you want all your shiny gear like there, and just to play banger, banger, banger. And so I really like a shorter festival set, because the vibe never goes down, it never changes, it always goes up. I always try to go all out, and [perform] which I think will be most engaging for a crowd that has plenty of better places to be.
We have to talk about Crying in H Mart, which of course met with great success. You wrote the screenplay for a film adaptation, didn’t you?
Yeah! I wrote the first draft and am in revision.
What are the next steps?
For now, it’s just a review. I learn a lot from my producer who gave me notes on the art of writing a screenplay and on what needs to change. Then we give it to the studio and see what revisions they want, then I fix it.
And then I have no idea what’s going on. But I have really, really wonderful producers, and a really wonderful studio. I can not wait to be there.
How did you find the writing process different between writing music, writing a book and now writing a film?
I think a big part of creating any kind of art is just learning to listen to your intuition. And trust that there will be times when you feel really dumb, and there will be times when you feel brilliant.
I think having written a number of records before writing the book, I had this [sense] of, well, I know how to see a creative project through to completion. I had the kind of tools to do that in the script. [I] writing a book of almost 300 pages, so writing a screenplay of 100 pages? It won’t be too difficult.
Another part is like learning to show off creatively, you know? I feel like a lot of what I’ve learned about myself as an artist is that I need strict deadlines and strict rules. And so when I started Japanese Breakfast, I wrote a song every day for the month of June. And I had 30 tracks at the end, and a lot of them ended up being a really wonderful source for later songs.
And similarly, when I wrote the book, I was like, okay, I have a word count of 80,000 words that I’m supposed to hit. So I wrote 1,000 words every day until I hit 80,000. And then the same way, with the script, I was like, “Okay, you have to write five pages every day until until you hit 100, then go back and revise.”
So I learned a lot from each project that helped me. I’m really good at being ruthless. I’m not an editor who likes to rework things, I just cut them. I prefer to just write a lot, and if it doesn’t work, cut it. It’s actually harder for me to tinker with it to make it work.
Crying in H Mart was presented as this kind of exemplary narrative of growing up as a biracial person in America, being Korean-American, and living with intersectional identities. Do you feel pressure to be an ambassador or a figurehead for these communities?
I feel some of that pressure, and I know I have a big platform and a lot of exposure that kind of puts me in that position. But I also feel incredibly validated that this book isn’t just read by Asian Americans or biracials. It’s been read by a whole diverse group of people and so much so that it’s been on the bestseller list for 38 weeks, you know?
And so I think it’s a really exciting time for me, because I never felt like I could be a main character. I feel like my story isn’t just an Asian-American story, it’s a story of mothers and daughters. It’s about grief, it’s about food. It’s a question of memory, of maturity, of creativity. And I feel like there are all these touchstones that a wide variety of people can relate to, and I think that’s very exciting.
There are many people who consider me an ambassador for a certain type of representation. But I think I just want to contribute to that and present more nuanced and individual detailed stories, and open the floodgates for more things like that. The more these stories get out into the world, the less this [labeling] will be the case and we will only tell stories.
What’s the last song you had stuck in your head?
I strangely had the Spanish version of “Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You)” by Christina Aguilera. Last night, I said to myself, “I’m only drinking two beers, because I want to feel fresh tomorrow…”
Famous last words.
“And then we thought, [singing] “Solamente tú! Solamente tú!” And then everyone had that in mind.
It’s that one and “As It Was” by Harry Styles.
Newsweek’s ongoing Coachella coverage is available online at newsweek.com and on On Beat, available wherever you get your podcasts.