What You Should Be Listening To: Japanese Breakfast

Over winter break, I caught up with Michelle Zauner’s best-selling memoir Crying in H Mart. This raw and beautiful book chronicles Zauner’s complicated relationship with her mother, the complexities of her Korean-American heritage, and the pain of watching her mother battle and eventually succumb to cancer. Writing was one outlet for Zauner’s grief; as we learn in the memoir, music was another. When she went home to Oregon to care for her mother, Zauner left behind her New York City indie band Little Big League. In the aftermath of her mother’s death and while serving as her widowed father’s support system, Zauner turned again to music to make room for herself.

She called her new project Japanese Breakfast. In an interview with Teen Vogue, Zauner explains the concept behind the name: “I think I just wanted something that sounded really American and well-known, like breakfast, and combining it with something I think American people just associate with something exotic or foreign.” The first EP, Psychopomp, was created in Zauner’s childhood home, and memories of her mother resonate in every track through Zauner’s autobiographical lyrics. In “Heft”, Zauner describes the day-to-day routine of caretaking: “I spent a summer tryin’ to be sweeter/I spent the summer stayin’ in/ I ran a mile and then another/Spent my nights by hospital beds”. “In Heaven” describes the void our loved ones leave behind when they pass: “The dog’s confused/She just paces around all day/She’s sniffing at your empty room.” The album’s title track provides a particularly intimate and poignant moment when we hear a fragment of a voicemail from Zauner’s mother. “Gwenchana, gwenchana – It’s okay, sweetheart. Don’t cry, honey. I love you.” Zauner’s personal lyrics are supported music with a lo-fi, indie pop sensibility – sometimes dreamy and atmospheric, sometimes defiantly upbeat, always richly textured, featuring layered synths and fuzzed-out, reverberating guitars.

Psychopomp garnered attention beyond Zauner’s wildest expectations, and what was a small indie project has blossomed into a full band with two additional albums (2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet and 2021’s Jubilee, which is nominated for a Grammy this year in the Best Alternative Music category. I’m enjoying all three albums lately, but I particularly recommend Psychopomp as a gorgeous and deeply felt epilogue to Crying in H Mart.

By Dr. Michelle McQuade Dewhirst

Michelle McQuade Dewhirst is a Professor of Music at UW-Green Bay. She teaches courses in music composition, music theory, music history, and popular music. She is an active composer and active performer throughout the region, serving as Principal Horn of the Weidner Philharmonic and the Manitowoc Symphony.

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