There’s no denying that Michelle Zauner is an extremely hard worker. Writer of New York Times Bestselling memoir Crying At H-Mart, frontwoman of critically acclaimed band Japanese Breakfast, and soon-to-be screenwriter preparing to adapt her memoir into a film, Michelle has achieved levels of creative accomplishment in a way that speaks to her abilities to excel in seemingly any type of creative medium, motivated by a desire to constantly challenge herself with the art that she creates.
It’s been a busy year for this talented multi-hyphenate. LADYGUNN caught up with Michelle in the midst of her Jubilee album tour, where we chatted about her relationship to creating, the anxieties of sitting on unreleased work, and the pressures of having bigger and greater audiences than before.
Sweater, KENZO. Catsuit, SHUTING QIU. Shoes, ANGEL CHEN.
Where am I catching you? How are you?
I’m in Austin about to start our last tour of the year. It’s been a really busy year and I’m really excited and proud of myself and the band and the crew we put together. I decided to take some time off; we have December through March off so I’m going to be spending that time diving into the Crying At H-Mart screenplay and being in one place for a while, so I’m looking forward to that.
Do you feel like you have balance in your life, with what you’re doing as an artist and also having time to rest?
Probably not. I will say that, maybe unfortunately, but also fortunately, a lot of my mental health has been supported by my work ethic and my projects in general. Especially after my mom passed away, I put so much into working to keep myself grounded and mentally occupied. I think much of my mental health has depended on these creative projects. And you know, I really love what I do so it has been really grounding and positive for me. I feel like I’m entering a new chapter where I’m wanting to slow down and take some more time for myself as I get older.
I know sometimes artists choose not to incorporate the personal into their art, do you ever feel like you could have started out with the impersonal and moved into the personal?
From a very young age I just very naturally gravitated towards art that was really personal, which felt like it was something the author was working through. I think a lot of music and musicians in general start there. I always felt like artists who were working with something that was attached to them personally really enriched the work for me. I remember as a teenager just obsessively reading Cat Power interviews talking about how Moon Pix was written about living somewhere in the South and having Bill Callahan being away on tour and feeling haunted by that experience. As a teenager I felt a lot closer to material that was rooted in the real experiences of people. Naturally, I felt the most interested working out my personal life such as my family life and heartbreak through that kind of stuff and it felt very therapeutic to make sense of my life in this creative way. For Japanese Breakfast, it really began by writing these personal songs about losing my mother. It felt very natural and normal for me to write that way. So when I turned to writing this book, it felt very normal for me to write about my experiences because I had this experience as a musician doing that. But now as I get older and I go through the press cycle of it and doing this for so many years, I find myself more interested in these new experiences of writing something that feels a little bit more fictionalized or taking on these different kinds of character perspectives. That’s a new thing; the longer that I work in art, I want to experiment with different types of things that feel outside of what I’m comfortable with. For me it was just a very natural progression of being interested in music like that and writing music like that. And I’ve always just been that type of person.
What are you most excited about in terms of turning your memoir into a film?
I’m mostly just excited about learning a new craft. I feel like it’s just a new medium to find my voice in. I really enjoy understanding and manipulating the rules of a medium. I’m excited to find my way into that one.
Has the process of writing a screenplay based on your memoir been different since you’ve written about your mother through your songs and also your memoir? With the screenplay, there’s so many cogs at work with production, actors, etc. Is it challenging?
I’m in the very initial stages of mostly just outlining and getting prepared to dive in. Like most things I get involved in, I think it’s gonna be easier than it actually ends up being. I’ve been on tour so much this year and usually it’s been easy to work on another project while on tour. But having gone through the pandemic and being away from touring, and also just having things scale up so much, it’s been really hard for me to do anything other than being in the moment while touring. I initially thought I’d be working on the screenplay while on tour but I just haven’t had the mental capacity to do so. I can’t really speak too much to the screenplay writing process because it’s so early in the process of writing it. But so far, it’s just been challenging, to be honest. It’s been hard to revisit a project like this because I want to create a new idea or bring something new to the book in the screenplay and it hasn’t felt so much like that yet. But hopefully this winter I’ll find my way into it– I just haven’t found it yet.
What is the most challenging part about having more creative freedom and these types of opportunities that you might not have had at the start of your career as Japanese Breakfast?
I think there’s more pressure. It used to be about creating in a type of vacuum where I wasn’t really thinking about anyone listening to any of this or even coming to the shows. Now there’s this pressure of a higher ticket price, feeling like there are all these people asking why this person deserves all this space and attention. I really want to challenge myself musically and in every single way to feel like I deserve this type of recognition. I feel like this type of pressure has been difficult to adjust to, especially coming out of a pandemic where I had a year and half off and all of a sudden it feels like this year really exploded.
Full look, GUCCI. Earrings, SHUTING QIU.
What were some of your favorite specific moments from this year?
A huge highlight was just coasting on the bestseller list. Seeing my book in local bookstores was a really wonderful experience, passing by windows, having so many people reaching out to me. Mostly just releasing all these things I’ve been sitting on for a really long time. I’ve also been so proud of and inspired by the larger band and crew we’ve put together for this tour and really moved by the show that we’ve been putting on.
Looking back on all the work that you’ve done that was released this year, is there anything you wish you could’ve done differently for these projects?
I honestly don’t really think about that. I feel like once something comes out, it is what it is. That’s kind of like a comfort for me. Once things are out in the world and people experience them, they exist as a kind of archive for where you were in your life at that point in time. I don’t know if other artists feel that way but I feel lucky that I don’t dwell on whether I could have done things differently.
The experience of performing your latest album live, how has it been different from previous tours?
I am really proud of this band. We added Adam Schatz from the band Landlady, who played saxophone on the record and is a brilliant musician. And we’ve had a rotating cast of violin players, including Molly Germer, who played violin on the album, and Macie Stewart from the band OHMME, and Emily Well who is an incredible musician. So I think that the six piece band really brings this kind of orchestral, huge quality that we get to experiment with a lot more and I feel really invincible with these players, this lineup of musicians. We also added some members to our crew, including Kat Borderud, who does the lighting design, which I think has elevated the show to new heights. I’m just in love with this current crew and band lineup and it brings out the old songs and new songs in fantastic ways.
What are some works of art or music that you’ve been obsessed with lately?
I just watched Annette which I feel like everyone really hates but which I really enjoyed. I also am reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for the first time and the language in that has been really incredible. My friend Meg Duffy just released a new album called Funhouse.
How has this year been different on a spiritual level than last year or the year before that?
It’s an entirely opposite experience where like, last year I was sitting on three projects I’d spent the last three, four years working on. I wish I had a better way of saying this but I just felt so creatively constipated, just so antsy and depressed because I felt like a crazy person, of not being able to release anything and being in this purgatory of waiting. It was really uncomfortable and having these three huge releases come out this year and finally having this relief of being received pretty well and getting to move on with my life has been really wonderful, kind of like new terrain. I think it goes for a lot of people that we just anticipated this year being this explosive amount of freedom and also having all this trepidation that comes with a pandemic. So I think that’s new territory that we’re treading. It’s been very very different from last year, certainly.
Dress, FLORA MIRANDA. Rings, PASQUALE BRUNI.
Do you think that creative constipation you’re talking about stems from the fact that you couldn’t share it with the world yet or anticipating how your audiences might be reacting to it?
I think it’s both. A project doesn’t feel done if it doesn’t go through the release cycle. Unfortunately I do feel like that validation has become part of the cycle. The process of creating something doesn’t feel like it’s finished until it’s out in the world in some way. And of course, the anticipation of how people will respond to it, whether it’s gonna get panned.
Where do you see the direction of your music going in the future?
I definitely have ideas. It always just changes. I feel like the more I try to create a theme before diving in, the more I deviate from it when I actually go into it. I originally wanted to make a Nine Inch Nails type album for the third record and then it turned into something entirely different because I realized that I just like that type of music but I’m not great at making it. I think because Jubilee felt so bombastic I can see myself making something a little quieter, more acoustic maybe. But that always changes so we’ll see when the time comes. But right now I think I’m just gonna take a break for a while. My favorite part about creating things is that period of time when you are just absorbing the world around you, and waiting for inspiration to strike. That’s sort of where I’m at right now, I’m like an empty vessel.
Full look, THREEASFOUR.
CONNECT WITH JAPANESE BREAKFAST:
Story/ Ruth Jiang
Photos / Shervin Lainez
CD + Styling / Phil Gomez
Makeup /Amy Kate
Hair / Francis Rodriguez