It's been a busy Pitchfork Music Festival for Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner. A late-night show at Thalia Hall on Saturday served as her introduction to the whirlwind weekend. Then came Sunday afternoon, with Zauner strumming, jumping and grinning her way through an especially lively and joyful set at the Chicago festival. Next, it was off to a signing tent before we eventually meet and make our way to a table, where two Goose Island beers are waiting. We have a small window, since she'll be returning to the field in less than a half hour to make a brief cameo onstage with (Sandy) Alex G during their track "Brite Boy.”
Operating on a busy schedule is in Zauner’s nature. It has been since the release of her solo debut Psychopomp in 2016, closely followed by her sophomore effort Soft Sounds from Another Planet a year later, which she’s currently touring in support of. Her guitar-driven, undeniably indie sound shares a certain kinship with the 90s, which made the Cranberries cover during her set especially fitting. There’s a complimentary, yet contrary quality in the way her vocals can float almost counter-intuitively alongside the melodies. Especially during moments of her song “Everybody Wants to Love You,” a tune that spawned an iconic and highly apropos video featuring Zauner shotgunning beers, drinking from a paper bag and holding plastic cups full of booze.
Our sip session is decidedly more tame, but just as stylish. When we meet, she's still wearing the same colorful, ruffled Kenzo jersey top she performed in. For a concert a few days earlier, she wore a dress by avant-garde design team threeASFOUR. Following the festival, she’ll get a nod from Vogue for her budding fashion sense. So that’s where we start, with Zauner gallantly fishing an errant fruit fly out of my beer with a plastic fork.
You’ve had a busy day and you’re someone who does a lot of projects. Do you have projects that you’re working on that people don’t know about yet?
I've been working on some nonfiction writing. I'm working on a memoir, but I don't know when it will come out, and if it’s something that will happen in the next few years. But I do want to put out a book at some point, and I definitely want to do video work. I'm working on the soundtrack for this game called "Sable." It’s an indie game.
In terms of video work, do you mean videos for other artists?
I’ve directed a video for my friend Jay Som, but that’s the only video I’ve made for another artist who wasn’t directing my own video. I think that, when we have some more time off, I would like to get more into directing for other people and see what that’s like.
Were you always intending to be involved in your own visuals or did it just happen by chance?
It was kind of both. I actually studied film in college, so I was interested in it. I did direct a thesis short film. But after all that I was kind of like maybe this isn’t for me. I think it took finding a really great creative partner in my DP Adam Kolodny, and he actually directed the first two Japanese Breakfast videos. Then he was like, 'You know, you're pretty much directing, or co-directing these, I really think you should co-direct the next one.'
We did “Everybody Wants to Love You” together and I just really fell in love with it, with the process, and I feel like I learned so much. From then on I kind of took over and just started directing them and he got to focus on doing what he loves to do, which is cinematography. So yeah, it’s been a really fun process. I've enjoyed it more and more and felt more and more confident in it while the videos have gotten bigger and I feel more ambitious about it. I really want to start working with other people and see how that goes.
Speaking of that video in particular, at one point, you’re shotgunning beers. What’s your favorite kind of beer to shotgun and what’s your favorite kind to actually chill with and drink?
This [Goose Island beer] is really good. I'm not a big beer snob. I am a big mom-beer drinker though. I drink like all the glass bottle beers, like Heineken and Stella. Things you would find in a mom fridge, those are my go-to beers. You can lie for me and say I said something cool, but I like Pacifico. Really light, baby beers.
So you grew up in Oregon and I grew up in Oregon. I was thrilled to see that you’re from Eugene.
I know some of Rogue Brewery's beers. I remember, when I was younger, I was into beer. Like into IPAs and now I’m just like, 'Whatever.'
Did you grow up with homebrewing being common? It’s really common in Portland, so I was wondering if it’s the same in Eugene.
Yeah, Eugene is like a hippy town, too. A lot of people are into making their own kombucha and making their own fermented things. I remember when my friend brewed his own beer, that was when I was underage, and he'd have people over to his garage that he had turned into a bar and we would just drink his homebrew. It was always kind of gross.
You said your’re a mom-beer drinker, but like baby-beers. When are you most likely to have a beer?
All the time. I drink a lot. On tour a lot, it’s just always around.
Do you put your baby-beers on the rider?
Yeah, baby-beers are on the rider. We have kind of shit beer taste. Our drummer will have a six-pack of IPAs on the rider, and most of us hate wheat beers.
When you’re not drinking baby-beers, what do you like to drink?
Tequila. It’s pretty much tequila and the beers in the green room. But lately I have been enjoying scotch, which is a new thing for me.
How did you get into it?
It’s kind of funny because I was in Italy with my friends, like five years ago. We got a bottle of like Johnny Walker Red. We thought it was just whiskey, and then when we had it, we thought it tasted like gasoline. We thought we had bought a knock-off bottle that was like filled with gasoline. Later, we realized that’s just what scotch tastes like.
And now you're into it.
I went to Glasgow and had some really amazing scotch there. Now, I feel really cool drinking scotch on the rocks.
You mentioned Glasgow, which is a huge drinking town. In terms of places you've been that have been boozy adventures for you, you drank scotch in Glasgow, what other places have you been to like that?
Every time I go to Austin, I have really good cocktails. During SXSW, you’re always having a kale margarita or something crazy like that. In China, we drank baijiu. Have you heard of that? It’s fucking insane. It tastes like rocket fuel. It’s just insanely harsh liquor. I’m not sure, you’ll have to fact check this, but I think it’s a rice wine, and it tastes insane. I visited my friend in Shenyang in north China and her Chinese is pretty bad. We read the menu, it was like 12 p.m. and we had just landed. She ordered us what she thought was three pots of tea, but it was baijiu. So we were just like drinking sixty-proof, fucking insane...
I like that you thought you were ordering tea, found out it wasn’t, but drank it anyways.
Yeah, so that’s definitely a thing that happened.
If you could have a beer with anyone, who would it be and how would you spend that time?
That’s a tough one. I'm afraid to say something sad. If I could have a beer with anyone, it would definitely be my mom. She passed away three years ago. She also loved her mom beers; she had Corona in the fridge. If I could just sit down at our dining room table and share a Corona with her, that would make my life.
You were so joyful on stage today, but so much of your art does concern your mom and I assume your memoir will touch on that. How do you balance that real painful emotion with your natural joy?
I think that it’s both simultaneously. There’s so much going on and so much time has passed. In some ways, I'm overjoyed because I just wanted to be a working artist my whole life, and to have that opportunity now, for the first time, over the last two years, has been such a gift. To be able to play this festival is just beyond my wildest dreams. I'm so happy to be here, and my mom would want me to be happy. I do my best to appreciate that.
I think it’s interesting that so much of your success is tied to her.
It's very serendipitous. I feel watched over in a way. I'm not a religious or spiritual person, but it's hard to not feel like she looks out for me in that way. There's so much going on and there's so much that goes into the songs beyond the lyrics. A lot of the songs, even though they have dark lyrical content, are very joyous sounding. It's about creating that duality—that is what’s exciting about music for me—having a pop song with substance. That's what I set out to do with Japanese Breakfast, and how I feel making the songs.
You mentioned duality, and that’s something I wanted to touch on. I watched an interview with you a few years back about embracing the Asian aspect of your identity. It resonated with me being mixed-race, and when I found out you were from Oregon, I was like, 'Oh my god, all the more, because it's oppressively white there.' Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, it's assimilate or else.
Under this guise of, 'We're so liberal, so progressive.'
Exactly, in terms of you embracing that identity, so many of the things you do are very Asian, and with so much of white culture fetishizing that aspect, that would be in the back of my mind: ‘I don't want that to be read wrong, me embracing myself.’ Is that something you're considering?
Absolutely, I also think that it's just like if anyone gets to do that, it should be me. I think that's part of it, but I also think I just went into this project, like I'm just going to do... I had so little expectations of this project. I made my first record after my mom passed away. I had no label. I had nothing—no expectations, no real fan base. Then, it just did really well. I think part of that is because I just made something so for myself. The stuff that I included was from my life and was really very real and authentic to me. There's Korean on the record, because it's my mom's voice. I just wanted to have a permanent memory of her on a record. That's why I put that there.
Then, as we've gotten more press and people have started to talk about it, some of it is self-referential, it's a fun wink to people. Same with the “Everybody Wants to Love You” video. I feel sometimes very tokenized as an Asian-American woman in a very white-male dominated field, and it's kind of like a wink to that, because I felt that everyone just sees me as this, but they don’t see what I would actually just be doing in Philadelphia, like getting drunk with my friends and being insane. So yeah, I wanted to take that kind of stereotype and flip it.