Japanese Breakfast is Michelle Zauner, an Oregon native that has built her music career in Philadelphia—the new east coast capital of indie music. She makes pop music, but lyrically it’s pretty dark, which makes it something different entirely. Her second record, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, was released in 2017 to critical acclaim. Before returning to Birmingham to headline—her last visit being an opening set for Mitski at Syndicate Lounge—she chats about the City of Brotherly Love, her evolution from her previous band Little Big League and how she maintains balance in her dark brand of indie pop.
I know that you didn’t give a ton of thought to the name of the project, but that you do enjoy a Japanese breakfast. What exactly is part of a Japanese breakfast?
It can be a lot of things, but often it’s a soup and a piece of fish. And it can have gohan or natto, which is this gooey bean.
Will Little Big League ever play together again or is all of your energy now focused on Japanese Breakfast?
I’m pretty busy with Japanese Breakfast, so…
Actually, Deven [Craige, bassist] who played in Little Big League is now playing in Japanese Breakfast. And I’m still good friends with Kevin [O’Halloran, guitarist] and Ian [Dykstra, drummer]. I love those songs and I’d love to play with them at some point again, but I’m pretty busy with the current project and it’s quite fulfilling in its own way. So I don’t know when exactly that would ever happen, but it’s not totally out of the question.
Japanese Breakfast began as a solo project, but that has sort of expanded into a full band. Do you record as a band or is that just touring?
It’s my project. I’ve always had collaborators, but the joy of the project has always been that it’s under my control. For the last record, our drummer Craig Hendrix co-produced with me and arranged the album with me, and between the two of us, we put every instrument on the album. He’s been a really large part of bringing that to a live set.
I’m not sure what I want to do for the next record. I think the joy of the project is having complete creative freedom. But at this point, Craig has become a really big part of that process and he will likely help me put together the next one.
The new album can be a little dark, but it still manages to be upbeat and at times it’s danceable. How do you balance all of those emotions in your songwriting?
I think there are really different parts of music making that affect the song. I think lyrically, I tend to write darker material. From a composition level, the songs also start pretty dark, but when I go through the process of arranging them, that’s a time to have some perspective and take a step back and make the songs a little bit lighter or more energetic and production is part of that, as well. I think it’s just a natural process. Sometimes it feels like, in order to balance out something that’s already quite dark, it feels better if you bring some [other] elements into the arrangement and the production of the song.
The past two or three years have been huge for women in music. Do you attribute that rise to anything in particular?
I think the internet has made it a lot easier for people to discover new music and there’s a more supportive community.
You’re back in Philadelphia, which has had a crazy indie scene over the past decade or so. Katie and Allison Crutchfield from here in Birmingham really made a name for themselves there—what has it been like to be a part of that scene?
Unfortunately, I don’t even feel like I get to be a part of that scene anymore because we don’t get to play in Philadelphia very often. We’re touring all the time. But yeah, its proximity to the major east coast cities, while also managing to be a pretty affordable city to live in—it’s been a natural place for artists to migrate to. It’s easy to tour to Boston, D.C. and New York. It’s easier to tour from the east coast because so many places are close together, and there are a lot of press outlets. From a very practical standpoint, it just makes sense.
And we’re really lucky to have a lot of really talented and amazing people that live here.