By Emily Hsiang, Student at Haverford College
Like many others, before I came to know about Japanese Breakfast, I came to know the band’s front woman Michelle Zauner. I was in a bookstore and happened to pick up a glossy red copy of Zauner’s memoir, Crying in H Mart. Upon reading the story’s description on the inside cover, a few things caught my attention: it was about a woman who was mixed race, Asian-American, a musician who was living in Philadelphia and was passionate about food and family. All of which were the same attributes that I have.
It is no secret that we like to see ourselves represented in the art we consume. The boldness and authenticity brought to the band by the story behind it is a huge part of what makes this alternative pop band so special, beyond the crispy, energetic drums and the sweet, retro vocals of Japanese Breakfast. The music is deepened and complexified by the opportunity for listeners to get to know the woman behind it: the person writing the songs, where she is coming from, and what real-life experiences inspire her musical storytelling. Moreover, in her work, Michelle Zauner creates a positive space for specific matters that are represented far less often than they should be, from growing up in an immigrant family, to understanding one’s own cultural identity, to coping with experiences of loss and grief, and so on.
Zauner effect brings increased awareness and representation to discussion of these realities by sharing her own personal experiences, and it is through her vulnerability that she has inspired her many followers. Specifically, Michelle Zauner is a Korean musician and author, who was raised in Oregon. She came to Philadelphia in her college years, securing her Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing from Bryn Mawr College, and stayed in the city for a period of time after graduating. Her first solo gig was in a local Philadelphia plant shop, where she performed with her guitar.
When Zauner’s mother fell ill with cancer, she moved back to Oregon to be with her family. It was there, in her family home in Oregon, that her since-famous project, Psychopomp (2016) was brought to life. As Zauner recounts in an interview with Hollywood Life, “the only way that I could have something for myself was if I made my own record.” In her work, Zauner is very open and reflective about this time in her life, including her relationship with her mother and how her mother’s passing has since affected her; this is the primary focus of her memoir.
As an example of how these candid life experiences factor into her art, I personally was touched by the band’s 2017 hit, “‘Till Death”. This pensive, soft-yet-edgy ballad addresses a myriad of serious topics, from health struggles to political instability, and the emotional strength provided by marriage that aids one to be resilient through it all. An especially moving lyric ends the song as follows:
Your embrace healing my wounds
Teach me to breathe, teach me to move
PTSD, anxiety, genetic disease
In addition to the aesthetic beauty provided to the piece by its steady snare beat, ginger piano accompaniment, and wise vocals by Zauner herself, a swelling chorus of horns embellishes the arrangement of “Till Death” in a way that feels truly anthemic. If you’re interested in seeing this song performed live and acoustic, I especially like the version done in their 2017 NPR: Tiny Desk concert session, linked here, at the time stamp 4:00.
In terms of their most recent work, Japanese Breakfast released their album, Jubilee in 2021, which includes some of their most well-known songs like “Be Sweet” and “Paprika”. The content of these songs is similarly raw and relatable; for example, “Be Sweet” discusses the relatable insecurity that your partner will be unfaithful. “Paprika” even addresses the responsibility Zauner feels to wisely use the public platform she has been given, in the refrain lyrics:
Evidently, Japanese Breakfast is more than just a band that makes catchy, aesthetically-pleasing tunes. Rather, the Japanese Breakfast discography has the living, breathing spirit of a whole human being, as every piece is packed with vulnerability and authenticity from real life. It is so important that there are artists like Michelle Zauner and Japanese Breakfast to lead the charge when it comes to being emotionally open in art, and to creating a space to discuss the topics we all deal with. Not only does it bring much-needed representation to the existence of certain issues, but it allows those going through similar experiences to feel a sense of community in that.
Especially for mixed-race or Asian-American folk like me, it is truly magical to see yourself in someone like Michelle Zauner, as she rocks out on The Tonight Show or at The Grammys, after a lifetime of scant representation. We need to encourage the spread of artists who do not look like the artists we usually see: we need to see all sides of the story. To contribute to a future of greater representation for underrepresented identities, try listening to a new Asian-American musician or further supporting the ones you already love. If you’re not sure where to start, check out the lists below, curated specially by some of your favorite blogs: