The singer and bestselling author of ‘Crying in H Mart’ has written movingly about loss, grief and identity. The gorgeous pop of her new album ‘Jubilee’ finds joy again. She tells Rachel Brodsky how living life knowing she might die in middle age ‘lit a fire’ inside her
In 2014, singer, songwriter and author Michelle Zauner lost her mother to pancreatic cancer. Working through her grief, she captured the experience in a powerful New Yorker personal essay called “Crying in H Mart”, named for the Korean grocery chain where she’d select ingredients to recreate meals she and her mother, Chongmi, used to enjoy together.
Zauner, who records under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, later expanded her essay into a memoir of the same name, which was released in April to rave reviews. Like the essay, Crying in H Mart peels back the layers of Zauner’s bereavement. It also examines her guilt over the screaming arguments she used to have with her mother as a teenager, and confusion over how to connect with her Korean identity without her mother’s guidance. Chongmi was from South Korea, and Zauner’s father, Joel, was Jewish-American. Zauner herself was born in Seoul and moved to America with her family as a baby.
Given the way her mother died, and the fact that her aunt died of the same illness, one has to wonder if Zauner worries about her own longevity, or if she has ever considered genetic testing to determine her risk. Doctors have suggested it, she says, but Zauner is uninterested in finding out. “I just have to live my life knowing that there could be a good chance that I might die in middle age,” she says matter-of-factly, adding that her mother’s death “lit this fire in me to say everything that I wanted to say before”.
“My business manager’s like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to put money into your IRA [individual retirement account], or whatever?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m going to die, you know, but before, like, 60. So why would I put money in there?’ And if I were to find out that I had stage 4 cancer, I don’t think I would go through treatment after seeing that firsthand. It’s not worth it to me. And it’s not worth it for me to put my loved ones through. Hopefully it doesn’t happen, but if it does, I would just euthanise myself, basically.”
To cope with her mother’s death, and to bolster a connection to her Korean identity (“Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” she wrote), Zauner found herself on YouTube, studying cooking videos and attempting to recreate traditional Korean dishes. She recounts in careful detail how, handpicking ingredients off the shelf at H Mart, then puzzle-piecing them together to make kimchi stew, dumplings and seaweed soup, she found a measure of peace.
Today, Crying in H Mart is a bona fide bestseller, earning shout-outs in places Zauner never dreamed of, like The Daily Show, NPR, and The New York Times. “I saw the other day that my book was on Goop’s Instagram!” she exclaims over Zoom, referencing Gwyneth Paltrow’s now-famous lifestyle brand.
Even better, the early buzz around Japanese Breakfast’s third studio album, Jubilee (out 4 June), has been glowing. In a year when many have rewatched The Sopranos, Zauner got actor Michael Imperioli (who played mobster Christopher Moltisanti) to star in her latest music video. Best of all? She just had her first conversation with her music hero, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
“It’s really weird actually, because I’ve had a number of conversations with like my absolute heroes this year, like an overwhelming amount,” Zauner says. “It really ran the gamut. Some of them were like, ‘I could have gone without talking to that person.’ With her, I was like, ‘This is the apex of my heroes for me.’ It’s like, I could talk to Obama and be more chill.”
That she is currently ascending a similar fame ladder doesn’t seem to register with Zauner, who recently posted a photo to Instagram where she’s standing, hands clasped to her cheeks in amazement, in front of her very own billboard in Times Square. The onslaught of attention is welcome, to be sure, but one gets the sense that Zauner is mainly excited just to feel excitement. After all, these past few years have looked nothing like the ones that preceded them.
Upon learning of her mother’s illness in 2013, Zauner flew home to Eugene, Oregon, to help her father care for Chongmi, whose condition quickly pivoted from manageable to terminal. Being available to care for her mother felt deeply important to Zauner, as she’d recently found a way to be close with Chongmi in adulthood.
Crying in H Mart captures the immense gulf between the mother and daughter’s personalities, with Chongmi’s reserve constantly at odds with Zauner’s sensitivity. As she writes, Zauner is determined to repair their broken history and be the dependable daughter she feels she never used to be. But as Chongmi’s health deteriorates, the reader gets an up-close look at the brutal, humiliating way a cancer death ravages the body. Unpleasant though it may be, it felt important to Zauner to communicate this reality.
“I had this sick desire for everyone to know what I went through, because I was so angry and I felt so ill-prepared when I was going through all of that,” says Zauner. “And I felt so resentful towards people who would never be able to wrap their head around what I had witnessed and endured. I just felt like no one would ever understand my pain unless I wrote it down in really grotesque, at points, detail.”
In the aftermath of her mother’s death, Zauner poured her anguish into her then-fledgling dream-pop band Japanese Breakfast, who released their debut album, Psychopomp, in 2016. Up until then, Zauner had been recording in the Philadelphia-based rock outfit Little Big League, while Japanese Breakfast was more of a solo endeavour. Another album, the shoegaze-inspired Soft Sounds from Another Planet, followed in 2017. Though Jubilee had its release date pushed back from summer 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, its imminent arrival, a few months after the cathartic Crying in H Mart, feels symbolic, like its author has genuinely achieved closure.
The pop-minded Jubilee, written pre-pandemic, is a portrait of Zauner letting herself experience joy again. “I think that I had just said everything I needed to say about loss and grief,” she says. “I just felt ready to move on for the first time. My narrative as an artist is so rooted in those topics that I thought it would be such an enticing and surprising thing for me to tackle the other end of human experience and write an album about joy.”
Jubilee definitely lives up to its name. Shimmering lead single “Be Sweet”, written with Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing, is a synth-soaked, reverb-heavy pop anthem that swoops and soars. Its cover art features Zauner in a sunshine-yellow dress, kneeling among a smattering of persimmons that dangle like fairy lights. Making a pop record, ironically, wasn’t even Zauner’s initial intention with Jubilee. “I feel like there are a number of indie artists… as they grow, it makes the most sense for them to pivot to pop, to become bigger artists,” she reasons. “And I feel like that’s when people get really bad, you know? I didn’t want to fall into that pitfall.”
For inspiration, Zauner looked to experimental icons like Björk and Kate Bush, plus contemporary singer-songwriter Alex G, who have built reputations for toeing the line between mainstream pop success and not sacrificing their niche sensibilities. “Like, how did Kate Bush ever become this huge pop star? Her music is so wildly weird,” Zauner wonders. “I’m going to find what that was like in me. What made me unique and weird in that way, and to mine it.”
Zauner’s definitely doing something right. In addition to Crying in H Mart’s glowing reviews, this spring has brought a new wave of praise for Jubilee’s world-building, cameo-studded music videos, all of which Zauner directed herself. (In addition to Imperioli, who starred in “Savage Good Boy”, Zauner tapped Girlpool’s Harmony Tividad to appear in “Posing in Bondage” and Mannequin Pussy’s Marisa Dabice shows up in “Be Sweet”.)
So much of Zauner’s life and career has come full circle since Psychopomp came out five years ago. She’s been with her husband and Japanese Breakfast bandmate Peter Bradley, whom she married in her parents’ backyard two weeks before her mother died, for nearly a decade. She’s looking forward to going back on tour. A complicating factor, however, is something she portends in her memoir. With her mother gone, what would become of the relationship with her father, with whom she was never very close? The two are now estranged, something Zauner says was “a long time coming” and “a very different type of grief”.
“I had tried to make that relationship work for a really long time,” she says. “It absolutely felt like a second death to me. It was a really tough, guilt-ridden, complicated decision for me to walk away from that relationship and prioritise protecting my happiness.
“I still have so much guilt about it,” she continues. “I don’t know if it’s going to be an estrangement though that lasts forever – I hope not. It just became very toxic. He has reached out a couple of times [since the memoir came out], but I’m not ready. Maybe I don’t have the maturity to handle his character yet.”
Still, Zauner is actively embracing whatever’s next, career-related or otherwise. This marks the first time she hasn’t had a project in the works, to which she says, “I don’t know what’s going to move me next. I’m really looking forward to not knowing and finding out what that is.”
I also wonder if becoming a mother herself is something she’s given much thought to, especially after writing so movingly about the subject. She answers in the affirmative and tells me about a scene she witnessed while traveling through Vietnam with her father after her mother died: “I was watching this mother and her child take a photo together in the hotel lobby. And I had this strange moment where I was like, ‘Do I want to be the mother? Or do I want to be the child?’ I had this intense longing, looking at these two people. I don’t think I thought much about having kids, [but] because I don’t ever get to experience the love that a mother has for me any more, there is this strange ‘circle of life’ type feeling. I want to give that type of love to someone.”
‘Crying in H Mart’ is out now via Picador; ‘Jubilee’ is out on 4 June via Dead Oceans