This month’s siren spent her childhood wandering the woods of the Pacific Northwest, playing imaginary games and creating fantasy stories. Michelle Chongmi Zauner, lead singer, and songwriter of Japanese Breakfast Club was born in Seoul, South Korea but grew up in Eugene, Oregon before moving the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to attend Bryn Mawr College.
Because neither of her parents were musical, her tastes bloomed late. In middle school, Michelle was fascinated by Anime films such as Cowboy Beebop and Oh My Goddess! and their catchy pop arrangements heavily influenced her musical style. It wasn’t until her first guitar at sixteen that Michelle discovered her passion for songwriting.
After writing her first song, she thought, “I’m a genius!” A feeling she continues to chase, although she admits it fades quickly. Songwriting remains a solitary task for Michelle. “There’s a panic that maybe I won’t be able to create again, and then I discover I can.” A cycle she shares in a FaceCulture interview repeats each time she writes a new song. “The first line is the thesis statement of the song.”
Her self-directed video for the song “Everybody Wants to love you” begins with the lines, “Can I get your number?/Can I get you into bed?” Michelle later shares with Pitchfork that the song was written about her first bisexual relationship.
Michelle’s musical career began with a bumpy start. First, she performed under the name Little Girl, Big Spoon in college and then joined the Little Big League, where she spent two years on grueling tours only to return to Oregon unfulfilled when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Caring for her mother, Michelle started writing and recording under the name Japanese Breakfast, a moniker that combines the distinctly American (breakfast) with a culture she heavily identified with because it closely resembled her Korean heritage.
Two months after her mother’s passing in 2014, Michelle started working on her first album, PsychoPomp, the title a reference to a creature that transports the souls of the deceased to the afterlife. To Michelle, the album was an outpouring of feelings she suppressed while she cared for her mother. The album expresses the caregiver’s perspective that in the end, “It feels like you lost, some weird battle.”
Her debut novel, Crying in H Mart: A Memoir also was inspired by her mother. Michelle was comforted by the food in her local Asian mart. By preparing dishes from her childhood, she felt reconnected to her mother. The novel went on to become a New York Times Bestseller and Michelle will be creating the screenplay for the feature film set to be released in the next few years by Orion Pictures.
To keep her songwriting stimulated, Michelle enjoys creating weird challenges for herself. In June of 2016, for example, she challenged herself to write, record, and release a new song every day. Later, she was able to use this raw material to fuel a new album. “I’m a workaholic,” Michelle confides, “and I work quickly.” In 2017, she released a second album created from old demo songs, which she felt deserved a second chance with a new arrangement. “I tried to make a nonpersonal album and I failed.” The melancholic album, Soft Sounds from Another Planet was released a short year after her debut.
Her work habits and challenges are all about staying busy and staying positive. Michelle confides that she tends to “Err on the side of darkness.” It’s a constant worry that she will disassociate that keeps her in action. She reflects on the period after her mother’s death.
In some ways, I was a kind of robot cause I felt so devoid of emotion and I spent so much time disassociating from this tragedy that I was really going from day to day robotically.
For Michelle, the ultimate euphoria is to have her music put out into the world. In 2021, she released her third album Jubilee which features the song, “Savage Good Boy,” inspired by a headline, “Billion-dollar Bunker Built for Two.” Using this headline, she imagined an imbalanced relationship and what might occur to that couple if they were forced into a bunker.
In 2022, Michelle was nominated for two Grammys: Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album. After the show, and snapping a commemorative photo with the Korean boy band BTS to send home to her auntie in South Korea, she headed straight to Nathan’s Famous for a hotdog and a cold beer. Her Instagram photo depicts the uniqueness that is Japanese Breakfast, an artist that harnesses every part of her heritage to create new art. By accepting herself, Michele hopes her music and message will inspire other Asian-Americans to put their words out there. Be sure to visit JamBase to catch her in concert this season.