Her stage name obscures who and what she is, which is a theme she explores in all her endeavors.
Behind the delicate voice, dreamy lyrics and cascading chord progressions of indie pop outfit Japanese Breakfast is the inherently introspective mind of solo artist Michelle Zauner, who plays Voodoo Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on the South Course Stage.
Zauner is known by the breathy whispers of “Road Head” that seem to linger with the listener even after the song has ended. Under the alias, Zauner has created two albums, Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet, both of which are fitting titles for her otherworldly sound.
A Japanese Breakfast track sounds almost like a gift, as if the listener has been awarded a rare chance to peer into one of Zauner’s daydreams. The slow and sweet sound of “Boyish” evokes the feeling of waltzing through memories that you’re in no rush to leave. The faster paced “12 Steps” and “Everybody Wants to Love You” still have the synthy, electronic signature that is evident in every track in her repertoire. Even Zauner’s covers of the Cranberries’ “Dreams,” and Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” have a trance element that runs through them.
Zauner also has an expansive body of work behind the veil of Japanese Breakfast. Zauner’s creativity spans seamlessly across multiple mediums, and she wrote Glamour’s essay of the year in 2016 and scored the 2019 video game, Sable. Her platforms intertwine to form a garden in which she can grow her artistry. Though her expressions takes different forms, they reveal facets of her person, whether she expresses them through a memoir or a melody. In the time she spends with every story, Zauner learns how she wants to move forward in life.
Zauner grew up in a mixed race family and recalls that her sense of belonging was often disrupted by a lack of confidence in her identity. She often felt as though she was not Korean enough or American enough. This feeling of never being enough only worsened following the death of her mother, who as a Korean immigrant embodied the artist’s immediate connection to her Korean heritage.
“When my mom passed away, it was a huge fracture to that identity," Zauner said. "It made me feel like I had less ownership over my culture which had always felt so naturally ingrained in me.”
In an effort to deal with her grief, Zauner turned to writing nonfiction essays. Dwelling on those negative experiences gave Zauner time to better examine her relationship to her culture. From those essays emerged a short story called “Crying in H Mart,” that was published in The New Yorker in August of 2018, which is soon to become the first chapter of Zauner’s upcoming memoir of the same name. With the memoir Crying in H Mart, Zauner hopes to add to the growing conversation surrounding identity.
“Identity isn’t as clear cut of a thing as we once thought it was,” Zauner said. Drawing from her own experience, Zauner believes that every person craves to be understood, and that lacking a firm footing in terms of identity can make this significantly harder to achieve.
The fog surrounding of Zauner’s identity seems to have rolled into her choice of band name, Japanese Breakfast. The ambiguity of “Japanese Breakfast” doesn’t aid in clearing the blurred lines of her personal identity, but Zauner notes that the alias is completely divorced from her current thoughts surrounding the issue.
Japanese Breakfast spawned from a personal project Zauner took on in 2013. As a side project from her emo band Little Big League, Zauner challenged herself to publish one song every day on Tumblr for the month of June. The name comes from the anime GIFs of Japanese breakfast foods Zauner would post alongside the songs. The artist saw the images as beautiful, while also curious, and now laughs at the confusion the name causes.
“I also thought it was kind of funny at the time because there were a lot of white people in bands using band names like Japandroids or Japanther or Half Japanese,” Zauner said. “I thought perverting that by being an Asian-American person with this confusing band name was kind of funny.”
Now, what started as a throw-away name for a short-lived project is a symbol of Zauner’s ability to defy being boxed into the identity given to her by others. Zauner is masked by the moniker of Japanese Breakfast, a name that obscures gender and confuses culture, leaving the artist and her music free from other’s expectations and assumptions.