There is an undeniable mythology built around the idea of the “suffering artist.” Although processing personal pain has helped people produce some amazing art, some romanticize the concept to the degree where they think an artist needs to be suffering to create. We probably have to blame Van Gogh.
Michelle Zauner, the multitalented artist behind the indie pop band Japanese Breakfast and author of the best-selling memoir “Crying in H Mart,” has been masterful at turning the grief from her mother’s passing into multiple works of art that resonate deeply with audiences. As she started to write songs for Japanese Breakfast’s third studio album, Zauner made a conscious effort to switch things up.
“The most surprising and exciting thing to do would be to write something about the other end of human experience,” Zauner says. “After writing two albums about grief and loss, then an entire book about it, I really felt like I had said everything I needed to say about that experience.”
The aptly named “Jubilee” delivers exactly what the title promises—a joyous celebration. The collection of 10 songs isn’t meant to be listened to on earbuds while you commute; these songs demand you get sweaty dancing in a packed room, singing along with reckless abandon. As the world starts to open up after more than a year in lockdown, “Jubilee” provides a soundtrack for a nation filled with people yearning to experience collective bliss again.
Much can be made about the thematic change found in “Jubilee,” but Zauner’s songwriting took an equally profound leap sonically. Working closely with Craig Hendrix, who plays drums on tour and produced much of the album, Zauner tried her hand at writing string and horn arrangements for the first time. In her previous band, Little Big League, songwriting was approached differently as the band focused on the live experience.
“When I started Japanese Breakfast as a [solo] side project, it became all about expressing myself creatively without any kind of limitations,” she says. “It brought such a huge, exciting new sound for me. I have done all the Japanese Breakfast albums like this because I enjoy getting to write different parts and not thinking too much about, ‘We don’t have a keyboard player at this time, I shouldn’t write too many keyboard parts.’ I’d rather have five keyboard parts and then figure out how we’re going to bring it to the live set later than strip it away for the sake of the live show.”
“Jubilee” was written, recorded and ready to go in December 2019 and scheduled for release in summer of 2020. But like so many other albums, it ended up being postponed for a year due to the pandemic. Considering how complicated some of the songs on the album are—Zauner maxed out the number of ProTools tracks on “Paprika”—the long layoff was a blessing in disguise.
“The benefit has been that we are slowly learning the material instead of all at once to get ready for a tour,” Zauner explains. “It is kind of nice, especially since this album is such a bigger record in terms of arrangement. Figuring out what everyone is playing to flush out the sound takes time.”
Learning the material for tour is just one of the many things Zauner has been working on over the past year. She started a side project called Bumper with Ryan Galloway of Crying, wrote music for an upcoming video game called “Sable” and promoted her best-selling memoir. At no point during the year did she really dial things back; she kept on grinding, a sentiment conveyed in the aforementioned “Paprika.”
“That whole song is about relishing your creative work,” she says. “It was written about my tendency to work with my head down, as I’m so afraid of this trap door taking it all away. I’m so concerned with doing a good job that I forget to look around and see that you’re playing to a room full of people or that people are reading your words. I forget that, because I’m so focused on the next thing or focused on trying to do a good job or maintain what I’ve built.“That song is a real reminder to just enjoy and appreciate your life and your creative work,” she continues. “I feel like that’s a thing I need to remember in this moment coming back to shows. It’s something that will resonate with people.”
Remembering all the little things that bring joy is the driving force behind many of Zauner’s tattoos. As an indie rock musician hailing from the Pacific Northwest, it shouldn’t be surprising that her first professional tattoo was a Ferdinand the Bull tattoo inspired by Elliott Smith. What is surprising is that she got another tattoo after her very first one, a poorly done piece inspired by her first band, Little Girl, Big Spoon.
“My ex-boyfriend gave me a really fucking painful stick and poke on the back of my leg with India ink and three sewing needles taped together,” Zauner says. “I had never gotten a tattoo and I was like, ‘This fucking hurts so bad!’ It was everything they said it to be.”
Her right sleeve is made up of “cute little things that make me happy.” The collection includes PaRappa the Rapper, the “Bubble Bobble” guys, Toshio Saeki and some Hwatu cards. Hwatu is a Korean card game Zauner’s mother played growing up, one of a few tattoos she has honoring her mother despite her disapproval.
The most striking of these is a simple heart with the Korean word “eomma,” which means “mom,” inside of it. “The mom tattoo is so classic, I knew for a long time I wanted it,” she explains. “My book also starts with ‘For Eomma’ so it felt fitting to have that, but she would hate it. I got a lot of these after she passed away. She was literally on her deathbed and I remember her looking at my tattoos and trying to wipe them away and saying, ‘It looks dirty.’ [laughs]”
This was on her mind during a photoshoot with Harper’s Bazaar. Zauner’s mother was incredibly fond of Chanel and for the photoshoot the magazine dressed her in a Chanel suit. But the photographer didn’t just want to see the classy suit.
“They were like, ‘Can you turn so we can see the tattoos because we love the juxtaposition between your tattoos and luxury,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘God, if my mom could hear that!’ I found success on my own terms and I think she was just worried about me. It’s a different culture and a different generation, and there are few moms who are stoked for their kids to have tattoos. We were just cut from a different cloth.”
It’s been seven years since her mother passed away. That’s a long time to spend creatively working through grief, and with “Jubilee” Zauner is ready to move on.
“With ‘Jubilee’ I was like, ‘Alright, I don’t ever want to talk about this ever again,’” she says. “Parts of it are therapeutic, and there are parts that still surprise me. It brings me great comfort that I can still tear up about little things.”
Michelle Zauner worked through her pain over the course of two albums and a memoir, now she’s turned her focus to the lighter side of life and creating the best music of her career. This artist has suffered enough. It’s time for the jubilee.