When Michelle Zauner’s first record under her Japanese Breakfast moniker was released by Yellow K Records last March, the deal came with a caveat on her part. It wasn’t as if she was in the strongest bargaining position, by any means; by the time the Maryland imprint took her on, she’d been sitting on ‘Psychopomp’ for nearly a year, without having had the means to put it out into the world.
Still, her stance was clear: at the age of twenty-five, she’d decided she was too old to tour any more. As the singer for the Philadelphia emo outfit Little Big League, she’d already spent three years on the road without ever managing to make it financially viable, and it wasn’t a lifestyle she felt she could continue to entertain the prospect of now that she was stepping out on her own. “I didn’t want to drive eight hours a day just to sleep on the floor of some dorm room and be paid in cigarette butts. More importantly, I didn’t want to be away from my partner for months at a time. Not right, then. My mom had just died.”
Michelle’s mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and moving back to Oregon to care for her effectively put Little Big League on hold. Isolated from her creative community, she worked on the low-key releases ‘American Sound’ and ‘Where Is My Great Big Feeling?’ by herself, before reworking many of the songs for ‘Psychopomp’. The album met with rave reviews for its intensely personal exploration of grief, which it wrapped up in shimmering pop soundscapes - a far cry from the rough-and-ready lo-fi of her earlier solo stabs.
“Initially, I wanted to make this a sci-fi concept record!”
— Michelle Zauner
Inevitably, the road came calling again, and plenty louder than it had when Michelle pre-emptively shot down the idea of playing shows behind the record. She was invited to open for Mitski across North America last summer, and then went back out with Porches for another Stateside jaunt in the early autumn. The prospect of a headline run was suddenly a real one, too. “I thought I was going to be one of those artists who works a nine-to-five and makes music in their spare time,” she admits on a day off between tour stops in Denver and Minneapolis. “And then one thing led to another, and all these things I’d always wanted, and had waited so long for, were finally happening. Clearly, it wasn’t the time to stop, so instead, I’ve ended up as one of those artists with the story about how they once swore off their craft melodramatically.”
Dead Oceans snapped up the rights to distribute 'Psychopomp' internationally, and signed Japanese Breakfast for her sophomore record, which she didn’t sit on her hands about turning around; 'Soft Sounds from Another Planet' follows on just sixteen months after her debut. The fact that she’s again mined those two early mini-records for some of these tracks might go some way to explaining the lightning pace at which she’s worked; one song, ‘Boyish’, even appeared first on Little Big League’s 'Tropical Jinx'.
Elsewhere, though, she’s both grounded in the present on a personal level and wrestling with some bigger themes about the future, too - interstellar ones. “Initially, I wanted to make this a sci-fi concept record!” she laughs. “That idea came out of how exhausting talking about 'Psychopomp' was, in interviews and with kids at shows. It was incredibly hard, and the thought of something that was totally the opposite of that was appealing. It would’ve been like a little protective blanket. In the end, I came to realise that my personal life always makes it into my writing, and that it’s a useful tool in figuring out how I’m feeling. It’s just that the scope was so narrow on 'Psychopomp'. This time around, I felt like I knew pain and suffering a little more objectively.”
Thoughts of space and interplanetary travel remain a common thread on Soft Sounds, though; it’s just that it’s intertwined with Michelle delving into her own emotional state. Her interest in cosmic voyaging was piqued by the burgeoning talk around the Mars One project; one of her friends unsuccessfully tried out for it, and the notion that people might leave everything on earth behind in the knowledge they were never coming back seemed like the ultimate exercise in escapism at a time when she was finding despair so stifling. “When you take care of somebody who’s dying,” she explains, ”you really swallow a lot of your own emotions. When they pass away, you have to figure out how to undo that again, and learn to feel. A lot of the songs are about feeling like a robot, and being afraid to be a human again, because it fucking hurts.”
"I’ve ended up as one of those artists with the story about how they once swore off their craft melodramatically.”
— Michelle Zauner
That wasn’t the only reason why she was so enamoured with the idea of divorcing herself from real life, either. Having been picked up by a prestigious label and with both fans and critics alike feverishly anticipating 'Soft Sounds...', she couldn’t have found herself in a more different, and potentially suffocating, position to when she’d made 'Psychopomp', which was more or less intended for her ears only. “There was a tremendous amount of pressure, not least because my greatest success had just come from a record that I thought would be my last. Second albums tend to be nerve-wracking enough to begin with, but to have be on a label that you really respect, and to have them waiting for demos - that was really intimidating. I actually didn’t send them any. I didn’t want anybody else’s opinion, because I didn’t want to overthink it myself; I had to focus on making something that felt good to me, because that’s how 'Psychopomp' came to be.”
There might have been the risk that this follow-up that it wouldn’t hit quite as hard as its predecessor because it didn’t have the benefit of the element of surprise; a bit like The Antlers’ 'Hospice', Japanese Breakfast’s first album was one of those that only reveals the true devastation lurking beneath its pop prettiness after a fair few rotations. Ultimately, though, 'Soft Sounds...' overwhelms in a quiet manner that’s all of its own, finding beauty and truth in the brutality of Michelle's recent history. “I thought of all the people I’ve met who shared experiences with me, and in a way, a lot of their stories ended up on this record. It addresses the fact that you’re not isolated in your pain; it’s a universal thing, and hopefully, there’s some advice on there on how to move forwards. For myself, and for others.”
'Soft Sounds from Another Planet' is available now via Dead Oceans. Japanese Breakfast plays End of the Road in August and tour the UK from November 2nd.