Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast sat down with us before her sold out show at the Cat’s Cradle with (Sandy) Alex G and Cende to talk about her new album Soft Sounds From Another Planet, directing her own music videos and reworking old songs. Read the interview below!
WSOE: I know that you co-directed the music video for “Everybody Wants To Love You” and you just recently directed the “Machinist” video by yourself. What was it like directing a music video solo?
Michelle Zauner: It was a gradual process. I’ve worked with the same director of photography, Adam Kolodny, on the last three videos, this was our fourth and we’re about to release a fifth. It was a natural progression. I think Adam’s true passion is in cinematography. So as things became more streamlined and we had a slightly larger budget and larger crew it just made sense to take it on and I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it if I didn’t have such a great collaborative partnership with Adam. I think that we really lift each other up and he makes me feel like any idea I come up with is possible.
It was also really exciting. It’s just a new medium for me to work with. Those initial beginnings of working in a new medium are always really exciting because you can see the leap of progress and learning so much greater than with my music. At this point, I’ve been playing music for almost ten years and the progress is just very nuanced and small. So it’s cool to work with a new medium and see those big leaps of experience, change, and learning. I studied film in college so I do feel like that prepped me for some stuff as well.
WSOE: When you’re coming up with ideas for music videos does it happen when you’re writing songs or is it mostly after the fact?
Zauner: I think it’s mostly after the fact. Especially because so much of the song is the production and the arrangement. A lot of the songs, on Psychopomp and this new record, they all started a lot quieter and slower and once arrangement and production become involved it just changes so much sonically and a song that was once really sad and slow becomes really upbeat and exciting and gets a different visual treatment than if you’re just writing it. I think it definitely comes later on. With the “Machinist” video though, it came pretty quickly because it’s such a narrative song. There’s dialogue in it so we knew what that middle section was going to look like, where I’m talking to the robot. The narrative came a lot faster with that once cause the other ones are more just visual feelings.
WSOE: Would you ever consider directing music videos for other bands?
Zauner: Definitely. Adam and I have talked about directing for other people and I’ve had ideas for other people. I really enjoy writing treatments. Right now, we just have to focus since we have a new record and we’re focusing on all the new videos that come with that and once I’m done there’ll be a lot of touring but if I ever have time I’d love to direct for other people.
WSOE: Speaking of touring a lot, you’re playing here with (Sandy) Alex G and Cende and last year I saw you when you were playing with Mitski and Jay Som. I know you’ve also played with Porches, Ó, and Slowdive. How do dynamics change from tour to tour?
Zauner: It’s really interesting to see how people go about a tour. You can invest in so many different things and you place importance on so many different things. It’s really fun and a great chance to create a friend group because when you’re a musician you spend so little time at home, so your community becomes these transient people who are always at the same festivals or playing the same kind of venues or the same circuit.
I’ve learned so much from every individual since every band does it so differently. This last tour that we did with Slowdive was so crazy because they’ve been doing it for so long and I have such great respect for them. They were definitely the biggest shows we’ve ever played. It was really amazing to meet such iconic legendary musicians that are so gracious, so humble and so sweet and go out of their way to really spend time with you.
WSOE: I was looking at the tracklist for the new album and I saw there was a song called “Boyish.” Is that a re-recording of the Little Big League song?
Zauner: Yeah it is. It started as a Japanese Breakfast song. It was “Day 6” on June where I wrote the verse and the chorus. When I’m writing songs I’m always chasing a lift in the chorus and I really like how that song lifts into the chorus and I just felt like with Little Big League we missed the mark of the arrangement and the production of that song. It was my least favorite song on that album and I wanted a chance to redo it. It’s an entirely different song and I’m really excited to release it.
WSOE: Are there any other older ideas or songs that made their way onto Soft Sounds From Another Planet?
Zauner: Yes there’s a lot. “Jimmy Fallon Big!” was a demo I had on American Sound and “Road Head” was a song that was also on American Sound. I think that I really enjoy working that way. It helps to have years of perspective to go back and redo songs that have always stuck with you but didn’t get their due in terms of time, arrangement or production. That shapes a song so much, so I went back and re-recorded a ton of songs that I liked but I felt like I didn’t have the ability to bring them where I wanted them to be.
I worked with Craig Hendrix who plays in the live band. He actually co-produced the first Little Big League album [These Are Good People.] He co-produced this new record and working with him I was able to elevate the songs to a place I couldn’t take them by myself.
WSOE: Something I noticed while listening to “Machinist” was that it felt like a combination between some of the interlude tracks on Psychopomp and some of the full-length songs. Was that intentional at all?
Zauner: I think that I approached the beginning of “Machinist” in the same way that I did with the instrumental tracks. It started on a keyboard. I usually start songs on guitar. I know that “Machinist” started with that string synth so I think that’s where the similarities are.
WSOE: Were there any particular artists or albums you were listening to a lot when you were recording the new album?
Zauner: I was really listening to a lot of Grandaddy records, Under the Western Freeway and The Software Slump in particular. I grew up listening to Grandaddy in high school and then I was listening to the Gorillaz, the Carpenters, and Roy Orbison so it was really all over the place. Some of the songs are really synthy and groovy and that’s probably the Gorillaz influence and some of the songs are more quirky synth songs with that Juno Arpeggiator that Grandaddy uses a lot. Some of the songs are really more classical in arrangement and have a lot of synth strings and are really big. We were listening to a lot of The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips and Craig and I wanted to have really big arrangements in the choruses and use a lot of synthesizers and a lot of synth strings and horn arrangements.
WSOE: Going back a couple of months, I remember Björk did a DJ set for the Day For Night festival and she received quite a bit of backlash for it. She responded to the criticism saying how a lot of female musicians are pigeonholed into writing about subjects like heartbreak and are discouraged from venturing out to other topics and you tweeted a lot of support for that sentiment. Since you are going in a science fiction direction with this new album was that a response you were anticipating for your own music?
Zauner: My last album, Psychopomp, was just so personal and was written two months after my mom passed away and the lens was so narrow and so subjective. I also had no expectation for that last record. I didn’t plan on touring at all, I didn’t plan on anybody even hearing it but the response was just so overwhelmingly positive in this really unanticipated way that I felt like with the sophomore album and signing to a different label and having all of these new listeners waiting for new material it was almost like I had to take on a different narrative.
It felt like with my last album, “this is her mourning record, this is a grief album,” it felt like I had to do something totally different. It was also just really challenging to talk about that over and over again to fans, to interviewers and what not. So I thought it was a good idea to go in this really silly direction of a really heavy-handed concept album and then it just kind of failed. With “Machinist” it’s definitely worked really well but when I started writing other songs for the album with that theme in mind or this idea of a sci-fi musical, I just felt like it was really phony and it only worked for that one song. It felt so restricting to have to do that for ten more songs. I think that those kinds of themes infused their way into songs about my personal life.
The album is largely about human resilience and going through something really traumatic and hard and what you have to do emotionally and physically to overcome that. In a lot of ways, I felt like this mechanical body taking everything a day at a time. I was dissociating with myself and feeling like I was floating through space. It’s a very light concept album in that way. It’s all across the board.
It’s hard for me sometimes and it’s not that I don’t want to share my personal life it’s just frustrating sometimes because women are asked to do it a lot more than men are. Sometimes I’ll see interviews with men where there are no questions about their personal life at all or their particular identity. All of the questions are really geared towards their work and it’s sometimes frustrating when a lot of women, especially Björk, spend so much time on production and arrangement and are only asked about their lyrical content. Don’t get me wrong, lyrics are important and for me especially they’re really important. It’s just frustrating because a lot of interviews are so heavily geared towards that when there’s just so much of my time that’s spent on other facets of the project that I watch a lot of my male counterparts get asked about.
WSOE: When you talk about it being a failed concept album with reworked songs like “Boyish” did you try to push those older songs more in that direction, either sonically or lyrically?
Zauner: I think I just kind of tossed that in [laughs]. I think it works in some songs but there are some songs I just really wanted to redo. There are some songs that are really science fictiony and there are some songs that are really classic melodic Roy Orbison-esque ballads of just very melodramatic sweeping choruses. “Till Death” is another song like that. I think there are different counterparts on the album and some work in that theme and some are a little outside of it.
WSOE: Do you ever plan to release music under the name Wingchick69?
Zauner: [Laughs] I don’t know. There’s a thing in Korea called mukbang and it’s just these Korean people who are video DJs who film themselves eating food and it’s this really weird thing that I’m not so privately into. Sometimes it just gets you really stoked to eat something. If I’m about to eat something I’ll watch a video of someone eating that thing to get really excited to eat it. It’s really strange. There’s an alter-ego part of me called Wingchick69 that likes to film herself eating chicken wings. Maybe I’ll make a theme song for her.
Japanese Breakfast are currently on tour with (Sandy) Alex G and Cende and are opening for Tegan and Sara later this year. Click here for a full list of tour dates. Follow this link to pre-order Soft Sounds From Another Planet.