Try to decipher the hidden meaning behind Michelle Zauner’s stage name and you will fail. “I just liked the way the words sounded together,” she tells us on the phone from Seattle, where she’s staring down the barrel of a nine hour drive to the next stop on tour. “Breakfast sounds like a very American idea and I wanted to pollute it with something that sounds foreign to most people.”
Japanese Breakfast’s music couldn’t sound less like cold noodles and kobachi; her debut release Pyschopomp is a blast of “psychotic pop” sprinkled with sparkling synth that glints like tears.
“I kind of thought it was too straightforward as a rock record and wanted to take it to the next level.”
The disco sounds will surprise any fans of Zauner’s previous outfit, Little Big League, a grungier guitar band and staple of the Philly scene. They took her by surprise too, growing out of the work she and producing partner Ned Eisenberg did after “opening the back up” of the more traditional guitar record she’d made. “It had waaaay less synth on it originally,” she says. “I kind of thought it was too straightforward as a rock record and wanted to take it to the next level. We added a bunch of synth and sped up some songs, and it grew to be a different beast during that process.”
Getting the sound right was crucial for songs that had such personal significance for Zauner, who channeled her feelings about her mother’s illness and death into much of the album. After moving back to her hometown from Philadelphia when her mother fell ill, she felt isolated and sought solace both in her own songwriting and that of others. Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell “hit so close to home for me”, she says, now Pyschopomp seems to be doing the same for others. And it’s hard work. “I have a lot of kids come to my shows telling me about their parents who have also passed away and how much the record has helped them. To feel like I can do that for other people is really, really exciting – but it’s also really, really hard to hear about all the time. It makes me so sad.”
That’s not to say that Pyschopomp is a relentlessly sad record; there are moments of euphoria amid the pain and country-inspired melodrama alongside the autobiography. Her playful side comes out particularly in Japanese Breakfast’s videos, which are variously inspired by The Craft and a night belting out karaoke classics with friends. You’ll want to laugh five seconds after wanting to cry; and then you’ll just want to dance.