Indie pop isn't the usual outlet for grieving familial loss. But Michelle Zauner used it as just that when she began writing songs for a project she called Japanese Breakfast.
Specifically, Zauner funneled her sadness over the death of her mother into her two albums as Japanese Breakfast, one released just a few weeks after her mother died – 2016's Psychopomp – and again only months later on the follow-up Soft Sounds From Other Planets.
"It came out a quick year after Psychopomp," Zauner says of Soft Sounds. "Those songs [on Psychopomp] were written after my mom died and were all about grief. This one, it's more of what's happened after a year's gone by."
But the music on both records is far from quiet, slow and reflective. Rather, especially on Soft Sounds From Other Planets, Japanese Breakfast deals in catchy pop that melds electronic sounds with indie buoyancy, incorporating sweet melodies and a new perspective.
"Pop music is what I'm attracted to," Zauner says. "I grew up listening to Fleetwood Mac and Motown compilations. To me, it's a fun challenge to create pop with depth to it."
Much of the inspiration to meet that challenge comes from the Pacific Northwest indie rock Zauner grew up on, specifically that of Elliott Smith and Death Cab for Cutie. "They made really dynamic songs that are enjoyable to listen to but have depth," she says. "Elliott Smith's songs can sound like the Beatles, but they can be so sad. That makes them special."
Zauner says that as she's writing songs, she's not even remotely concerned about what other people will think about them, or what they think about anything, for that matter. "I try not to think about other people, honestly," she says. "People are drawn to music because it feels real. Your experiences are the ones that make it universal, that everyone is drawn to."
Taking the songs on the road presents another creative challenge for Zauner and her collaborators. "The recording process and live process for this project are really different," she says. "I don't want to limit myself with recording because I can't reproduce it live. I try to think of the biggest ideas I can and put them on the record. Then live, we do it from the imagination of four people: two guitarists, bass and drummer. Sometimes the other guitarist or I will go to keyboards and we've got some backing tracks with synth pads."
Japanese Breakfast didn't pop into the public consciousness until Psychopomp was released three years ago. But Zauner has been making music since she was 16, the first two years as a voice and guitar solo act, then for years leading various bands.
Japanese Breakfast began as a low-fi outlet with Zauner putting songs up on Soundcloud and Tumblr accompanied by pictures, often of the breakfasts that gave the project its playful name.
When she called it Japanese Breakfast, however, Zauner, who is of Korean descent, didn't consider how the name would be viewed, largely because she didn't think about it getting bigger than her Soundcloud and Tumblr audience.
"I maybe didn't realize that people would think because you're called Japanese Breakfast, you're Japanese," Zauner says. "If there was a band called English Breakfast, I wouldn't assume you were from the U.K."
That said, Zauner has found herself becoming a role model for young Asian girls of all nationalities. "I think the demographic of our audience is largely young Asian girls," Zauner says. "It's really a beautiful thing. I remember being a young Asian girl and looking up to Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), but I had few role models that looked like me. So I'm really proud of that."