Michelle Zauner, the 28-year-old lead singer of Japanese Breakfast, remembers watching a live video of Karen O deep-throating a microphone during a performance at the Fillmore and thinking, “If she can do it, I can do it.” Become a successful Asian frontwoman, that is. At the time, there didn’t seem to be many women in rock music at all, let alone Korean American rock goddesses. “It’s cool because being half-Korean, you don’t see that kind of person representing you too often,” says Zauner. Karen O embodied everything Zauner’s parents wanted her not to be; Zauner’s own mother hoped she would grow out of music someday. But a little over a year after putting out her debut, Psychopomp, Zauner has just released her second full-length album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, via Dead Oceans. Next comes her first headlining tour.
Yet Zauner never intended to make a second record. Her first was deeply personal, encompassing every emotion she was feeling following the loss of her mother and her aunt to GI cancer in 2016. Upbeat tracks revealed a deep underlying sadness, and interviews called for the constant recounting of traumatic memories. At the same time, the album received an overwhelmingly positive response and resulted in numerous tour offers, including opening for Mitski’s summer 2016 tour with Jay Som. Originally, Zauner said she never wanted to tour again, but she knew it wasn’t time to quit music altogether. So this time around, with a new record deal and a much more deliberate approach, Zauner decided to distance herself from her music, instead turning to the cosmos to create what she calls a “failed concept album.”
“It felt like the right thing to do — because Psychopomp was my mourning record — to make something that was further removed from me,” Zauner says. “It just felt like it’d be easier on me in general if I did that….I disassociated a lot this year and looked at other worlds as a comforting space.”
“Machinist” was the first song written for Soft Sounds From Another Planet, and it tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a robot, opening with an intoxicating synth line and a spoken-word introduction. In mixing it and other “risky” tracks on the album, Zauner relied heavily on trusted co-producer Craig Hendrix for reassurance and the technical skills to elevate her sound. Together, the two played every instrument on the record. But despite the nature of the first single, Zauner admits the extraterrestrial space theme doesn’t totally endure.
“It was really fun to be able to create that kind of fictional narrative, but it also just felt like something I couldn’t do for an entire album,” Zauner says of “Machinist.” “I wasn’t quite ready to commit to a sci-fi musical, even though it was interesting to me. I felt like I had a lot of personal stuff I still had to say and so I wrote with that interest in mind, but much more about what my life has been like…after touring, the success of a debut record, and grieving…a year and a half later instead of two months after the fact.”
Zauner was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in Eugene, Oregon, in a largely white neighborhood. She recalls listening to Fleetwood Mac records and Motown compilations at a young age, and turning toward Pacific Northwest indie rock like Elliott Smith and Death Cab for Cutie in her rebellious teens. She would later move cross-country to Philadelphia for college and play in the emo band Little Big League for five years. “I think that for a lot of half-Asian people, they have this moment in their teens where they really reject their identity,” Zauner says. “I really hated being Asian growing up, and I really didn’t want to be Asian. It embarrassed me, and I would go out of my way to do things that would kind of hide that part of myself.”
In the space between her first and second records, Zauner threw herself into her music and kept busy: “I think many of the songs are about that — taking things day by day and having a regimen and pushing forward. And how hard that can be. And I think it’s about trying to reconnect emotions that I put to bed for a while,” she says.
The result is an album that combines a mixture of emotions, produced with “more confidence, maturity, and just feeling that people liked what I made.” It has a dreamlike sound, punctuated by shining pop songs. Zauner channels the immensity of outer space with heavy synth, but brings her sound back down to earth with intimate lyrical content. She finds inspiration in the Mars One project, whose goal is to establish a permanent human settlement on the planet, but also in the regimen of the Haenyeo, or female divers in the Korean province of Jeju, who are raised to withstand cold waters in a tradition that dates back to 434 A.D. She sings of them in the album’s first track, “Diving Woman.”
“I think I’m just really drawn to very clear-cut paths in life. Just like these women,” Zauner explains. “From a young age, they were taught to hold their breath for two minutes, and they spent the whole day just diving into water, collecting sea creatures. That was just really romantic to me, to do one thing….Sometimes I’m just drawn to the idea of just doing one thing over and over again and not thinking beyond that.”
Originally, the album was to be called Here Come the Tubular Bells, because Zauner had written many love songs about her recent marriage. She married her then-boyfriend Peter Bradley — who plays guitar for Japanese Breakfast and will join the upcoming tour — in the backyard of her childhood home only a week before her mother died. The album track “Till Death” is a love letter to her husband in which Zauner chronicles everything she’s endured in the wake of Psychopomp, and it has emerged as one of her favorite tracks on the album.
“When I was a kid, if I had a stomachache, my mom would say, ‘I just really wish I could take the pain away.’ And I think that that’s just a really beautiful feeling — that when you love someone, you want so badly to endure everything that they have to endure and yet you can’t,” Zauner explains. “It’s really sad that my husband couldn’t take that away and couldn’t absorb it, but the love was there in the sense that he stood by me and kind of waited for me to wrestle with these demons myself and come out on the other side.”
Zauner still wrestles with the fears of death and dying. And so she works harder: “I just feel like I have this genetic disease in me and I have a very limited time in this world,” she explains. “I don’t want any moment to go by where I’m not creating something, sharing something, or interacting with people.”
She’s also learned to embrace her Korean American heritage, making it easier to channel the unashamed, “badass” persona that is Karen O. “Once my mother passed away, I just really reconnected with my culture in a very intense way,” Zauner says. “And all of a sudden this thing that I had been pushing away, I wanted to embrace more than ever.”
Soft Sounds From Another Planet contains older lo-fi tapes, dating back to Zauner’s Little Big League days, that she turned into refurbished tracks like “Boyish” and “Road Head.” She clung to specific lyrics or melodies and improved upon them in production this time around. Instrumentals weave together the pieces that make up her universe. In using detachment as a coping mechanism and turning to outer space for inspiration, Zauner also allows herself to turn inward and reflect — creating a sophomore album that’s in some ways as personal as her first.
“A lot of the songs are advising myself not to be upset that, like, something happened to me, because it happens to everybody,” Zauner says. “For me, Soft Sounds From Another Planet kind of feels like we’re all just a soft sound from another planet. Our lives are really quite small in the grand scheme of things.”