MANILA -- Michelle Zauner isn’t letting in that she’s tired. Or even sleepy.
Hair unkempt, she is nevertheless radiant.
Zauner, the talented woman behind experimental pop rock band Japanese Breakfast, was in town for Summer Noise 2019 at the Greenfield District. And despite the oppressive heat, she’s feeling relaxed in the cool confines of a nearby hotel where she and other foreign artists taking part in the annual indie music festival were billeted.
“When we did our tour in 2017 in support of (her sophomore album) 'Soft Sounds from Another Planet,' we neglected a lot of countries and they were upset about it. The Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore all asked, ‘Why didn’t you come here?’ Next year then. I hope it will all be worth the wait.”
Japanese Breakfast was a surprise hit in the last few years among music fans. The debut, "Psychopomp," was a personal album as Zauner wrote about her mother’s passing away from cancer.
Along with American hardcore band Touche Amore’s magnificent "Stage Four" that also document’s lead singer Jeremy Bolm’s dealing with his mother’s death from cancer, and like "Psychopomp" that was released in 2016, they were both lauded for their bravery in sharing such intense and personal feelings about loss.
“I think my feelings have changed a lot outside the songs,” she bared about performing those songs today, three years after they were released. “There is a track with my mom’s voice and it is haunting to me and I can’t really listen to it.
“Some. like ‘In Heaven,’ I think the lyrics aren’t as painful when I first wrote it. I have this joyous feeling playing it. Some days are harder, but generally, it isn’t as painful.”
“For 'Psychopomp,' I had no fan base. I had no label, no band. I was stuck in Eugene, Oregon, and I wanted to make sense of my life and it became it this raw and personal project that people responded to. I never expected to get this recognition. Especially in this part of the world (Southeast Asia).”
“For 'Soft Sounds from Another Planet,' I was nervous because I worked with another producer (Craig Hendrix). And I was afraid this 'Psychopomp' was a fluke. I gave myself a month. Whatever we can come up with in one month; that’s it. And it worked. At the end of the day I can only make what is natural, exciting and real to me. If they don’t like it then that is only what I can do.”
The two albums have propelled Japanese Breakfast from an indie hit to an international star. The band has toured heavily in the last two years and has appeared in major music festival around the world.
And now there are expectations for the upcoming third album.
“Yes, I feel pressure,” she laughed. “There are expectations, after all.”
During a trip to Los Angeles in August 2018, the Philadelphia-based Korean-American Zauner, bared in a video for Amoeba Music, that the new album will be influenced by industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, as well as avante-garde artist Bjork.
Japanese Breakfast recently dropped a new single, “Essentially” on W Records on Spotify. It was a surprise move since her first two albums came out on Yellow K Records and Dead Oceans. "Psychopomp" was released by the former but distributed internationally by the latter, while "Soft Sounds from Another Planet" was under Dead Oceans.
The Indiana and Texas-based indie label (yes, they have two offices) is home to some of the most acclaimed indie artists in recent years such as shoegaze band Slowdive and indie rocker, Mitski. Yet for the new album, Zauner is joining W Records.
“It feels great and honored to have shared a roster with these people and inspired by them,” she said of her time with Dead Oceans.
But for now, it is finishing the last legs of this long tour (that ends in August in Spain), then, in her words, “there is a bit of quiet to recalibrate.”
“I will be work on creative projects such as my book and the new album. I am excited to embark on this new chapter.
Zauner paused for a moment to think, then surmised while biting her lip, “It’s not very Nine Inch Nails, isn’t it,” she said in reference to “Essentially.”
She laughed once more.
“For the last record ('Soft Sounds from Another Planet'), we wanted to make our 'Soft Bulletin' from the Flaming Lips,” she said of the American rock band’s widely lauded ninth album that was a departure from their guitar-heavy alternative sound into something more intricately arranged and layered. “It’s a sci-fi/space musicale that disassociates from trauma and grief.”
“I always have a vision of where the new record will go. I’m thinking, ‘I have to make the next 'Pretty Hate Machine' (the debut album from Nine Inch Nails) or 'Homogenic' (Bjork’s third album). But knowing me, I think I get into this vision and freeze. I mean how can you make the next 'Pretty Hate Machine' and 'Homogenic'? You can only make something natural to you. When I go into the studio I am not going to think of anything at all. In my head, I hope I will make something that is a pretty mesh between Nine Inch Nails and Bjork but it probably will not be at all.”
“But that’s for the next few months. Right now, it’s putting on a good show for the fans in Manila. And I do hope they enjoy it.”
They sure did. Japanese Breakfast was the penultimate performer for Summer Noise. Even in the sweltering heat, Zauner and her band (Craig Hendrix on drums and also produced "Soft Sounds from Another Planet," the amazing Devan Craig on bass who she played on Little Big League, and Peter Bradley on guitars) delivered a solid set with their technical proficiency on full display.
As she made her way to the air-conditioned tent behind the stage, Zauner, all sweaty but in smiles, reiterated, “I hope we made the Filipino fans happy.”