In the Rugged Country
Michelle Zauner is in pain.
Not the sort of emotional pain that informs Psychopomp, her debut album under the name Japanese Breakfast which explores the death of her mother from cancer in 2014.
Not the pain which comes from being in an unsupportive relationship, or from having to leave a band due to feelings of being unfulfilled – all themes explored on Zauner’s brilliant album which channels gleaming dreampop, dynamic indie rock and the quiet, microscopic song writing of kindred spirits Frankie Cosmos and Florist.
No, this is some physical pain. When we speak, Zauner is suffering the after-effects of shooting the video for “Everybody Wants To Love You”, filmed as a further tribute to her mother. “This one was particularly difficult because I had to wear this five pound wig,” she explains. In the clip, Zauner is made-up in traditional Korean (Zauner was born in South Korea) garb. “I just tweeted an image of the bruise I got because I’ve had to wear it for fifteen hours the past few days. I appreciate my body so much more without all this shit on it! I had to get these huge nails, they’re probably like three inches long and I couldn’t pick anything up or do anything at all. I had to have people open doors for me and everything! I couldn’t use my phone, or grab money….I just appreciate my stumpy natural self a lot more.”
Psychopomp’s engagement with loss starts a little further back in history than the death of her mother; Zauner was part of Philadelphia band Little Big League but had reached a point of resignation about the songs she was writing for the band before the news of her mother’s cancer diagnosis hit. Of Psychopomp’s songs she explains “I had some of them in place already; some of them I had for Little Big League but they didn’t work out for one reason or another.” The reason, it would appear, was because Zauner was boxed in by her position in Little Big League. “I think that band was a lot of negotiating sound,” she explains. “I wanted to be in a band which was harder or tougher, to challenge myself more…at least musically so I could challenge myself to write more complicated guitar parts.”
Zauner talks about how Little Big League, for better or worse, stifled her creative process: “I had a more specific role in that band. We had just recorded Tropical Jinx and I guess the way the album process works you have to wait so long for something to come out and you feel you shouldn’t be writing something new. It’s almost scary to write after you finish a record because you start to fall in love with those songs…you put this ban on yourself to not write more so you don’t fall out of love with the material you just created.”
Rather than sitting in neutral Zauner decided to make a break from Little Big League. This coincided with her mother’s cancer diagnosis in 2014 and prompted a move back to her home in Eugene, Oregon (also the location for some of the songs of loss on Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell). Alongside caring for her mother and being a shoulder for her father, she began a sort of writing project-cum-exercise. “I felt like I had so much more to say after Tropical Jinx so I started this side project so I could release music immediately,” she begins, “and get that instant gratification without over-thinking things or planning a PR cycle and all that shit.”
“I came up with this project and recorded songs every day for the month of June. It was a really good way of creating raw source material to pick up on later. When I started putting Psychopomp together I knew I wanted to put out an LP, a vinyl release of my solo stuff where I had full control of my voice and a full-length record. I took what I thought were my ‘greatest hits’; they span about six years and ‘Everybody Wants To Love You’ is the oldest. I wrote completely new ones and added a lot of second verses and choruses to others, revamped the songs and gave them a proper treatment….and then it ended up being my main project!”
That project – eventually, two years down the line – ended up as Japanese Breakfast and Psychopomp. For an album about loss, a dialogue about yearning and dependency, the record sounds surprisingly sunny…sonically at least. Lyrically Psychopomp is dark and quietly unsettling, so the question I ask Zauner is how these songs found their way to the album. “I dunno; people ask me this a lot because the record sounds uplifting and upbeat,” she says, “and the lyrical content is quite dark and heavy-handed. I think in a lot of ways the emotional state I was in brought a real lyrical darkness…and there was a real desire to balance it out with material which was more sonically upbeat.”
"I think in a lot of ways the emotional state I was in brought a real lyrical darkness…and there was a real desire to balance it out with material which was more sonically upbeat.”
While all the talk of Psychopomp has been about it being a record about the death of Zauner’s mother there’s actually only two songs which explicitly deal with her death. On “In Heaven” Zauner sings “I’m trying to believe that when I sleep / it’s really you visiting my dreams like they say the angels do”. The second, “Heft” came at a massive point of change in Zauner’s life. “I wrote the first half when my mom was first diagnosed with cancer,” she reveals. “I’d put it out on the A Song A Day project with Eskimaux, Frankie Cosmos and Florist….maybe eight months later after my mom had passed away and I’d decided to take on this record I picked the song back up and added a second verse, second chorus and an outro. So it’s interesting to hear the lyrical content change from finding out my mom had cancer to when she passed away and looking back at that experience. There are songs on there more specifically informed by that experience than others.”
The line on “Heft” which stands out, perhaps more than any other on the record, is the economic “spent my nights by hospital beds”. There’s so much weight of meaning in such a short, everyday, phrase. Within it can be found loss, dependency and selflessness. In a world which is turning more selfish and self-involved by the day it strikes me that Zauner made – no matter how small her career might be in relative terms – a difficult decision to leave Little Big League and return to Eugene to care for her mother. “I mean, I was really close to my mom and it was the worst thing in life,” she says.
“Not everyone is super close with their mom but I really was. We were simultaneously blindsided; an aunt I was really close to had died a couple of years earlier too…so it was kind of like my experience with cancer was always a really negative one without a whole lot of hope. I’d never watched someone survive cancer who was close to me, it was always a bad ending in my experience. So I knew I had to be there.”
Zauner’s mother, though, didn’t want that dependency or the need to have someone care for them in such a devoted way. She continues: “My mom, like any mother, kind of pushed me away at first because she didn’t want me to have to sacrifice my life at all to care for her, and I think it was actually really difficult for her to allow her daughter who, you know, she spent her whole life taking care of, to reverse those roles. It was difficult to leave my life behind but it was nowhere near as difficult as what my life was like afterwards. I regret every hour that I wasn’t by my mom’s side, in retrospect.”
It’s at this point I mention Carrie & Lowell. In reality, Stevens’ and Zauner’s records don’t actually have that much in common, be it sonically or in the way it approaches the death of a parent. But both have a home in Eugene and both touch on regret. While Zauner may have just expressed regret, there’s no feeling of a lack of closure on Psychopomp. Whereas with Carrie & Lowell it’s riddled with Stevens’ hand-wringing. “I didn’t listen to that record until after I had made my record,” admits Zauner. “I had heard of it, and I’d always loved Sufjan Stevens’ albums but that one slipped by me. I actually started listening to it a few months ago and it really hit home for me. Not only because it was about losing his mother but also because it was largely set in a very small town in the Pacific Northwest where I grew up. So it seems very serendipitous, I guess, to come across that record at this time in my life.”
Zauner correctly highlights Stevens’ rather different relationship with his mother, which informs much of Carrie & Lowell’s emotional upheaval. “From what I understand he didn’t have a very intimate relationship with his mother,” she says. “I think there was a disconnect in their relationship due to some sort of mental illness. My experience was different because I never had that sort of rift with my mother. I came from a classic nuclear family, my mother was a homemaker and I grew up spending a lot of time with her and had an all-round positive relationship with her. But I don’t think it ever feels fully resolved when someone dies….I don’t have a whole lot of guilt or feelings, there’s not huge unasked questions it’s mostly just a true feeling of loss.”
In an attempt to minimise some of the loss and provide an element of closure, Zauner married her partner Peter before her mother died. “I did that for a number of reasons,” she states. “Obviously I wish I could have got married under normal circumstances. My mom went into a coma the week after my wedding so it seems she really held on for it. It was very obviously subconsciously a way of trying to bring some lightness to a really shitty situation. I think in some ways I was trying to create a family within this impending doom of losing my own, and I was very happy she could be there. It was a bittersweet day, for sure.”
"I regret every hour that I wasn’t by my mom’s side, in retrospect.”
Returning to the theme of dependency, Psychopomp also addresses some other difficult personal moments in Zauner’s life. On songs like “The Woman That Loves You” she sings from the perspective of someone in a one-sided relationship…or even as the other woman. “You're embarrassing me with a postponed marriage and a stalled out car” goes the opening line in a song of empty promises, unreciprocated feelings and longing. “A few of those songs were written after I’d exited a pretty awful relationship where someone was not able to support me in any way,” reveals Zauner. “Shortly after that I fell into a relationship that was incredibly supportive.”
By writing and performing these songs as Japanese Breakfast, Zauner has transformed them from their original form. They are no longer heavy with want. “I think, looking back on those songs, it’s interesting because I feel lucky to be outside of that realm now,” she says. “‘Triple 7’ and ‘The Woman That Loves You’ are literally about not understanding why someone isn’t able to support you emotionally…to go back and sing those songs, it’s not so much a position of longing but a position of ‘I have this thing now and it’s sad you were this person that was unable to give this to me’. I felt really lucky I was able to have someone who didn’t want to make my mother’s death about them. I think that is something which can happen and when you’re in a poisonous relationship – as I had been with that partner at the time – they would have found a way to make my mother’s death about them.”
Whilst writing songs can be some sort of therapy, and it’s evidenced by how Zauner has changed a song like “The Woman That Loves You” for the better, and Psychopomp’s title comes out of a spell in actual therapy. The album title comes partly from Jungian psychoanalysis and partly from Greek mythology, and it was the former which was recommended to Zauner. “I saw another therapist for a few sessions who was really unhelpful,” she explains, “and I felt really discouraged. When you look for therapy in a really vulnerable position….most people probably seek out therapy way too late. So when you’re in that position and very vulnerable it’s hard to find the right fit for you and it’s hard to tell your story over and over again until you find the right person. It’s difficult to tell from one hour with someone who is [going to be] the right person and if you need to give them another chance…it’s a really long process of finding the right therapist.”
Zauner continues, explaining the appeal of Jung compared to more prescriptive therapies: “I had seen someone, and left and felt very discouraged. My husband recommended someone – a Jungian analyst – just because he thought I would be interested in it and it would be an alternative for me. It was great for me; I was only in it for a short period of time but I needed something. I’m a very self-aware person so I didn’t need someone to parrot back ideas I already had about my grief. I wanted someone who was a little more outside the box and when I went there, she had a sandbox with all these toys in it! To re-enact your dreams! Under normal circumstances I would have thought that was sort of kooky but at the time I just needed something really weird to try to figure a way outside of this hole I was in. It was great to have this form of alternative therapy, but it’s not for everyone.”
As I speak to Zauner over this extended period, it’s clear she is someone who has no problem expressing herself. Yet in the days and weeks following her mother’s death, she went into a shell. Unable to express herself, the therapy – while not exactly a last resort – was necessary. “I think I was really surprised by my grief,” she admits. “I’m a very outspoken person and all of a sudden I felt very quiet. I think I was in a lot of shock and I wasn’t able to communicate with anyone exactly how I was feeling, and I’d get irritated and distant with anyone who tried to reach out to me…no-one could understand my pain and I was very specific.”
“I’m a very outspoken person and all of a sudden I felt very quiet."
Zauner explains that following the therapy, the songs which formed Psychopomp helped her open up again: “I think in a lot of ways writing this and the new material was a way of trying to sort out what I was feeling and what I wanted to say to people…and also what I wanted people to say to me. And it’s done in a not-so-straightforward way. I think it’s always been pretty natural for me to communicate my feelings through my art. It makes complete sense to me and then people can interpret it how they want to.”
While tracks like “In Heaven” and “Heft” are a memorial to Zauner’s mother as well as a therapy of sorts for the singer, the loss led to a reconnection with her Korean heritage. The video for “Everybody Wants to Love You” is a more tongue-in-cheek tribute, but there is a serious aspect. Zauner is operating in a world dominated by white men, and as an Asian-American she can perhaps feel like a minority in her own country and her own scene. I mention Mitski – someone else who I have discussed similar themes with – as an artist who has had to fight as an “outsider” but Zauner doesn’t see too many parallels with her. “Mitski and I had very different upbringings,” she explains. “She grew up all over the world and I grew up in the US. I feel much more American than Mitski might feel, I think. She is very much a child of the world.”
“I never felt very Korean. I rejected that part of my identity for years because I felt so American. I grew up here, although I was born in Korea, and all my friends were American. I think when you’re younger you strive to be ‘normal’ as possible. Anything which feels different is like the scab you want to shed! For years, I would pretend I didn’t have a middle name – which was Chung-Mi – so my name was just Michelle Zauner and it sounds as American as you can get. Someone wouldn’t know what my ethnicity was if they heard my name. In fact, some people were upset by the name Japanese Breakfast and called me out because they thought I was just white and assumed I was appropriating culture. It’s funny!”
Looking at the photo used for the cover art for Psychopomp it’s as much Zauner reaching out for her mother as it is vice versa. “I think in my personal life it was a part of getting older and appreciating and accepting my identity,” she says of her Korean heritage. “I realised that’s a huge part of me which I had been rejecting for quite some time, and it was a natural thing to find comfort in after my mom passed away because it was such a large part of her. So it was a huge part of my grieving process.”
Psychopomp says a lot without Zauner actually saying a lot. There’s an economy of words, a way of expressing an overwhelming feeling in just a line or two, which brings to mind a particular vein of North American short story writing. One writer in particular is Richard Ford. Perhaps best known for his novel The Sportswriter, Ford also has a fine collection of short story writing which often locates itself in small-town America. Psychopomp also has this small-town USA feel to it, particularly on a track like “Rugged Country”, where lines like "He punched out my teeth" so you said / so did the evidence / the blood and the dent on the car door from your head” crackle with unsettling, unspoken energy…
“Oh my god, yeah! I actually love Richard Ford!” exclaims Zauner. “I was probably re-reading Ford’s Rock Springs…where’s that, Wyoming…or Colorado [it’s the latter]. Anyway, it’s set in a small mountain town on the west side of the US. My songs are a little more northern haha! They’re set largely in a small town [Eugene] in the Pacific Northwest but I think they have similar feelings….Colorado and Wyoming have this sense of mountainous range and expanse. There’s something so majestic about it but there’s also something simultaneously eerie underneath or this sense of impending doom, or something dark and villainous….in nature. And I think the Pacific Northwest can feel that way a lot as well.”
I say to Zauner the reason I brought up Richard Ford was because tracks like “Rugged Country” or “The Woman That Loves You” have an unsettling nature to them, so that although we generally know what’s going on there’s an undercurrent of unease which leaves you not knowing precisely how the story will finish. Zauner agrees. “So I was stuck in my hometown, and I think what a lot of ‘Rugged Country’ is about brings back those uneasy feelings or ugly memories from childhood of being in that city, and revisiting it a new, even uglier light I guess. The underbelly of this majestic place which reminds you of your childhood, kinda opening up in this ugly adult way.”
The economy of words, then, is no coincidence. Zauner tells me “I read a lot when I’m writing; I studied creative writing and film in college so I was reading a lot of short stories or short fiction. I think this really informs my song writing because I really like to try to operate on that same structure which short stories work on. I think a song is very short thing; you can only have so many lyrics in a song, you can only cover so much ground and that’s the way your medium is. I think I like to try to create a short story in my songs… I love that format, I love Richard Ford, John Updike and Philip Roth. I like authors that focus a lot on place, particularly places that I can relate to and try to capture a feeling in a small series of actions in a short amount of time. I really do try to incorporate that in my work.”
"I think I like to try to create a short story in my songs… I love that format, I love Richard Ford, John Updike and Philip Roth. I like authors that focus a lot on place, particularly places that I can relate to and try to capture a feeling in a small series of actions in a short amount of time."
Zauner continues, relating Ford’s storytelling to the interplay between Psychopomp’s sonic brightness and lyrical darkness. “I like to try and create a feeling that’s like a number of complicated layers; yeah the songs can be sonically happy but there’s some instrumentation which is eerie or really dynamic…and then another layer is the lyrical content. Like with ‘Everybody Wants To Love You’, that sounds like the most straightforward of the songs but it’s very tongue-in-cheek. It also didn’t come from a very happy place, it comes from a very lonely and distant place….maybe after a couple of listens it’s something you can tap into. It sounds cute at first but I don’t think that’s all that’s there.”
We continue to discuss the writing process for Japanese Breakfast, and that brings us on to Zauner’s work post-Psychopomp. Now that she’s worked through some feelings about her mother’s death and some unhealthy relationships going back a number of years, where does she see herself going next. “The writing process is a little bit different…it’s simultaneously more compact and expansive,” reveals Zauner. “I’ve drawn from all different periods of my life, I guess. And now it’s a very different period of my life. I have a lot more confidence in myself; Psychopomp in a lot of ways was my last-ditch effort – it felt like I had given up on myself as an artist because I had been in this band for so long and it had never really amounted to much. It was like ‘oh well this isn’t going to happen for me!’ But I really enjoyed it so I guess I was like I’m going to make another one for me! I’m writing with a new-found confidence…I can create material which is music I enjoy listening to and might resonate with some people.”
Thematically, it sounds like the follow-up record will still find Zauner coping with a life without her mother in it, but learning to cope…bit-by-bit “The themes on the next record are resilience,” she tells me, tentatively. “I feel very proud of myself and what I’ve accomplished creatively, and I’m really proud of myself for going through this hellish time and coming out of it without hurting anyone. I wasn’t too ugly to anyone…which I think is really easy to do to someone – and totally understandable. I don’t fault anyone for that. I tried not to take it out on anyone and I worked really hard to try and not get too upset with the world, I guess. It’s easy to do that; it’s difficult to not feel like the world is out to destroy you. I think a lot of the songs are about that, and now I’m really excited to explore these new avenues.”