Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner Survived Grief. Now She Can Do Anything

Her unusually, abundantly joyous new album 'Jubilee' is the light at the end of a prolonged stay in the darkness

By Max Freedman

Michelle Zauner is a low-key professional. When I reach her via video call on an April morning, she’s sporting a black tee emblazoned with Chester Cheetah (yes, the Cheetos mascot), but her Brooklyn apartment’s Zoom setup resembles a DJ booth at a well-funded radio station. She apologizes for the blanket jumbled across the plush-looking couch behind her, but the lemon-yellow walls and neatly arranged framed prints above it (both are visible in her Daily Show appearance) showcase a love of, if not a need for, order. It makes sense: Zauner must crave some sort of balance to live her double life as a musician and New York Times best-selling author.

In late April, Zauner released Crying in H Mart, a heart-wrenching memoir about learning to cook Korean food staples as she lost her mom to cancer, and how that reshaped her. Just six weeks later arrives Jubilee, Zauner’s third and most vivid, high-fidelity album as Japanese Breakfast. (Oh, and somewhere along the way, she coached Angourie Rice and other actors on how to play a band for the HBO series Mare of Easttown.)

Crying in H Mart and Jubilee are back-to-back feats in which she’s revisited her most meaningful experiences and emotions to help others through theirs. They also weren’t supposed to be released so close to one another. Zauner wrote Crying casually from 2016 through 2018, and only after she submitted its first draft in the latter half of 2019 did she begin working on Jubilee. By the end of that year, the album was ready to go, but then the pandemic hit, and suddenly, it looked like the album would join Crying as a 2021 release.

Zauner thinks this shift, though completely unexpected, is for the best. “I'm very glad,” she says about postponing Jubilee. Paired with Crying, “it almost feels like a double album.” In vignette-like essays, Zauner reexamines the deepest recesses of her grief, but toward the book’s end, she begins rediscovering life’s light; on Jubilee, she leaps emphatically toward that luster while knowing she won’t always reach it.

Jubilee marks an unmissable thematic shift from Zauner’s previous two albums — 2016’s lo-fi Psychopomp and 2017’s clearer Soft Sounds from Another Planet — which both existed in the shadow of her mother’s loss. “I think I always wanted to move away from grief,” Zauner says of those two albums, “but grief wasn’t ready” to move on from her. After she drafted Crying, though, she felt powered by a new feeling: jubilation.

More often than not, Jubilee’s instrumental arrangements are so joyous — largely unlike Zauner’s solemn, shoegaze-indebted previous work — that they’re easy to confuse for another artist’s creations. But Zauner’s voice, a delicate instrument that sounds more like it’s coming from the back of her throat than her diaphragm, is unmistakable. The newfound lucidity in her vocals at the outset of opener “Paprika” is striking, and the classically beautiful horns of the chorus are a complete and welcome shock. They perfectly emphasize the thrill that Zauner feels when performing as she sings, “Oh, it’s a rush!”

On “Slide Tackle,” Zauner rides softly funky guitars and Sade-lite saxes into a subtle but tremendous groove as she commits to happiness. “I want to be pure / I want to navigate this hate in my heart / Somewhere better,” she states before making good on her goals. “Don’t mind me while / I’m tackling this void / Slide tackling my mind.” It’s perhaps the most potent example of what Zauner says is Jubilee’s guiding theme: “Learning to embrace feeling… almost like a teenager, in this almost violent way.”

Jubilee was this reckoning with permitting myself to feel joy again and to really embrace feeling in this new way,” she adds. The shift is entirely intentional. “My narrative as an artist is very rooted in grief and trauma,” she says, “and I wanted to mess with that expectation and totally surprise people with something on the other end.”

Tonje Thilesen

Japanese Breakfast - 3 - by Tonje Thilesen

“Paprika” and “Slide Tackle” surprise sonically. So do the string-tinged “Kokomo, IN” and the freaky, creaky “Savage Good Boy,” but they take a different route to get there. On neither song is Zauner the narrator: A teenager stuck in a small rural town is the former’s protagonist, and this character finds only excitement in his partner traveling the world and letting others experience her personality and charm. The latter’s ruling-class narrator finds a sick sort of pride and value in retreating to his bunker during the apocalypse while caring for his family. In putting her Bryn Mawr creative writing degree to work, she found new ways to look at happiness.

“The person rationalizing this hoarding of wealth, in his mind, is doing so because he's preserving his joy,” Zauner says. And on “Kokomo, IN,” she says, the narrator is “allowing that person to share different types of joy with other people.” She included these made-up tales to explore the “different ways that we interact with joy, whether it's struggling to feel it, fighting to protect it, or reminding yourself to have it.”

That struggling point feels important, as Jubilee isn’t entirely without its downcast moments. Zauner says that “In Hell,” which she originally recorded for Soft Sounds before adding some new flourishes for Jubilee, is “maybe the saddest song I've ever written.” Its tale of Zauner’s last moments with her dog may feel thematically out of place on Jubilee, but Zauner views it as an opportunity: “Look at what you can endure and still experience joy [afterward].” On another melancholy tune, “Posing in Bondage,” Zauner’s fictional, tied-up narrator still hopes that her lover will come home soon, even though she knows his return is deeply unlikely. Even in their darkest times, people can create their own light.

“Posing in Bondage” is special in that it’s one of two Jubilee songs with co-production from Jack Tatum of dream-pop institution Wild Nothing. The two also co-wrote Jubilee’s buoyant lead single “Be Sweet,” which could have been a radio smash in the ‘80s, with bouncy guitar-bass interplay, cresting daylight-white synths, and a chorus so ebullient you’d have to be a literal rock not to sing along. It’s certainly Zauner’s most joyous song to date, and her cries of “I want to belieeeeeeeve” are awash not in desperation but excitement. It’s an appropriate sentiment for a song about finding elation in forgiveness, one with a pre-chorus cry as memorable as the chorus’s wail: “Make it up to me, you know it’s better!”

“Better” describes Zauner’s mindset at large these days. The tremendous emotional burdens she experienced during and after her mother’s cancer battle are now preserved in text, and her work to re-spark her joy is etched in musical amber. With Crying in H Mart and Jubilee, she’s letting the world know not only that she’s been through rough times and come out OK, but that you can, too. “It's been six years since my mom passed away, and that grief is gonna live with me forever,” she says. “But I still am capable of joy. I still experience it. I still want to fight for it in my life.”

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