Life on Mars: Michelle Zauner on Soft Sounds From Another Planet

By Shaye Graves and Amileah Sutliff

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Photos by Morgan Winston

This story appears in the Fall 2017 issue of EMMIE Magazine.

The way Michelle Zauner fills sizeable venues with her screams, you’d never guess she’s so tiny. Tucked into a conference-room-turned-green-room two hours before her set at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she barely filled an office chair.

Her dark hair was thrown into a bun at the nape of her neck, framing her bare face. She wore a black t-shirt with tattoos peeking out from under the sleeves, ranging from an elaborate half-sleeve to a floating cartoon baby on her forearm.

Madison was the 22nd stop on her first headlining tour under the name Japanese Breakfast, promoting her July sophomore release, Soft Sounds From Another Planet. Life on the road didn’t bother 28-year-old Zauner.

After playing in a punky Philadelphia four-piece band, Little Big League, she returned home to small-town Oregon in late 2014 when her mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After her mom died, she remained in Oregon with her father, and spent that period writing and revamping old demos. The tracks eventually became Japanese Breakfast’s debut album, Psychopomp — lo-fi, intimate bedroom-studio recordings released in 2016. Zauner’s voice — which can span the grungy bellows of Kathleen Hanna to the celestial pangs of Bjӧrk — belts out “The dog’s confused/ She just paces around all day/ She’s sniffing at your empty room” on the opening track, “In Heaven.”

“You just become so aware that there’s so much pain around you. And how do you make this really sad thing not change you into an evil person, really?” she asked, fiddling with the straw of her Coke. “One concern that I really had after my mom passed away was that I was gonna take this thing that felt very unfair to me and become a person who was very angry at the world and very resentful towards other people’s happiness.”

After Psychopomp received general and critical acclaim, Zauner found herself having to publicly address her grief as a necessary part of her career, answering difficult personal questions about her mom’s death over and over. So when a blog commissioned her to write two songs in late 2016, instead of leaning into her grief, she leaned away.

For distance, she turned to sci-fi. She wrote “Machinist,” a song about a woman falling in love with a robot and enlisting in the Mars One project. The blog rejected the track, but left Zauner wanting to make a sci-fi concept album. She soon found that scope limiting, especially as the changes in her life since Psychopomp weighed on her. She pivoted to writing a composite of autobiographical material and fictional narrative, with sci-fi as a lens to process her feelings and re-navigating her relationship to humanity. Exploring new emotional terrain in her own life, she became fascinated by the hypothetical changes human nature would face on another planet.

“I think that if you were to live on Mars, you would come up with all of these words, of course to describe the difference in the landscape, but also all of these psychological effects of living among only 20 people, or not being able to breathe air naturally. And what does that emotion feel like?,” Zauner explained. “A lot of the songs are about imagining a world that’s greater than yours or reflecting on how other people have these shared issues, and that your small, personal pain is like a soft sound, from another planet, that no one else thinks about except for you.”

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Harkening back to her studies of short fiction in college, she took a literary approach to her album-writing process for Soft Sounds. She fixated on micro-moments that reveal greater meaning. She cited “Road Head” as an example. On first listen, the song’s about oral sex in a car, but Zauner used the sexual scenario as a vehicle to explore power dynamics, jealousy and stifled ambition.

Some songs on Soft Sounds, though, are neither literary nor sci-fi, but more literal. Two weeks before her mom’s death, Zauner got married. She wrote “Till Death” to narrate, in detail, the love that came out of her darkest period. Peter Bradley, her source of emotional support throughout her pain, inspired much of the album and joins her on stage for this tour playing guitar for Japanese Breakfast.

“When I was younger when I was sick, my mom would say things like ‘real love is when you wish so badly you could take someone’s physical pain; if I could I would just take it from you, and I would endure it for you,’” Zauner said. “There’s not really anything you can do for that person, but just kind of wait and hope they’ll come out on the other side and be enjoyable to be around again.” Mere presence through another’s pain, she found, is “real love” too.

Zauner did eventually come out on the other side of grief, albeit a different person. She’s quieter now, for one thing. “I think things seem like less of a big deal. Things that would bother me that were small emotional issues are much softer and easier now,” she said.

Over the past few years, Zauner’s undergone the kind of changes that most people experience across the span of an entire lifetime — from marrying her soulmate to burying her mother to achieving the career in music she used to dream of; she’s grown exponentially as both a person and an artist. Soft Sounds is a physical testament to that growth. Whereas Psychopomp was her knee-jerk, raw response to intense personal tragedy, Soft Sounds helped her take control of the chaos and decide for herself what came next. Soft Sounds is full of intent, each aspect of the songwriting, arrangements and production a deliberate choice. “I felt like [Making Soft Sounds] was the first time I really found my voice,” Zauner said. “And because it was successful, I felt like I could really trust my voice.”

Honing in an artistic voice is something many artists don’t do until well into their careers. Soft Sounds is a memoir of emotional process, but also a product of Zauner’s creative grind. Emerging from the depths of grief, she’s more driven and ambitious than ever before. With a pressing new fear of death — the cancer that killed her mom is a genetic disease — she’s now “racing against time” to do everything she wants to do before she no longer can.

On her first Japanese Breakfast tour opening for Mitski, she remembers watching her sell out 500 capacity venues and thinking if she could just reach that point, she’d be satisfied. But as her momentum changes, her barometer for success changes with it.

“Now, a year-and-a-half later, we’re playing the same exact rooms and selling out a lot of the shows, and the second you do that, you’re immediately looking at what’s the next thing? …I truly just try and feel the moment, and I just say out loud: ‘Holy Shit. This is amazing.’ I think that ambition just keeps you looking for the next thing.”

At this point, grit’s become second nature for Zauner — she got up to get ready. She had a show to headline.

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