Photo by Jackie Lee Young

The Zauner Files

Acclaimed indie rock musician and South Eugene grad performs at inauguration ball, releases memoir

The night before President Joe Biden’s inauguration, acclaimed indie rock musician and South Eugene High School graduate Michelle Zauner contributed a live rendition of her song, “Everybody Wants to Love You!” to Breaking Barriers, an inaugural ball and virtual celebration presented by RUN AAPI, a voter outreach campaign building political power among young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Of mixed Korean American heritage, Zauner, better known as Japanese Breakfast, was surprised and honored when asked to participate in the event. She chose the song from her 2016 debut Psychopomp and a fixture of her band’s live set for both its brevity and jubilant tone. 

“It was nice to get the band back together and do a socially-distanced live recording,” Zauner tells me from Brooklyn, where she now lives. “It felt like some lightness in a very dark year,” she says.

With the inauguration behind her, 2021 looks busy for Zauner, with new music from Japanese Breakfast expected sometime this year after being bumped from 2020 on account of the pandemic. And that’s not all. Zauner’s first book, Crying in H Mart, is also slated for April.

Touching on Zauner’s childhood and her experience growing up Korean American, Crying in H Mart is a memoir of Zauner’s time in 2014 back in Eugene and caring for her mother who was dying from cancer.

Portions of what would become the book first appeared as essays in both Glamour magazine and the New Yorker in 2016 and 2018. “From that, I had a lot of enthusiasm around me to turn it into a larger piece,” Zauner says.

With a background in creative writing, Zauner resisted nonfiction writing for quite some time. Although she says she feels too young to have a memoir, writing the book helped her process the loss of her mother, and provided a road map for who she will be going forward.  

“I needed to write about it to better understand it myself, and offer it to people around me,” she says.

With a busy 2021, Zauner was far from dormant in 2020. In October, she released the EP pop songs 2020 with Ryan Galloway from the band Crying, the first EP from Zauner’s side project, Bumper. Written and recorded in the early days of the pandemic, the EP is synth-heavy, with a lighter and poppier tone than the airy, guitar-forward indie rock Japanese Breakfast is known for. 

While working on Bumper, Zauner was developing music for a video game called Sable. “A lot of it is MIDI and stuff you do on a computer,” she says, and the Bumper project flexed many of those same muscles but in a pop music format. Zauner wanted to try something immediate, a project she could make and release quickly. In a dark time, she says, “I wanted to do something fast and fun.”

Returning to her most well-known music project, Zauner says the first two Japanese Breakfast records are primarily about grief. The upcoming release, she says, is much more joyful.

“I wanted to write about a different part of my life,” she explains. “I wrote this whole book about grief. I didn’t feel like I needed to write another album about grief. I think it’s some of my best work.”

Crying in H Mart is out in April wherever books are sold. The debut Bumper EP pop songs 2020 is currently available on all major music streaming platforms. New music from Japanese Breakfast is expected sometime in 2021.