The Japanese Breakfast frontwoman ponders the creative process
Michelle Zauner just released her second album with the band Japanese Breakfast, Soft Sounds From Another Planet. It’s bigger, more ambitious and succeeds in building on what Zauner began with Psychopomp in a very real way. The singer also released an online role-playing game, Japanese BreakQuest, in conjunction with the album. Here’s how our conversation went down.
Q: What’s up?
A: I’m just sitting in a van.
Q: Right! On tour. Do you play any games on the road? That’s a lot of driving.
A: Unfortunately, our guitar player dropped my Nintendo DS in a puddle of water, so I haven’t been able to play any games this tour. But I’ve been editing a lot of video footage for upcoming music videos, so that’s another thing I spend a lot of time in the car doing.
Q: So you’re very productive instead of playing video games?
A: I try to be. Lately I’ve been having a lot of back pain so I just kind of miserably stare out the window and try to zone out.
Q: Well, I’m sorry to hear that. What game were you playing on your DS before it got wrecked?
A: I was playing Chrono Trigger, and I was pretty into it. But someone fucked it up for me…
Q: I was just playing your video game, Japanese BreakQuest. It’s really good. What was making it like?
A: It was really fun. I feel like I got to do all of the really fun stuff—basically tell someone who knows how to make games what to do. Elaine Fath, she did the majority of the game design and I just described how I wanted the characters to be, what I wanted them to look like, where I wanted the world to be and look like, what kind of references I wanted to put in, and helped out with a lot of the dialogue and scripts. She was the one who developed the actual gameplay and told me what steps you have to take in order to complete it. It was really collaborative and fun. It was a back and forth thing since February.
I really enjoy art that’s focused around a narrative in any way, and I think that RPGs (role-playing games) are a really fun medium for that. I grew up playing RPGs, since I was five, with my dad, and it was a really meaningful bonding thing for us. It was fun to be on the other side of that and make it. It felt really good to see people interact with it, and I was really happy with it.
Q: A video game is a really unique way to promote the new album. I saw Jay Som perform a few weeks ago, and I hadn’t rescued them from space jail in the game yet, and I felt a little awkward about that. I’m glad space jail doesn’t stop people from touring.
A: [Laughs.] Yeah, yup.
Q: In the game, you directly reference your tour with Mitski—were a lot of people included in the game people you met on tour?
A: Yeah, for sure. I think that when you’re on the road as much as we are, your friend group changes from one that lives in the same city and becomes more people who also tour all the time. You end up at the same kind of festivals or venues or on tour together, so you can hang out. I just wanted to do a fun nod to them because I think the people playing the game maybe already know that we’re friends or have toured together, or are fans of both of our music. Everyone I put in the game I consider a friend.
Q: You’ve spoken about being an Asian woman in the music scene, and about how you want your work to create more space for Asian artists in music scenes you’re part of. Have you noticed anything changing over the course of your music career?
A: Yeah, we’re definitely trying to create a community. I feel really lucky to be a part of that—it wasn’t always like that. It’s hard because I feel like I create my own community too, and the one that I’ve created for myself is a little bit more balanced in terms of representation. It’s a difficult thing.
Q: How did you get into making your own music videos?
A: I worked with [cinematographer] Adam Kolodny on, I think, seven music videos. His passion is cinematography. He really likes creating the image and making the [shots beautifully lit] and being a behind the scenes guy. When we started, I didn’t really know that much about making music videos, and I felt like he probably wanted to direct. He directed the first two, and we conceptualized them together.
For the third one—“Everybody Wants to Love You”—he encouraged me to take a directing role. I think he wanted to focus more on the cinematography and he doesn’t really identify as a director. It was something I was already naturally doing in the first two videos, I just didn’t know that that’s what it was. After that, I fully transitioned into a directing role and Adam focused on being the amazing director of photography that he is.
Q: How have you found folding that extra workload into your regular schedule?
A: It’s challenging. My body doesn’t want to keep up with my ambitions, currently. But it’s a beautiful life and a beautiful job to be able to make things that excite me. I can’t really complain. It’s hard to balance, but it’s a real privilege.
Q: If you had one tip to give to somebody making a music video, what would you tell them?
A: Oh god! Try not to get overwhelmed. The best thing to do is to do as much pre-production and planning as possible, and I think that location scouting is really important. If you have an environment that’s really captivating, it kind of does the work for you.
Q: I feel like it’s hard to conceptualize how much work actually goes into a music video while you’re watching it.
A: Oh, absolutely. I’m working on a video now that has a lot of stop-motion animation, and I spent 12 hours making maybe 10 seconds of content. I never really used photoshop before this, and the learning curve of spending hours figuring out photoshop and then also doing stop-motion has been quite the challenge.
I’ve harassed people in my vicinity to teach me something several times, but then I won’t ever really learn it until I do it myself.
Q: Have you set aside any music video ideas because they were too ambitious?
A: I’ve never set aside an idea, but they’ve definitely been too ambitious for us and, honestly, this video I’ve been working on with the stop-motion is the hardest one. There’s no strenuous shooting involved, but all of the labour goes into the editing. It’s a lot of work in a different way. This was supposed to be our easy one. Hah!
Lately, my ideas have become bigger and bigger. As you become more competent, I think that’s what happens. It seems like you should be able to save yourself some work, but then the ideas that pop into your head are stuff like: “I want a crane shot of this cool gymnasium,” and then you just become too big for your britches.
Q: It sounds like you want to keep challenging yourself too, instead of always doing the easiest thing.
A: Yeah, absolutely. For sure. I feel the same way about making records. I find myself taking on more, and the best work comes when you’re slightly out of your comfort zone.
Japanese Breakfast played at Bar le Ritz in Montreal on Sunday, Oct. 8.