Michelle Zauner + Jessica Hopper
JESSICA HOPPER: What's your feeling about Chicago? Be honest.
MICHELLE ZAUNER: We always have really good shows in Chicago, with the exception of one show at the Subterranean, which was bad.
JH: Wasn't the Subterranean originally a brothel?
MZ: I don't know about brothel, but there is a really interesting green room situation. There is a spiral staircase on the stage that you go up, and it does have a brothelly vibe, in a Westworld kind of way — there are multiple stories and there's a center opening. I don't know, I feel like I'm not doing a good job of explaining what a brothel is.
JH: No, I understand, and even though I've never been in a brothel I understand the stairs thing. Tell me, what is your relationship with time?
MZ: Tough one. Generally negative, I guess. I feel like, especially in the music industry, I'm quite old to be in my position.
JH: You're nineteen?
MZ: I'm twenty-nine, yeah. I wish I was nineteen. I thought that even when I was younger though. I wish that all the things I’ve accomplished I’d accomplished ten years ago. But I've learned so much and I know I would never be where I am if it wasn't for the time and experiences I've had.
JH: What were you doing when you were nineteen?
MZ: When I was nineteen I was playing in a band called Post Post. I was in college, at Bryn Mawr. It was me and three other girls. I wrote the keyboard parts and the bass parts, and taught them to the two other girls, who didn't know how to play. And then we had this amazing drummer. We played at basement shows, mostly. I hadn't intended on going to college, and I was really struggling in that environment; I’d imagined a women’s liberal arts college was going to be more like, everyone making zines and having Riot grrrl bands. Really it was just a lot of women that went to Catholic girls' high schools and had never smoked pot before and came from doctor/lawyer families. I was trying to carve out my own space as a public school kid from the Pacific Northwest.
JH: What would twenty-nine-year-old you tell nineteen-year-old you?
MZ: Being a professional musician was something that I always aspired to be when I was younger. And now that I have the job, sometimes my ambition clouds the appreciation of it. There's always a bigger room to play, or another crew member to acquire, and you're always just looking at the next thing. Sometimes it's hard to appreciate that, like, we sold out Thalia Hall yesterday and that's so nuts. But because you're just trying to do your best to keep up with the machine, you just forget to appreciate it, and then you get stressed out. Nineteen-year-old me would be like, suck it up, you're living the dream, this is what you wanted.
JH: When you go on stage, what are you waiting for?
MZ: A really big moment for me was playing in Philadelphia at a venue called Union Transfer. It's like a 1,200-capacity venue, and we sold it out. It's our hometown; I used to work coat check there. It’s a huge full-circle event to be able to sell out the venue where you used to work coat check, when I could never even fathom getting to play there. I got onstage and everything went fine, and afterward I ran off stage and I just cried so much — I have no idea why. I think it's just because this job is so strange, you have so much . . . you have to feel so much for such a short amount of time every day. And sometimes your body just can't create it. But when the audience is connected with you, and everything goes well, and everyone laughs at your jokes, and the songs go over really well, and they cheer when you feel most insecure — those are the great moments where everything . . . where you can just feel correctly, I guess.
JH: So much of creating music, making art, traveling, and performing is, as you're saying, ephemeral, and kind of smears together, all of these memories. How do you hold on to what is ephemeral in your life?
MZ: Recently I started keeping a journal, which is a new thing for me. But um, I guess part of it is that if you travel with the same people, you’re making this working archive of memories. You have the same three people in the car with you to remember: what was that green room like? What did we eat in Hong Kong? How did we get to that festival? That's one cool thing about having band members — you get to create an archive together.
JH: What is the first thing you want to do when you get home?
MZ: Closing the door is huge. You don't have any privacy on tour; being able to go into a room and close the door and be alone with yourself, to not have to worry about anyone coming in, is a hugely underappreciated comfort. And cooking.I'm half-Korean and there aren't a lot of good options for me on tour. I love cooking. I'll go to H Mart, the Korean grocery store, and I'll buy all the ingredients to make a big batch of kimchi. It’s the most therapeutic thing in the world to just eat food the way that I want it.
JH: Aside from kimchi, what are your go-to meals? What do you cook to either impress yourself or other people? Do you entertain much?
MZ: I really enjoy cooking for other people. At home the first thing that I always make is a kimchi soup, with the kimchi that I make. I'm obsessed with poaching eggs, I'm a really good egg poacher. I'll do like, rice with a poached egg and sesame oil, radish kimchi, and kimchi soup.
JH: What's your secret for poaching an egg?
MZ: You boil the water and then you use a whisk to create a whirlpool. You got to have the egg ready to go in a vessel so you're not like, cracking it in; you just pop it in. Thethe whites will kind of swirl around the yolk into a perfect ball.
JH: Who taught you how to cook?
MZ: My mom didn't really teach me how to cook, but she was a homemaker, and I spent a lot of time around her in the kitchen. Food was a really big part of my life. It's actually a big part of the writing that I have done about Korean cooking. It wasn't until about three years ago when my mom passed away that I started cooking a lot. I think I was afraid I was going to lose that part of my identity that I didn't have access to anymore. I didn't have anyone to ask questions, and I didn't want to lose what I knew. Actually I started watching this YouTube channel by a woman named Maangchi; she's one of the few Korean bloggers who teaches you how to make Korean food in English. She was sort of my Julie and Julia moment; I just love this woman. I wrote an essay about her for Glamour, and she saw it and found my phone number and gave me a call. It was a really beautiful moment to have with her.
JH: You talk about the door, not having privacy, a space for oneself. My experience on tour is that sometimes it creates new skills, like I know how to change my clothes completely inside of a sleeping bag. What are the things you do to maintain a sense of self when you are giving so much to so many people?
MZ: With this band, I am in a really lucky situation where I'm the boss. The band that I was in before was really challenging because it was with three other people who were just kind of the people that we knew that played those instruments; we kind of just created a band and then didn't consider everything else that came with that. It was just, “You play the bass, you play drums, and now we're a band.” It was a very difficult situation.
With [Japanese Breakfast], I could be a little bit more selective. I always thought that being in a band was going to be full of drama and strife, but it doesn't have to be. It was a really lucky thing that this year, everyone in the band was very carefully selected, based on how I knew that I worked with them. I have three people that give everyone space to be their own person, but also support each other.
JH: And how do you maintain that sense of self when you are giving so much of yourself to so many people?
MZ: I guess I've never felt like I struggled with a sense of self. That has always felt very solid to me, to the point where it’s been an issue. I'm just such a workaholic-freak; I have like, four resolutions for every day. I have a whole calendar: “you must read for an hour, you must write for an hour, you must exercise today, you have to write in your diary." I feel like a complete failure if I don't accomplish all those things among like, everything else we do. But it's a grounding thing for me to be able to have projects that I'm constantly working on because it's really hard to be a musician. Like, sometimes you don't get to be so creative.
JH: That's like a very cool self-care practice that you have going.
MZ: Every day I feel like a failure, so if I can write down what I did for the day, it helps me feel a sense of accomplishment. I think that kind of work ethic just came from the way that I was raised; no matter how much I accomplish in a day, it never feels like enough. When I was in high school, every time I didn't study for a test that was coming up, I’d keep the textbook in my backpack as like, a physical reminder of the burden that was coming. That’s just my nervous personality. And when my mom died three years ago, I was faced with death in such a serious way. It reminded me that I'm going to die really soon, so I have to do all of this stuff before that happens.
JH: How does that kind of work ethic transform or show up in your music?
MZ: I like to be involved in all aspects of the band. It’s something that is really important to me; we were a self-managed band for way too long a time because it was really, really hard for me to let go. If I could do everything myself, I would. I think it's good to know how to do all of those things, because I started from a very DIY background: I was booking all of my own shows, I was doing my own press, I was managing the band, ordering all the merch, designing all the sleeves. There's so much that goes into the business of having a band, and it's really good to know how to do all those things so you know that the people you're working with are doing a great job.
JH: What do you like to read?
MZ: I've been reading a lot of nonfiction memoir; it's such a personal experience to read a memoir, and it's so easy to read on the road. You're having a conversation with someone. It’s also just what I'm working on right now, so I feel like I need to consume work that inspires me to make stuff.
I guess I feel super basic saying I really like David Sedaris' books, but I do. I like books that have a sense of humor. But I also really liked Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, which I finished just a couple of weeks ago. I like books that just make me feel intensely, that make me laugh, or in Joan Didion's case, just sob uncontrollably.
JH: I don't know whether there's any other type of term for that book other than it's a “crying book.” What would you write a memoir about? Like, what's going on in your life?
MZ: I'm working on a memoir right now. I want to write a memoir about grief and cooking and racial identity. I had such an intense year three years ago, my whole life really fell apart. I would like to write about that experience. From playing in Japanese Breakfast and having very confessional, personal lyrics, I realized that these experiences that I was having that felt so personal to me are actually things that many people experience. But it's just such a different medium to work in than writing music. So it's definitely a struggle.
JH: What over the last couple of years has been most transformational in your grieving process?
MZ: Accepting that people grieve and need different types of therapy. I personally did not enjoy talking to a counselor; it was really aggravating to me as someone who didn't have health insurance. I was living in New York at the time and I would travel like an hour to see a therapist who seemed to just be waiting for the clock to go by. And it's so expensive. I felt like I really had to go to therapy, but then I realized I could also spend that $200 a week on a really nice meal for myself, and think about that as a kind of self-care. So I took the $200 a week I was going to spend on therapy and I put them into things like taking Korean language lessons on Skype, or buying nice groceries for that week.
Pouring myself into my work was a really important thing, too. At the time I was writing a lot and making a record, it was just all-consuming. I was twenty-five years old, and I knew it was what my mom would have wanted; she wouldn't have wanted me to crumble under what happened, and she would have wanted me to be really productive.
JH: If everyone had to leave here and go buy a book, what would you tell people to buy? What's a book that you have loved and continue to love?
MZ: Oh gosh, I should have been prepared for this question. I just feel boring, but Rock Springs is a book of short fiction by Richard Ford that was a huge book for me. So, that or Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.