Japanese Breakfast Deserves To Be Here

Japanese Breakfast's frontwoman Michelle Zauner is a busy woman.

The band's 2021 album Jubilee was a contender for several Grammys this spring. Zauner's bestselling book, Crying in H Mart, is being adapted into a movie—with Zauner herself writing the screenplay. And Japanese Breakfast's Coachella sets were wildly popular, with everyone from the average music fan to Conan O'Brien.

Newsweek caught up with Michelle Zauner just after Japanese Breakfast's Weekend 1 set.

We are talking to you a couple hours after your Coachella set at weekend one. How was it? How do you feel?

It was great. It was really fun. I was just saying it feels so much less nerve wracking. We played here in 2018, and it was such a huge moment for us. And so it feels like a huge moment for us in a totally different way.

How do you think it changed?

I feel very at ease. I feel like I deserve to be here. And I think I was just so shocked that we were even here to begin with in 2018. I love our band, and I think we put on a great show. And we started, we played here as a four-piece. And now we're a six-piece, and have a bigger crew, and yeah, just feels really great up there. I just gotta have fun, you know? I felt like I had nothing to prove beyond 'I'm gonna have a good time.'

What I love about Japanese Breakfast's sound is that it is so lush and so ornate. How do you approach coming up with a setlist for something like Coachella, which is a huge audience?

I think festivals are kind of like flirting with a new prospect. And I feel like playing club shows, headlining shows, are sort of like a long term relationship where people know you really well.

And so when you're flirting you want all of your shiny material like out there, and just to play banger, banger, banger. And so I actually really like a shorter festival set, because the vibe never dips, it never changes, it's always up. I always just try to pull out all the stops, and [perform] what I think will be the most engaging for a crowd that has a lot of better places to be.

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Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast performs during the first weekend of Coachella. Demian Becerra/Goldenvoice

We need to talk about Crying in H Mart, which has of course been wildly successful. You've been writing the screenplay for a film adaptation, right?

Yeah! I wrote the first draft and I'm in revisions.

What are the next steps?

Right now it's just revising. I'm learning a lot from my producer who's given me notes on the craft of writing a screenplay, and what needs to change. Then we give it to the studio and see what revisions they want, and then I fix it.

And then I have no idea what happens. But I have really, really wonderful producers, and a really wonderful studio. I'm looking forward to it.

How have you found the writing process to be different between writing music, writing a book, and now writing a movie?

I think a big part of making any kind of art is just learning to listen to your intuition. And trust that there are going to be moments where you feel really idiotic, and there are gonna be moments where you feel brilliant.

I think having written a number of records going into writing the book, I had this [sense] of, well, I know how to oversee a creative project to its end. I had the sort of tools to do that going into the screenplay. [I] wrote an almost 300-page book, so writing a 100 page screenplay? It's not going to be too hard.

Another part is just like learning to creatively show up, you know? I feel like so much of what I've learned about myself as an artist is that I need hard deadlines, and I need strict rules. And so when I started Japanese Breakfast, I wrote a song every day for the month of June. And I had 30 tracks at the end, and a lot of that ended up being really wonderful source material for songs later on.

And so similarly, when I wrote the book, I was like, okay, I have an 80,000 word word count I'm supposed to hit. So I wrote 1,000 words every single day until I hit 80,000. And then similarly, with the screenplay, I was like, "okay, you have to write five pages every day until you hit 100 and then go back and revise."

So I learned a lot from each project that has helped me. I'm really good at being unforgiving. I'm not an editor that likes to rework things—I just cut it. I'd rather just write a lot, and if it's not working, cut it. It's actually harder for me to tinker with it to make it work.

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Michelle Zauner plays guitar while performing at Coachella 2022 on April 16. Beth Saravo/Goldenvoice

Crying in H Mart has been held up as this sort of exemplary account of growing up as a biracial person in America, being Korean-American, and living with intersectional identities. Do you feel any pressure to be an ambassador or figurehead for these communities?

I do feel some of that pressure, and I do know that I have a large platform and a lot of visibility that sort of puts me into that position. But I also feel incredibly validated by the fact that this book is not just being read by Asian Americans, or biracial people. It's being read by a whole diverse group of people and so much so to the point that it's been on the bestseller list for 38 weeks, you know?

And so I think that it's really an exciting time for me, because I never felt like I could be a main character. I feel like my story is not just an Asian-American story, it's about mothers and daughters. It's about grief, it's about food. It's about memory, it's about coming of age, it's about creativity. And I feel like there are all these touchstones that a wide variety of people can relate to, and I think that that's very exciting.

There's a lot of people who look to me as an ambassador for some type of representation. But I think I just want to contribute to that and present more nuanced, individual detailed stories, and open up the floodgates for more stuff like that. The more that these stories are out in the world the less that that [labeling] will be the case and we'll all just be telling stories.

What was the last song you had stuck in your head?

I weirdly had the Spanish version of Christina Aguilera's "Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You)." Last night I was like, "I'm only having two beers, because I want to feel fresh tomorrow—"

Famous last words.

—And then we were like, [singing] "Solamente tú! Solamente tú!" And then everyone has had that suck in their head.

It's that one and "As It Was" by Harry Styles.

Newsweek's continuing Coachella coverage can be found online at newsweek.com and on On Beat, available wherever you get your podcasts.