Preview: Japanese Breakfast makes a homecoming to Eugene this Friday
In her recent essay for the New Yorker, Eugene native and musician Michelle Zauner writes about her biracial identity and her connection to her mother who died in 2014. Much of the essay, “Crying in H Mart,” is about Zauner’s connection to the Korean food her mom used to make, and therefore, to her mom and the culture she came from. The essay explores grief, identity and connection in a playful but soft voice. Zauner is clearly a skilled writer.
It makes sense then that Zauner, who plays music under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, is also a wonderful lyricist and vocalist — able to bring you to tears from the minute details she sings.
“My grief comes in waves and is usually triggered by something arbitrary. I can tell you with a straight face what it was like watching my mom’s hair fall out in the bathtub, or about the five weeks I spent sleeping in hospitals, but catch me at H Mart when some kid runs up double-fisting plastic sleeves of ppeong-twigi and I’ll just lose it,” Zauner writes in “Crying in H Mart.” “Those little rice-cake Frisbees were my childhood: a happier time, when Mom was there and we’d crunch away on the Styrofoam-like disks after school. Eating them was like splitting a packing peanut that dissolved like sugar on your tongue.”
Zauner played with bands in Philadelphia after college, but when her mom was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, she moved back to Eugene to provide care and help her dad after her mom passed. Much of her first album, “Psychopomp,” comes from this period, and the record — like “Crying in H Mart” — explores grief and identity in a hazy and dreamy way. Zauner released her second album, “Soft Sounds from Another Planet,” in 2017, and she will return to Eugene on Friday, Sept. 28, almost exactly a year after her last show here.
Just as “Psychopomp” features Zauner’s mom reaching out toward the camera on its cover, “Soft Sounds” features a photo of Zauner bathed in orange light, looking up at her shadow. Displayed in the metaphors of the artwork, there’s something both externally and internally focused about her work.
“Soft Sounds” expands Zauner’s thematic reach to encompass more than just grief and familial relationships, like in her first album. The result is just as heartbreaking as her first album. In “Boyish,” she sings “I can’t get you off my mind / I can’t get you off in general / so here we are, just two losers / I want you and you want something more beautiful.” Swelling strings and rising drums accompany her drooping but warm vocals on the track.
There’s also something effervescent to her music. Much of Zauner’s lyrics are coated in shimmering indie-rock sounds — but nothing is ever too polished or dreamy. In her National Public Radio Tiny Desk concert, Zauner plays a beginner’s nylon string guitar despite being a skilled player. When she croons, her voice takes on a closed shape. Her vowels seem to lengthen sidewise instead of rounding out.
In profiles and interviews, Zauner talks of growing up in the primarily white Eugene unsure of her relation to her own culture. In so much of her music, she holds this unsureness in the palm of her hand, twirling it around and looking at different angles. But she embraces the subject matter — even if there might be no final place to settle after exploration. “Try your best to slowly withdraw / From the darkest impulses of your heart / Try your best to feel and receive / Your body is a blade that cuts a path from day to day,” Zauner sings on “Soft Sounds.”
It’s probably best — for all of us — to follow Zauner’s advice.
Japanese Breakfast plays WOW Hall with Ought on Friday, Sept. 28. Doors are at 7 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance or at the door. Fore more information, visit www.wowhall.org.
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