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Michelle Zauner of Philly’s Japanese Breakfast has a new memoir born of grief and a new album full of joy

"Crying in H Mart" is a heartbreakingly beautiful memoir about her mother's death and her Korean American identity. The joyous new album, "Jubilee," is set for a June release.

Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, in her Brooklyn apartment. The formerly Philly-based songwriter has a new memoir, ‘Crying in H Mart,’ about the death of her mother, and a new album, 'Jubilee,' set to come out in June.
Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, in her Brooklyn apartment. The formerly Philly-based songwriter has a new memoir, ‘Crying in H Mart,’ about the death of her mother, and a new album, 'Jubilee,' set to come out in June.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Before Michelle Zauner wrote Crying in H Mart, her heartbreakingly beautiful memoir about grief, food, and her Korean American identity, she had already created two works of art about losing her mother, Chongmi, to cancer in 2014: the Japanese Breakfast albums Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet.

Psychopomp opens with “In Heaven,” with a verse about the family dog being confused by a sudden absence: “She just paces around all day, sniffing at your empty room / I’m trying to believe when I sleep it’s really you visiting my dreams, like they say that angels do.”

“When I wrote Psychopomp, I was in a very raw and vulnerable place,” Zauner says. “That was the year after my mom had passed and things were still fresh, so that album is very much about that.”

Psychopomp was released in 2016, and Zauner wasn’t done processing her pain.

She followed it in 2017 with the dreamy Soft Sounds from Another Planet, again reflecting on loss. “It was my intention to be like ‘OK, I wrote my grief record. Now I’m going to write this overwrought sci-fi concept album,’ ” she says. But “I quickly realized: I’m not over this ... There was so much more of a story there I wanted to examine.”

And now there’s Crying in H Mart (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95). The book grew out of an essay published in the New Yorker and takes its name from the Asian supermarket chain — and specifically the store in Elkins Park that Zauner frequented while living in Philadelphia, where the Bryn Mawr College grad performed first with the emo band Little Big League and later as Japanese Breakfast.

H Mart, she writes, “is freedom from the single aisle ‘ethnic’ section in regular grocery stores. They don’t prop Goya beans next to bottles of sriracha here. Instead you’ll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the paste of my mom’s soy sauce eggs and cold radish soup ... Sobbing near the dry goods, asking myself, Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?”

Zauner, 32, now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Japanese Breakfast guitarist Peter Bradley. On April 30, she will appear at a Crying in H Mart virtual event presented by Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative and livestreamed on YouTube. She’ll be interviewed by Youngmi Mayer, cohost of the Feeling Asian podcast.

She plans to be back in Philadelphia Aug. 6 and 7 for two scheduled sold-out shows with the band at Union Transfer, if city COVID-19 regulations allow it by then. The two dates — at the venue where she used to work the coat check concession — will be her first shows touring behind the joyous new album, Jubilee, that’s due out in June on the Dead Oceans label.

When Zauner sat recently with The Inquirer for a Zoom interview about the new book and the upcoming album, hanging behind her was the Psychopomp cover, showing Zauner’s mother as a young woman in Seoul.

A rebel’s roots

Zauner herself was born in Seoul and grew up in Eugene, Ore., shaped by regional rock heroes Modest Mouse. Her memoir chronicles conflicts with her mother as well as her father, who lives in Thailand and from whom she is estranged, particularly as a teenager.

She found her calling as a musician seeing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “whose front woman, Karen O, was the first icon of the music world I worshiped who looked like me. She was half Korean and half white with an unrivaled showmanship that obliterated the docile Asian stereotype.”

Although Zauner studied writing at Bryn Mawr as part of her independent major in creative production, she didn’t plan on being a memoirist until her mother’s death, at age 56, upended her world.

“In college, I took every course in creative writing except for nonfiction, because I didn’t want be one of those identity writers. I wanted to be a gritty literary figure like Philip Roth or John Updike. ... And then this happened, and it was just like, I need to write about this experience because it’s all I can think about and I need to get it down.”

Her path as a memoirist started with an essay, “Love, Loss & Kimchi,” which began, “I’m so tired of white guys telling me what to eat.”

Zauner wrote of how, when she was growing up, her mother made two meals every night. There was a Korean one for Zauner and her mom, and an American one for her father, Joel, who is white and who grew up in Philadelphia and moved to South Korea in 1983 after seeing an ad in this newspaper for a job selling cars to the U.S. military.

She ate with chopsticks, fusing the two cultures, “strips of T-bone and codfish eggs dressed in sesame oil, all in one bite. I liked my baked potatoes with fermented chili paste, my dried cuttlefish with mayonnaise.”

Submitting the essay “to every literary contest without an entry fee,” Zauner at first got only rejections. But then Glamour named it essay of the year in 2016, with a $5,000 prize. She quit her job at an advertising agency in New York and went on tour as Japanese Breakfast.

She hasn’t looked back. After the Soft Sounds tour finished up triumphantly in Seoul in 2017, she stayed on and began writing Crying in H Mart.

» READ MORE: Making music in hopes of healing, as Japanese Breakfast

‘I have a platform’

Doing interviews this spring, Zauner has been frequently asked to weigh in about the rise in anti-Asian racism. She donated Japanese Breakfast merchandise to Philly producer Will Yip’s #StopAsianHate raffle to raise money for the Asian American & Pacific Islander community fund after eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in shootings in the metro Atlanta area last month.

“I know that I have a platform, and I know that I have an especially large Asian American demographic of fans, and I want to be a courageous person and role model that has the right thing to say about it,” she says.

“But I don’t know exactly what kind of solution I’m supposed to point to or how I’m supposed to encourage people how to feel. ... I’m an artist, and I feel that part of my role is being a multidimensional person and creating multidimensional characters so people can see that we’re human. .... And it may be that if people see more of that in the public sphere, maybe that will help a little bit.”

At times, she says, the turmoil and suffering that so many people have gone through in the last year has caused her to question the value of what she does.

“This year was hard for me,” she says. “I’ve always been a purist about the major importance of art. It was the first year that I didn’t know if that was really true anymore. I felt very nonessential. And I didn’t know if what I was doing was helping anyone anymore. And I still don’t know. I really questioned that.”

From Philly to ‘Jubilee’

Though only one member of the band — drummer Craig Hendrix — still lives in Philadelphia, Zauner says she still considers Japanese Breakfast a Philadelphia band. “I feel like you’re a band from wherever you came up, and I definitely came up as a musician in Philly.”

There’s plenty of the city in Crying in H Mart. Zauner first spots Bradley doing karaoke at South Philly bar 12 Steps Down, where she notices the dainty way he holds the mic while singing Billy Joel’s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”

There’s plenty of music in the book, too. Pursuing her art was something “I felt entitled to, despite my mother’s aggrieved forewarnings,” she writes. It was “only after she died [that] things, as if magically, began to happen. If there was a god, it seemed my mother must have had her foot on his neck, demanding good things come my way.”

Zauner is abundantly productive. In addition to the new book and the Japanese Breakfast album, she has scored the video game Sable, about a young girl’s quest for self-knowledge, due later this year. During the pandemic, she teamed with Ryan Galloway to form BUMPER. They released their Pop Songs 2020 EP in September.

Jubilee was coproduced with drummer Hendrix, and the album shows growing sophistication and reach due in part to music lessons Zauner took in the last year.

“I’ve always been willfully ignorant of music theory,” she says, “But I’ve met a lot of people who’ve gone to music school or conservatory, and I see what it unlocks for them. I began to feel very envious. I always want to be challenging myself and learning and really trying to prove that I belong,” she says.

She has also directed videos, both for her own songs — including “Posing in Bondage” and the infectious “Be Sweet” from Jubilee — and for other artists. Last month, Adam Kolodny, a collaborator on Zauner’s videos, told Pitchfork, “Michelle will eventually direct a feature film.”

“I hope so,” she says now. “It seems like a Herculean task but i bet eventually I’ll have the gall to take it on.”

With Jubilee, she aims for joy. The album opens with the peppery “Paprika,” which celebrates “projecting your vision to strangers to feel it, who listen, who linger on every word.” The song ends with an exclamation: “It’s a rush!”

On the album cover, Zauner is surrounded by persimmons, the hanging fruit that “begins hard and bitter and transforms into something sweet and palatable,” she says. “It fit my narrative as an artist who’s been known for work rooted in grief and tragedy trying to present something more joyful.”

“Food was how my mother expressed her love,” Zauner writes at the start of Crying in H Mart. Later, she found solace in the kitchen, cooking along with Emily Kim, the Korean YouTube personality known as Maangchi. “Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory. Every scent and taste brought me back.”

Seven years on from her death, “it’s a rare and magical thing when I dream about my mother now,” Zauner says. “It impacts my whole day when it happens. I’m not a very spiritual person or religious person by any means, but I’ve led such a charmed life after she passed that it does feel like she’s with me. And I feel very much part of her. I am her in many ways.”