Japanese Breakfast Michelle Zauner Talks Crying To H Mart

Kimchi,jjigae, jatjuk, pork belly ssam, gimbap: Indie pop singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner, 32, still vividly remembers the many dishes her late Korean mother Chongmi prepared for her.

More than just maintaining cultural heritage, the food in Zauner’s house was a sign of his mother’s love. Especially during the times when she was returning home to Eugene, Oregon from college, Zauner was greeted with a festive and lavish meal prepared by Chongmi.

“The thing I always associate with her is her Kalbi (Korean short ribs), “recalls New York-based Zauner.” She would marinate kalbi a few days before I got home. And she would buy these two different types of kimchi: Dongchimi, this white radish kimchi served with broth, sesame seed oil and gochugaru (red pepper), then chonggak kimchi, which is another really tangy radish kimchi. She would always be like, “Wait until you eat before you go home.” So I would starve at the airport, and she would always tell me. This is the taste I will remember from my mom and how she showed me that she really cared and missed me when I got home. “

Chongmi died on October 18, 2014 at the age of 56 from pancreatic cancer. The grief of this loss was a theme on Zauner’s first two albums –Psychopomp and Sweet sounds from another planet– under the name of Japanese Breakfast She says the name came to her “one night, browsing through photos of neat wooden platters topped with perfectly grilled salmon fillets, miso and white rice”. Zauner revisits his mother’s memories in a moving memoir Crying in H Mart (April, Knopf). And on her next album Jubilee, scheduled for release in June. Crying in H Mart was born from an essay for which Zauner wrote The New Yorker in 2018 (H Mart is a Korean-American supermarket chain).

In the book, she traces her education as the daughter of a Korean housewife and a white American businessman and talks about key moments in her life: childhood summer trips to Seoul where Chongmi’s family lived; his introduction to independent rock as a teenager; and find healing after her mother’s death by cooking traditional Korean dishes that she learned through YouTube personality Maangchi’s cooking videos. “I really liked the idea of ​​exploring more of Mom’s memories before she got sick to relive them,” Zauner says, “and also to document the therapeutic process that I went through.

Zauner’s relationship with his mother is at the heart of the book. She remembers Chongmi as a stoic but effervescent woman who, apart from her household chores, took up drawing and painting. “I don’t even think I appreciated that about him until years after his death,” Zauner says. “She was very comfortable with people and attracted you straight away. But she also had this ability to be very private in a way that always confused me, because I’m not like that at all.”

Food was the ultimate mother and daughter bonding experience, as Zauner writes: “I could always feel the affection radiating from the breakfasts she cooks and the meals she cooked for me exactly the way I liked them. . ” Zauner fondly remembers a childhood moment when she and her mother raided her grandmother’s fridge in Seoul late at night and happily munched on banchan (Korean side dishes).

“While writing this book, I realized that [food] was a vehicle for so many different things, “Zauner explains.” She really expressed her love through food. But I discovered that very early on, it was a lot of validation and for a sense of identity and belonging. When I was younger, if I ate in a very Korean specific way, my mother would say things like, “This is how I know you are Korean.” It really brought my mother a lot of joy to see me enjoying the food of our common culture. “

As detailed in Crying in H Mart, Zauner’s relationship with his mother was complicated at times, especially during the author’s rebellious phase as a teenager. She remembers one day in a Korean restaurant where Chongmi told her outright to give up becoming a musician. “I had so much creativity burning in me to express that I couldn’t just leave it on the floor,” Zauner says. “It was a major point of contention in our relationship. As we got older she kind of fell back. One of the most special moments in the book is when my mom said, ‘I never met anyone. ‘One like you.’ It was a huge turning point. It was his way of finally saying, “Okay, I understand now. I understand you like it and it’s not going to go away. I am sorry that I did not support “.”

The most heartbreaking aspect of the memoir is the author’s candid chronicle of Chongmi’s declining health, and the consequences it has had on her and her father. It was a period that saw Zauner, in her mid-twenties at the time, transition from her mother’s daughter status to her mother’s caregiver. She admits that writing about Chongmi’s last moments was the hardest part of the book project.

“It was a lot to sit in front of a computer and cry, take breaks and feel like I was going crazy for a long time,” she recalls. “There were two great senses of the urgency that I felt while writing this book. I wanted to relive the joy of my childhood and the joy of this memory before this kind of trauma. It was a truly horrible experience that I felt. Wouldn’t wish. At the same time, I had to be incredibly honest and brutal about it, because I needed people to know that this is what happened and what I was recovering from. “

“I was really lucky that as a musician I had the opportunity to express my pain and my grief. I know it moved people in some ways, sharing details that I found so specific but ended up being pretty universal. . “

Today Zauner has a brighter outlook, as Japanese Breakfast’s next record shows Jubilee, which is perhaps his most accessible and slickest to date. “The new album is about joy,” she says. “I’ve been living and writing about this grief for over five years, and it’s time to write about other things. It was like an album that had to be the greatest thing we’ve ever done, so we just wanted to go full force in with huge arrangements and really flex our abilities. “

An example of this new sonic and lyrical direction is the bubbling and dancing debut single from the album “Be Sweet”, which she co-wrote with Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing. The song was originally intended for another artist. “As we wrote it, I was like, ‘Oh, I really like this, and I think I want to keep it.’ And so Jack was excited about it, and then we got together again in 2019 to polish it. Then Craig [Hendrix, Zauner’s co-producer] also jumped on the track and helped me arrange the harmonies. It just became the beast it was over time. “

His favorite track on Jubilee is the dreamy and romantic ballad “Kokomo, IN”, whose script centers on a young man who bids farewell to his girlfriend who is going to study abroad. “I was imagining a young couple who have to go their separate ways. In a way, you’re heartbroken because you can’t seem to be with that person. But in another sense, you know they’re amazing because that you fell in love with what is so amazing about them. “

At this point in his life and career, which has continued to evolve on an upward trajectory with praise from the press, high profile media appearances such as on Tonight’s show, and on the big tour, Zauner now feels a certain closure following the publication of the book. “There will certainly be sorrow that will be with me forever,” she said. “But I feel like I honored my mother in a way. I needed to commemorate her that way. She’s so responsible for who I am. Now that I’ve said everything I do. ‘had to say about it, I feel like I’m able to explore other aspects of my life and the world. “

Suggested listening

Courtesy of Michelle Zauner

Psychopomp (Yellow K Records, 2016)

Japanese Breakfast’s debut album was recorded two weeks after Michelle Zauner’s mother died in 2014. Drawing inspiration from indie pop and the shoe gaze with tracks ranging from trendy numbers (“Everybody Wants to Love You “,” Rugged Country “) to meditative tracks (” Triple 7 “,” Jane Cum “) her release.

CUL_Japanese Breakfast_Sweet sounds from another planet
Sweet sounds from another planet
Courtesy of Michelle Zauner

Sweet sounds from another planet

(Dead Oceans, 2017)

After touring in 2016 with two other Asian-American indie musicians, Mitski and Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast raised their profile with their second album which dealt with healing from trauma; among Sweet sounds from another planetThe most notable songs are “Machinist” and “Boyish”. Zauner says: “Lots of songs [on Soft Sounds] are a bit like a step back, whereas Psychopomp was more raw, vulnerable and focused in a shorter period of time. “

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