Photography by Tonje Thilesen

Japanese Breakfast on special mugs, golden ducks and memories of gigs past

Five things: the musician and memoirist shares her most treasured items that will never end up selling for peanuts on eBay.

It’s album release week for Michelle Zauner, aka Japanese Breakfast, and things are a little bit hectic,” the 32-year-old says with a smile from her New York living room.

The reviews for Jubilee, the Korean-American musician’s third album, have been mostly great. I’m just happy that it hasn’t really gotten panned!” she says brightly. I’m mostly ecstatic, but then some stupid little criticism sends me into a flurry and I have to calm down. But 99.5 per cent has been sweet and positive.”

The record, an emotional rollercoaster and indie-pop triumph, was completely finished pre-pandemic, but we just hung on to it for another year. Right when we were about to make our first music video, New York went into lockdown. And the videos have always been a really important part of finishing an album for me.”

Amen to that. The clip for spring’s Posing In Bondage featured a vampiric, blood-drenched Zauner rolling round a convenience store on a self-balancing scooter in the dead of night. Much less unsettling was the video for recent single Savage Good Boy, which starred the mighty Michael Imperioli, aka The Sopranos’ Christopher Moltisanti.

Nonetheless, she admits she felt really crazy for a long time. I was sitting on the record and the book, so it was another year of not being sure if either was good, and trying to assess which one would fail. So it’s a real relief that they’re finally out there.”

That book is Crying in H Mart. It’s a brilliant memoir about the immigrant experience, identity, food and the loss of her mother to cancer, which was spun out from her acclaimed 2018 New Yorker essay of the same title, and is already a New York Times bestseller. Writing it was really difficult!” she admits, bursting out laughing. I spent a long time doing it and some parts were a real joy to write, and some parts were really challenging – a lot of crying and throwing fits over my laptop. But I powered through it.”

The memories, good and bad, are beautifully evoked in Crying in H Mart – and, today, some of them, all nice ones, reappear in five of Zauner’s most treasured things.

PICTURES

This has been my Zoom backdrop for the last year. It’s hard to pick one. But one of the show posters, with all the people, is by my friend Mary Vertfulfo, who does a lot of art for Japanese Breakfast. She designed it for a show at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, and my good friend Dan Hughes screen-printed it. We did a three-day residency there in 2018/​2019 over New Year’s, and Mary painted all of my friends, band members and people who worked on the record. It’s a special thing. And the paintings of strawberries and pomegranates are by my mother, so they’re very special to me. And in the middle on the left is my mum when she was young.”

VINYL SLEEVES

I was really excited to put Jubilee up on the wall next to my previous albums. It’s my life’s work essentially, and it’s really nice to see them all laid out, from the punk band I started in, Little Big League, to the three albums as Japanese Breakfast. It’s a wonderful reminder of the work that I’ve put into my music, and it’s 10 years of my life.”

JAPANESE DOLL

There are these things called blind boxes that comics or toy stores sell, full of miniatures, and you don’t know what you’re getting. And I was in Japan and found this little guy. I thought he was so funny, so I started collecting blind boxes of tiny furniture. It drives my husband nuts but it brings me real joy. I’m just a sucker for things like this.”

MUGS

I have to have coffee at the beginning of the day – one of my favourite things is getting to drink a French press of the same coffee every morning. And my best friend Nicole, who’s really into ceramics, gave me a lot of these mugs. They all have their own little story, and I love the way they look together. But if I had to lose 11 of them and only keep one, it would probably be one of Nicole’s blue ones from the top corner. My husband would probably say the brown one in the middle with the rainbow handle because our friend Jarmel made that – she does incredible ceramics under the name Jarmél by Jarmel.”

GOLDEN WEDDING DUCKS

My godparents are my mum’s best friend Jaemi and her husband Mr. Kim – I only know him by that name. He’s always been this wealthy godfather in my life, and every time I’d visit them in Korea, he would give me gifts. When you’re a kid in Korea, for your first birthday, you get all of these pure golden rings, and one time he gave me this miniature golden pig. And when I got married, I went back to Seoul and went for dinner with them, and they gave me these gold wedding ducks. In Korea, if they’re facing each other, you and your spouse are in a harmonious state. But if they’re facing apart, you guys are fighting. It’s a running joke for us – if my husband and I have a little tiff, I’ll turn the duck around. My mum always used to say that if something bad happened, I could melt the gold and be OK. Luckily, I’ve never had to do that.”

Jubilee (Dead Oceans) is out now. Crying in H Mart (Picador) is published in the UK on 5th August.


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