If you’ve never heard of Michelle Zauner, maybe you’ve caught wind of one of her many projects. Not only is she the singer and songwriter for the (incredible) indie rock band, Japanese Breakfast, but the Korean-American writer and musician is also a New York Times bestselling author, 2x Grammy nominee, director, and even has recorded a soundtrack for the video game, Sable.
Needless to say, Zauner is a powerhouse. How many bestselling authors do you know also led a famous band?! I can only think of Gerard Way, but even then—has he ever recorded a video game soundtrack?
No, Zauner’s inspiring career has been a pleasure to witness as it unfolds into something that grows more bright and beautiful with each passing day. And that’s why I’m delighted to share snippets of her journey for our Women in Music series.
Pre-2014: Philly and Little Big League
Music seems to always have been number one for Zauner. In college, she had a solo project (Little Girl Big Spoon), as well as an indie pop band, Post Post. I can’t find much about these early projects, but I assume they were similar to the sound of her later projects.
In 2011, Little Big League was formed. Based out of Philly, the emo band fit perfectly into the 2010-2014-ish era of emo and indie. They released two records, both incredibly fun and interesting. If you ask me, they could be the soundtrack to teen movies, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
The band was notably making its rounds in the scene, but unfortunately, in 2014, Zauner’s mother was suddenly diagnosed with cancer. This prompted Zauner to leave Philly and move back to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family.
2014: Japanese Breakfast and Loss
Songs with Eskimeaux, Frankie Cosmos, Florist, and Small Wonder (wow!) were released on Bandcamp in 2014 under the title, Where is My Great Big Feeling? and American Sound. Songs from them appeared on JBrekkie’s first two records.
Little Big League was coming to an end, but Japanese Breakfast was just beginning.
Post-2014: Essays and Jubilee
Unfortunately, in 2014, Zauner’s mother lost her battle with cancer. It was a huge loss to her and her father, and Zauner later admits that the loss strained their relationship. To cope, Zauner turned to music and Korean food. Because Zauner’s mother would make it every night for dinner (while making an American meal for her American dad), food became a therapeutic recluse. She found a Korean YouTuber who made meals the way her mother did. Following these tutorials, Zauner was able to feel her mother’s presence while feeding herself and her soul.
This prompted Zauner’s 2016 essay, Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi—the winner of Glamour’s Essay Contest. It explores Zauner’s relationship with food, her mother, grief, and love.
That same year, Psychopomp released—an album that largely explores loss, hopelessness, and love—in the JBrekkie way of pop-driven indie rock. It’s a beautiful listen — very dreamy, very wistful, but coated with grief. 2017 saw the release of another album: Soft Sounds From Another Planet, which describes Zauner’s music, and the album itself, perfectly.
The next year, Crying in H Mart, an essay for The New Yorker, was published. In it, Zauner writes about losing her mother and how visiting the Asian grocery chain always makes her cry because of it. But it also helps her come to terms with her loss. The beautiful essay celebrates Zauner’s connection to her Korean heritage, and how H-Mart is a holy place for her. Its popularity led to Zauner’s memoir of the same name. I connect with it in many ways.
I lost my grandmother to a stroke in 2013. My favorite memories of her are in my family’s kitchen, where we’d clean collard greens, peel sweet potatoes, and dredge all types of meat for dinner, during the few years she lived with us.
Before my parents came home from work, over Oxtail soup, neckbones and rice, chitlins (Thanksgiving only—thank god), or chicken and dumplings, my grandma would tell me soul food stories of the restaurant she ran, about my mom, and the South Side of Chicago. I’d have a Capri-Sun, and she’d have a Miller Lite.
Zauner’s essay mentions, “We’re all searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves. We look for a taste of it in the food we order and the ingredients we buy.” Every time I buy ingredients to make soul food, I feel my grandma’s voice and heart. I crack open a Miller Lite and make a roux, just like she did, and I feel love.
Food has a beautiful way of connecting us all, and like music, even has healing powers. Which is what brings us to 2021: Crying in H Mart is a bestseller, being turned into a movie, and Jubilee is a smash-hit record, nominated for two Grammys. Another aptly named record, Zauner says about it, “I felt like I’d done the grief work for years and was ready for something new, I was ready to celebrate feeling.”
Feeling is always worth it. And Jubilee is proof. And somehow, in the meantime, she wrote and recorded a video game soundtrack. Zauner found feeling—in beautiful, vibrant ways.
The next time I go to Super H-Mart in my family’s suburb, looking for the specific ingredients I need for my soul food, the ones Whole Foods just won’t have, maybe I’ll cry. Maybe I’ll smile. But I’ll be glad that I’m feeling—and that music and food connects us all.
Photo via Peter Ash Lee