When Michelle Zauner, who records as Japanese Breakfast, set out to record her second proper full-length, she looked to the stars for inspiration. What became Soft Sounds From Another Planet was originally a sci-fi concept record about falling in love with a robot and joining the Mars One project. "I was really fascinated by people who just did one thing," she says, thinking out loud about her fascination with a group of humans who re-dedicated their lives to living in outer space. (Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp even tweeted his enthusiasm for the album this summer.)
It's a fitting inspiration for Zauner, who grew up in the woods of Eugene, Oregon, an isolated kid with a wild imagination. "I was a super hyperactive, very loud, tomboy-ish child," she says. "I had no neighboring children. I had no siblings. My room was upstairs so I was just alone a lot as a kid." Zauner was obsessed with chess tournaments, riding her Yamaha 80 motorcycle, and playing video games (which she still loves – she recently released Japanese BreakQuest, an online RPG). "I was really clumsy and would hit my head a lot," she adds. "I was always the kid who would get hurt. I was always throwing myself into things." As a teen, she discovered the Pacific Northwest's music scene, and fondly recalls learning to play Built to Spill's "Carry the Zero" on guitar.
The songs she writes as Japanese Breakfast balance creative ideas with somber introspection. Soft Sounds uses cinematic dream pop, broken synth buzz, droning guitars and lush story-songs to tell deep-dive narratives: of love and loss, of the enduring women who inspire her, reimagined songs from past lives. These elements come together most potently on opening track "Diving Woman," a six-minute long-burner for the Slowdive set. (Indeed, she had the opportunity to tour opening for the re-formed shoegazers earlier this year.)
"Diving Woman" was inspired by Jeju, an island in South Korea where women dive to the depths of the sea gathering conch, sea urchins and oysters that are later sold. “Because they just dive, there’s this superhuman nature to them where they can hold their breath for up to three minutes. These women have a higher endurance and tolerance for cold," she explains. Zauner’s family is from South Korea, and she would travel there every other summer growing up. "When I get back there, baby/I'm gonna make you a home/You'll have it all," she sings. "Diving Woman" is followed by a different type of road song, "Road Head," one about a failing relationship with someone who didn't believe in her career.
At this point, Zauner's been touring for almost 10 years – partly with her previous band, the gauzy indie-rock group Little Big League. She says most of those years were spent "playing in basements and getting paid in cigarettes and cans of soup and sleeping in bed-bug–infested, disgusting cat-piss shit holes." So getting to tour with acts like Slowdive, and most recently Tegan and Sara, has been a dramatic shift.
"I was a huge Tegan and Sara fan in high school and college, so it was really surreal to get to meet them," she says. "They've had a career since they were [teenagers], and it was a pre-Internet music career. It was really interesting to hear how much they've overcome."
Zauner had a chance to speak with the Quinn sisters about the beginnings of their band, when finding a sense of community amongst queer, female artists was more difficult. "They couldn't just tweet at Ani Difranco and be like, 'Hey, we're also queer musicians,'" Zauner says.
She has also forged strong bonds with her peers, including fellow singer-songwriters like Vagabon, Jay Som and Mitski. "Being half-Asian and going on the Mitski tour, that was like, a big deal," she says. On that tour, fans would come up to the two artists gushing and thanking them, because, she says, "they feel like they see part of themselves in us in a way that they haven’t been able to before." It's a bizarre feeling, she admits, but she tries to keep in mind that she was once that excited, awkward fan.
"I felt so alone doing what I do for a really long time," Zauner says. "Now there's this really fucking awesome community of women who I can relate to. And it feels really good."