Words: Jordan Gorsuch

Listening to emotionally-charged avant-garde pop can be likened to the visual equivalent of being surrounded by a deep and cold ocean. These pin-points of light cut through the darkness and the spots of heart-bursting melodies carry you toward the surface as the ambitious, brooding soundscapes (and in this case, subject matter) drag you back to the depths. 

Michelle Zauner’s first official full-length debut as Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp, is the auditory equivalent of this dramatic scenarios. Zauner stuffs so much heart into this lo-fi collection of tracks that span multiple years it takes multiple listens to parse out all of the loving details.

The album sprawls through a smorgasbord of themes and sounds – bouncing from the fuzzy, pop-focused guitar riffs on “Everybody Wants to Love You” to the dark, atmospheric ambient cut “Moon on the Bath.” It’s a reflection of her life’s scrapbook of experiences both positive and negative, the bad that comes along with the good, and the good that underscores the bad. Zauner’s greatest virtue is how this album can be propelled to such celestial heights while tackling such difficult, personal subject matter (“In Heaven”). Life’s all about contradictions, some of our best music comes from the same place. 

Photo: Julian Master

Photo: Julian Master

The Grey Estates: The title, “Psychopomp” really resonates with me. My grandmother and grandfather passed away two months apart last year. The whiplash of loss, recovery, acceptance, and then loss again really served to disconnect me from life. I felt in-between. What does the title mean to you? 

Japanese Breakfast: After my mom passed away I started seeing a Jungian analyst. Because I don't believe in God or practice religion, I liked the idea of exploring psychological concepts to try to navigate my grieving. I came across the word Psychopomp in Carl Jung's Dreams and really just liked the way the word sounded. It reminded me of "psychotic pop" which I felt was really how this record sounds. At times, it is psychotically poppy, almost like DDR music. In mythology a psychopomp is a guide of souls. It is an usher that does not judge, only provides safe passage to death. In a lot of ways, it was a role I felt I embodied as one of the primary caretakers for my mother during her illness. I was, essentially, helping her die. In Jungian psychology, a psychopomp is a mediator between the unconscious and conscious. So another layer for me was that I kept having dreams about my mother after she passed, and that really allowed me to open up to some semblance of spirituality, feeling like it was her ghost visiting me.

TGE: I also took the spring/summer to take care of my gram with my mom and uncle. Unlike how some people die in hospitals, their conditions worsening in private, or dying suddenly; seeing my gram slowly get weaker was a bitter pill to swallow. How would you describe your experience of traveling back to Oregon to be a primary caregiver for your mother?

JB: It was a nightmare I'll forever be haunted by. I'm glad I got to be there for her, repay her in some small way for everything she did for me, but it was an incredibly traumatic and difficult time. 

TGE: Though I’m sure the decision to return to home was an easy one to make, did you feel any pressure or guilt that the choice would likely cause your band – Little Big League – to either dissolve or be put on hiatus? 

JB: There was definitely some guilt, yes. I felt bad for my band who had poured so much time and energy into it the past few years. We had just finished our second record, we had to turn down many tours we had been looking forward to. I felt bad we weren't able to support Tropical Jinx, our first album with Run For Cover. But they were super understanding and I'm grateful to them for that.

TGE: You describe Psychopomp as a “compilation” album since it has roots dating back six years. This can be heard in the music since it possesses an abundance of influences and twists and turns. It also reflects on the different moods on the spectrum of loss and acceptance you are able to capture. Do you think the long-developing process strengthened the record?

JB: It's hard to say. I guess in a way you could consider it my "greatest hits" record, so maybe. I actually wrote Jane Cum, Triple 7 and Woman That Loves You all in the same day. All the real songwriting happened in a very short period of time, and I actually feel like my best songs are generally written fairly quickly.

TGE: Can you describe how you met collaborator Ned Eisenberg? Did your meeting with him influence the album toward more electronic interludes and samples? 

JB: I met Ned in college my freshman year. I went to Bryn Mawr and he went to UPenn. He was dating my friend at the time and we met at the sort of "hipster" frat Pilam. We made a few tracks together and kind of drifted in and out of each other's lives for like seven years. I had finished tracking Psychopomp in March and reached out to him about mixing it. When we started working on the mixes we ended up opening up a lot of the songs and really changing a lot. We moved it away from a more straight forward sound into what it is now -- more samples, synths.

TGE: I know that you have a difficult time hearing your mother’s voice at the end of the titular track. Did you always want to have her voice be featured on the album? 

JB: I actually have a really heartbreaking voicemail of her singing the happy birthday song. I originally wanted to include it but was worried I would get sued or something. I read somewhere you aren't allowed to use the birthday song without paying for publishing or whatever. The recording comes from a phone conversation we had before going to visit Korea. She had just gone off treatment and I wanted to make a little video about our trip. Ultimately, I thought this record was going to reach a lot less people than it did. It was something I made for myself, like a time capsule, and her voice was something I wanted to encapsulate on vinyl, as well her picture on the cover.

TGE: “Rugged Country” possesses my favorite lyrics on the album. I think you capture that rebellious nature that comes out of loneliness in small towns perfectly. It’s also heavily anecdotal. The gender themes and the issues of women in relation to men found elsewhere on the album seem to take a personal edge with the concluding lyrics in this track. Was this a conscious decision? 

JB: I think I like songs and albums to have some kind of narrative structure. A lot of narratives I make up or are based on things that are happening in my own life tend to involve gender dynamics, I suppose, but really they are just the dynamics between people. 

The concluding lyrics of that track are about my father. My husband and I actually got married two weeks before my mother passed away. When we found out she was dying, I really wanted be able to have some kind of celebration to look forward to after all the darkness of illness. So I actually got two wedding rings in two weeks, one from my husband, and one from my father when he took my mother's off to give away when she passed away.

"It's a heavy hand/ where I wear your death as a wedding ring in the rugged country/I tend to your man in the home you had/Oh this rugged country I'm the rugged one." Has two meanings for me. It was a heavy weight of experience and memory, to create this beautiful moment of a wedding and to have it shortly followed by a funeral. And it becomes a heavy hand to become the new woman in your father's life. To be the person that has to try to comfort and love and nurture a man after he loses the woman that had been in his life for 32 years.

TGE: “In Heaven” is the most recent song of yours that is featured on the album, do the sounds and themes on that track possess any indication of where your next release might be heading?

JB: Possibly. In Heaven, Rugged Country and the instrumental tracks were all written around the same time specifically for the record. I think for the next record I will incorporate more electronic elements for sure, hopefully more dancey stuff. Hopefully it will be a more uplifting album. My personal favorites on this record are In Heaven & The Woman That Loves You, so possibly more in that direction. But who knows how inspiration will strike!

Psychopomp is out now through Yellow K Records.