WORDS

It is with the nostalgic beauty of an old photograph of her mother that Michelle Zauner introduces Psychopomp, the latest album under her solo project Japanese Breakfast.

As the cover art suggests, Psychopomp is an ode to Zauner’s late mother. The album has a dream-pop sound palette of airy synths and jangly riffs that was crafted in collaboration with her friend Ned Eisenberg, and its honest lyrics capture the feelings of bone penetrating loneliness and grief that come with losing someone close to you. “The dog’s confused/ she paces around all day/ she’s sniffing at your empty room,” Zauner sings on the opening track In Heaven.

There’s a direct sincerity to Zauner’s lyrics that reels the listener in beneath the misty shoegaze textures. The result is something that’s both tragically beautiful and cathartic. “I’m a very sensitive and open person, and I think that makes for very sensitive and open art,” the 27 year old South Korean-American singer tells me.

In 2014, Zauner was in a period of change. Her mother had been diagnosed with a severe strain of cancer which forced the young artist to leave her home in Philadelphia and spend time in her family home in Oregon. “I was emotionally very fragile,” Zauner muses. It was here that Zauner put aside Little Big League – the indie rock four piece she fronted in Philadelphia – to rest and start focusing on her Japanese Breakfast project. Writing those songs, Zauner explains, gave her an opportunity to explore complex emotions. “When my mum passed away, I was really confused and I didn’t know how to emotionally release how I was feeling,” she says. “I think [I had] a very natural desire to find out how to communicate that in an artistic, creative way.”

Alienated by both the religious consolations of her extended family network, who’d tell her things like ‘she’s in a better place’ and ‘she’s in heaven’, as well as the seemingly dispassionate logic of her atheist friends, Zauner turned to the works of psychoanalyst Carl Jung as a “middle ground between spirituality and religion”. At the time, she confides that she was “having a lot of dreams about my mum and privately began to believe that was her way of communicating with me”. Jung’s philosophy resonated with Zauner, in particular his coining of the term “psychopomp” to mean mediator between the conscious and unconscious realms. In a way, the album too acts as a bridge between Zauner’s conscious and unconscious, putting into words thoughts that she could previously not access. In Heaven is about coming to terms with such thought: “I got to this place that I allowed myself to feel that way, I allowed myself to do what helped me to grieve, process things and move forward,” she says.

“I feel that we’re coming into a time where differences are celebrated. I don’t know if the political landscape is changing, but I’m positive"

The most important lesson that Zauner learnt in the process of creating Psychopomp, she tells me, is to “take your experiences that you feel isolated by, and make art. Put it out in the world and ultimately, your people will find you”. She applies this sentiment not only to life’s tragic losses but also her childhood experiences as a Korean-American growing up in a seemingly whitewashed state. “I was very angry growing up because I felt that when you’re younger and you’re trying desperately to fit in, you feel that anything that’s different about you feels like a scab,” she begins. “I think I tried to whitewash myself and run away from my identity.”

Earlier this year, Zauner supported Japanese-American indie rock musician Mitski for a summer tour. Like Zauner, Mitski is vocal about the whitewashing of indie music and more generally, Western culture. The video to her 2016 song Your Best American Girl features Mitski trying to catch the attention of an attractive, white man, only to be ditched moments later for a whiter, more Westernised woman. Zauner can relate. “I didn’t feel like there was a space for me, especially as a creative person. I felt like I had to write from a voice that wasn’t my own, a white voice. I felt that my own personal experiences were going to be too niche of a market.”

“I feel that we’re coming into a time where those differences are really celebrated,” she continues. “I don’t know if I think that way because I’m older or the political landscape is changing, but I’m positive.” Zauner’s optimism is refreshing, and it’s testament to the strength of someone who has grappled with questions of identity, living and death and has come out the other side. “Since my mum’s death, I’ve run into the arms of my heritage,” she says, smiling.

Photography: Jack Johnston
Styling: Luci Ellis
Assisted: Leah Abbott

Psychopomp is out now via Dead Oceans

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