In 2014, singer, songwriter and songwriter Michelle Zauner lost her mother to pancreatic cancer. Working through her grief, she captured the experience in a powerful New Yorker personal test called “Crying in H Mart”, named after the Korean grocery chain where she selected ingredients to recreate the meals she and her mother, Chongmi, enjoyed together.
Zauner, who registers under the nickname Japanese Breakfast, then expanded his essay into a memoir of the same name, which was published in April to rave reviews. Like the essay, Crying in H Mart peels away the layers of Zauner’s mourning. He also examines her guilt over the screaming arguments she had with her teenage mother and the confusion over how to connect with her Korean identity without her mother’s guidance. Chongmi was from South Korea and Zauner’s father, Joel, was an American Jew. Zauner herself was born in Seoul and moved to America with her family when she was a baby.
Considering how her mother passed away and the fact that her aunt died from the same disease, one has to wonder if Zauner is worried about her own longevity or if she has ever considered genetic testing to determine her risk. Doctors suggested it, she says, but Zauner is not interested in finding out. “I just have to live my life knowing that there might be a good chance that I die at a middle age,” she said in a neutral tone, adding that her mother’s death “started this fire in me. to say everything I wanted to say before â.
âMy business manager said to me, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to invest any money in your IRA? [individual retirement account], or whatever? ‘ And I’m like, “I’m going to die, you know, but before, like 60 years old. So why would I put the money in there?” And if I found out I had stage 4 cancer, I don’t think I would go through treatment after seeing it firsthand. It is not worth it for me. And it’s not worth it for me to put my loved ones through. I hope that doesn’t happen, but if it does, I would just kill myself, basically.
To deal with her mother’s death and strengthen a bond with her Korean identity (“Am I even Korean if there’s no one in my life to call and ask what brand of seaweed we were buying?”, She wrote), Zauner found herself on YouTube, studying cooking videos and trying to recreate traditional Korean dishes. She recounts in detail how, hand-picking up the ingredients from the H Mart’s shelf, then putting them together to make a kimchi stew, dumplings, and seaweed soup, she found a measure of peace.
Today, Crying in H Mart is a bona fide bestseller, gaining screams in places Zauner never dreamed of, like The daily show, NPR and The New York Times. “I saw the other day that my book was on Goop’s Instagram!” she exclaims of Zoom, referring to the now famous lifestyle brand of Gwyneth Paltrow.
Better yet, the early buzz around Japanese Breakfast‘s third studio album, Jubilee (released June 4), shone. In a year when many have seen The Sopranos, Zauner asked actor Michael Imperioli (who played gangster Christopher Moltisanti) to star in his latest music video. The best of all? She just had her first conversation with her music hero, Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
âIt’s really weird actually, because I’ve had a number of conversations with like my absolute heroes this year, like an overwhelming amount,â Zauner says. âIt really covered the whole gamut. Some of them said, ‘I could have left without talking to that person. With her, I said to myself: “ This is the peak of my heroes for me. âIt’s like I can talk to Obama and be more relaxed.
The fact that she is currently climbing a similar ladder of fame doesn’t seem to register with Zauner, who recently posted a photo to Instagram where she is standing with her hands clasped on her cheeks in amazement in front of her own billboard. display in Times Square. Attack is welcome, of course, but it feels like Zauner is mostly excited just for Feel excitation. After all, the past few years have been nothing like the ones before them.
Upon learning of her mother’s illness in 2013, Zauner returned home to Eugene, Oregon to help her father care for Chongmi, whose condition quickly went from manageable to terminal. Being available to care for her mother was deeply important to Zauner, as she had recently found a way to be close to Chongmi as an adult.
Crying in H Mart captures the immense chasm between the personalities of mother and daughter, with Chongmi’s reserve constantly at odds with Zauner’s sensibility. As she writes, Zauner is determined to mend their shattered history and be the reliable girl she feels she never was. But as Chongmi’s health deteriorates, the reader closely observes the brutal and humiliating manner in which death from cancer ravages the body. As unpleasant as it may be, it seemed important for Zauner to communicate this reality.
âI had this crazy desire for everyone to know what I was going through, because I was so angry and felt so unprepared when I was going through it all,â Zauner says. âAnd I felt so much resentment towards people who could never understand what I had seen and gone through. I just felt like no one would ever understand my pain if I didn’t write it down in a really grotesque way, in points, in detail.
In the aftermath of his mother’s death, Zauner poured out his angst into his new dream-pop group, Japanese Breakfast, who released their debut album, Psychopomp, in 2016. Until then, Zauner had recorded in the Philadelphia rock group Little Big League, while Japanese Breakfast was more of a solo endeavor. Another album, inspired by shoegaze Sweet sounds from another planet, followed in 2017. Although Jubilee had its release date pushed back to the summer of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, its imminent arrival, a few months after the cathartic Crying in H Mart, feels symbolic, as its author has really managed to close.
The pop spirit Jubilee, written before the pandemic, is a portrait of Zauner letting himself feel joy again. âI think I had just said everything I had to say about loss and grief,â she says. âI just felt ready to move on for the first time. My story as an artist is so ingrained in these subjects that I thought it would be such an alluring and surprising thing for me to tackle the other end of the human experience and write an album about joy.
Jubilee certainly lives up to its name. Scintillating debut single “Be Sweet,” written with Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum, is a synth and reverb-soaked pop anthem that stings and soars. Its clutch features Zauner in a sunny yellow dress, kneeling among a handful of persimmons that hang like garlands of light. Making a pop record, ironically, wasn’t even Zauner’s original intention with Jubilee. “I feel like there are a number of independent artists … as they grow older it makes more sense for them to switch to pop, to become bigger artists,” explains she does. “And I feel like that’s when people get really bad, you know?” I did not want to fall into this pitfall.
For inspiration, Zauner turned to experimental icons like BjÃ¶rk and Kate Bush, as well as contemporary singer-songwriter Alex G, who have forged a reputation for aligning between traditional pop success and not to sacrifice their niche sensibility. “Like, how did Kate Bush become this huge pop star?” His music is so weird, âZauner wonders. âI’m going to find what it was in me. What made me unique and strange this way, and mine.
Zauner is definitely doing something right. In addition to Crying in H Martthis spring’s rave reviews brought a new wave of praise for JubileeMusic videos full of world-building cameos, all directed by Zauner herself. (In addition to Imperioli, who starred in “Savage Good Boy,” Zauner brought in Girlpool’s Harmony Tividad to appear in “Posing in Bondage” and Mannequin Pussy’s Marisa Dabice appears in “Be Sweet”.)
Much of Zauner’s life and career has come full circle since Psychopomp came out five years ago. She is with her husband and Japanese Breakfast bandmate Peter Bradley, whom she married in her parents’ backyard two weeks before her mother died, for nearly a decade. She can’t wait to go on tour again. A complicating factor, however, is something she foreshadows in her memories. With her mother gone, what would happen to her relationship with her father, with whom she was never very close? The two are now separated, which Zauner says is “a long time to come” and “a very different kind of grief.”
âI’ve been trying to make this relationship work for a very long time,â she says. âIt really felt like a second death for me. It was a really tough, guilty and complicated decision for me to walk away from this relationship and prioritize protecting my happiness.
âI still have so much guilt about this,â she continues. “I don’t know if it’s going to be a separation although it lasts forever – I hope not. It just got very toxic. He held out his hand several times [since the memoir came out], but I’m not ready. Maybe I don’t have the maturity to handle his character yet.
Still, Zauner actively embraces what will come next, career-related or not. It is the first time that she has not had a current project, to which she says: âI don’t know what will move me next. I can’t wait to not know and find out what it is.
I also wonder if becoming a mother herself is something she thought about a lot, especially after writing so movingly on the subject. She replies in the affirmative and tells me about a scene she witnessed while traveling through Vietnam with her father after her mother died: âI was watching this mother and her child take a picture together in the lobby of the hotel. And I had this weird moment where I was like, ‘Do I want to be the mother? Or do I want to be the child? I had this intense desire to watch these two people. I don’t think I thought much about having children, [but] because I never again experience the love that a mother has for me, there is this weird ‘circle of life’ feeling. I want to give this type of love to someone.
âCrying in H Martâ is now available through Picador; ‘Jubilee’ releases June 4th via Dead Oceans