Michelle Zauner does a lot. She used to spend her time as the singer of Philly’s emo rock act Little Big League, recorded solo material on her own, and collaborated with the likes of Frankie Cosmos and Ó (ex-Eskimeaux). Last year, she released her proper debut album as Japanese Breakfast, the moving Psychopomp, to plenty of admiring ears. Now, as she gears up to release her sophomore LP, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Zauner is looking at the world a little differently. She’s been on extensive tours. She’s changed how she utilizes a studio. Most notably, she’s getting a little electronic.
“There were two things I really wanted with this record,” she says over the phone. “First, the playfulness that comes with a pop rock drum. The last record was recorded and mixed in two different bedrooms. So I wanted this to be deliberate and push myself to get something that sounded more hi-fi. But also, I wanted to have the experimentation of a month in a studio to play around and take pathways that were different. The other thing was that I wanted to have a small cast, so I only worked with one other person that I knew I’d have full trust in. We could talk about every instrument on the record. It was very tight and intimate, which is exactly what it turned out to be.”
The album sounds surprisingly rich. Whereas Psychopomp sounded like the fuzzy warmth of a Smashing Pumpkins record, Soft Sounds hits like a compilation of romantic ballroom dances. From the western percussion in “Boyish” to the electro-dance robot love song “Machinist,” it’s a huge step forward. Zauner made sure of it. To figure out how varied her interests are as well, we interviewed her for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask bands questions inspired by their song titles.
1) “Diving Woman”
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever gone diving?
ZAUNER: I can’t say I have, but I guess I went scuba diving before. My father lives in Thailand now and I visited him in February. I went diving for the first time then. It was fun. He’s lived there for a little over a year now. He moved there to escape after my mom passed away. He wants to live in constant summer. I’d been to Bangkok for a day but had never spent much time in Thailand until he moved there.
2) “Road Head”
DIGBOSTON: What’s the most wild place you’ve visited in a dream?
ZAUNER: I don’t remember. Probably a far out world.
DIGBOSTON: What’s something you’ve built that you’re really proud of?
ZAUNER: I’m actually really terrible at building things. I usually pawn it off on a loved one because I pretty much get tired of it immediately. I’m better at building creative projects than physical items. One time I assembled an IKEA bed and did it so poorly that one side descended, like, a whole inch. That was the best thing I’ve ever built and I was definitely proud of it. Some people are built to build IKEA products. I’m definitely not one of them.
4) “Planetary Ambience”
DIGBOSTON: Have you heard Planetarium, that album by Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister?
ZAUNER: I’ve been meaning to! I’ve listened to a couple tracks and it was really interesting because Sufjan Stevens is an artist that I really enjoy and relate to a lot. I thought it was interesting because I finished my record before this was announced, but his last record, Carrie & Lowell, was largely spent in Eugene, OR—which is where I was raised—and talking about his mother passing away—which mine did recently—too. I thought it was interesting that he went in that direction after a very personal, vulnerable record. It made me wonder if [outer space] is a normal direction to turn in. [Maybe] now is a politically normal time to turn to space or maybe it’s just a psychological thing that you just want to create something that’s a little bit further away from yourself after making something really personal. I should dig into that.
5) “Soft Sounds from Another Planet”
DIGBOSTON: If you could live on another planet or star, which would it be?
ZAUNER: I guess Mars because it’s the most habitual planet and the one I think I’d like. I understand the most of what it entails to live on a planet like that. And also because that’s the planet I think my zodiac sign is ruled by. Plus it’s the Sailor Scout I identify with [laughs]. I’m an Aries.
DIGBOSTON: Do you have a go-to comeback for anytime someone cat calls or you get a negative comment about your appearance?
ZAUNER: It hasn’t happened in a bit. The last time someone commented negatively on my appearance, it was a racial slur, and I threw a glass of water in his face—and I really enjoyed it. That was the perfect thing that I needed to do. I never had before, and I thought, “Man, if this happens again, this is definitely my go-to response.”
7) “12 Steps”
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever taken dance classes?
ZAUNER: Yeah, I took ballet classes when I was in third grade. I was the only kid in the entire ballet company who got held back. I have no idea why. I think I was such a class clown—the loud-mouthed goofy one—and didn’t enjoy it. My mom signed me up for all of these activities that kids are supposed to be into, but I wasn’t into them at all. I don’t know what else you could do to not advance a level, but I did it. Then I quit.
8) “Jimmy Fallon Big!”
DIGBOSTON: Where do you stand on Jimmy Fallon now that he’s apparently a divisive figure?
ZAUNER: Because of the Trump hair thing? I don’t know. He’s fine. I don’t have any opinions either way. I think he’s just a goofy guy. I think that sometimes it’s easy for people in the public eye to get scrutinized intensely. I’m hesitant to do that with many people because I think that even being in a small, small public eye, I know it’s a lot of pressure. You’re just a human being. Sometimes you can try to make a situation comfortable with a much-hated person and people will take it as a political sign. That’s scary. It scares me to have an opinion about someone I don’t actually know. People are quick to judge and I don’t know how productive that is, or if it’s even educational to go on a witch hunt.
9) “The Body Is a Blade”
DIGBOSTON: If you could be any character in Blade Runner, who would it be and why?
ZAUNER: What character could you be besides Harrison Ford? I’d be some hot cyborg, like the sexy evil people.
10) “Till Death”
DIGBOSTON: What’s the ideal age to peace out?
ZAUNER: Oh gosh. I don’t know, I guess when I just feel done with the stuff. Maybe 60 or 70. I kinda want to go out semi-early but I don’t want my loved ones to be mad about it. I think 65 is good. Yeah, for me, that’s it.
11) “This House”
DIGBOSTON: What would your dream house look like?
ZAUNER: Ugh, it’s so hard because I go back and forth between wanting to live in a city or in the woods. I think I imagine it being really clean and having a lot of wood. Like good, nice wood, could be old. A lot of light coming in. I think, honestly, in the woods somewhere. I’m very no-nonsense and don’t daydream about these things, so sorry that’s a vague answer [laughs].
12) “Here Come the Tubular Bells”
DIGBOSTON: What’s an instrument you’ve always wanted to play but you’re too scared to try?
ZAUNER: Well, lately I’ve really wished I could just play the drums. My brain has a hard time processing rhythm that way. It would really help my ability to communicate with my drummer if I knew a little bit more about the drums and what I wanted on songs, how to guide the songs a little more. But also, I’ve always really wanted to play the cello. I just think it sounds really nice.