The tradition of the haenyeo, or sea women, of Korea involves plunging underwater with a sharp tool and no breathing equipment, and coming up with a bounty of valuable catch. It’s a practice lasting hundreds of years that is distinctly Korean and starkly non-patriarchal. The metaphor of haenyeo is how Michelle Zauner, who records as Japanese Breakfast, dives into the song “Diving Woman,” the opener of her second album Soft Sounds From Another Planet, due out this July. “I want to be a woman of regimen / A bride in her home state / A diving woman of Jeju-do,” her voice aches, the lone agent betraying the song’s effervescent production.
She began wedding plans to her now-husband Peter Bradley in 2014 over the phone from a Korean hospital, where she was tending to her mom’s bedside. Zauner planned a trip so her ailing mother could say goodbye to her country, where Zauner was born before the family relocated to outside of Eugene, Oregon. Summoning the devotional spirit of Korea’s sea women as a daughter and a bride, Zauner preserves the memory of her personal history, cultural heritage and the balm of love. “I never would have survived these past two years without you,” she writes to Bradley in the album’s liner notes.
The lead single from Soft Sounds From Another Planet is “Machinist,” where Zauner sings about a lover becoming “a muted channel, a cold shell, a hologram, an abyss.” The video sees her scribbling hearts on what appears to be a blueprint inside a cyborg-esque laboratory. Perhaps she’s channeling how she describes her nature as “very self-aware and very impatient,” when we catch up to discuss the album in mid-May. She attributes this to being a chess player as a child, having competed in tournaments and “looking at everything 10 steps ahead.”
Over the phone after shooting her latest music video, Zauner says she has stopped consulting her “first really good” therapist, an Oregon-based Jungian analyst. While living in New York she began Skype lessons with a Korean tutor, a process she says granted “so much of a deeper access to my memories, because for a long time I really couldn't remember my mother as a not-sick person.” These lessons, after her mother’s passing, “really unlocked a lot of these really happy memories that I had with [her]. I would hear a word, and I would remember a time that I heard my mother say it.”
Soft Sounds From Another Planet is described as an album of healing, one obsessive about searching the cosmos for it. In an interview last year with Noisey, Zauner said, “Our new religion is science and technology, and those things can be very cold to have to turn to when you’re trying to explain something very mysterious and sad.” Yet one of the inspirations for the new album was the Mars One Project, whose goal is to make Mars habitable to human life. “All our celebrities keep dying / While the cruel men continue to win,” she sings on “Till Death” and it’s easy to think of Bowie, of America’s tortured brow.
These expeditions yield new musical territory for Zauner while expanding on the horny poetics of her excellent debut Psychopomp. “You gave road head on a turnpike exit,” she sings on “Road Head,” about lovers on a lightless highway attempting to save a relationship. “I like to talk about these very explicit sexual acts, because I think that sometimes they're really sad,” she says of the inspiration for several of the album’s songs about ill-fated romance. “To ask to receive a lot of head, or to give road head, are these wildly romantic, fun notions of sex that, in my experience, have never been very real. My memory of giving road head is very dark.”
The vantage of highways pops up elsewhere on Soft Sounds From Another Planet, naturally from an artist who has spent the last several years playing shows. There was a tour with Mitski and Jay Som, which she calls, “so special.” On Mitski: “She's such an incredible voice, and such a great writer.” On Jay Som: “I learned so much from Melina, even though I make fun of her all the time for being a child. I think I'm just jealous of her immense talent. She's 22 years old. She's able to mix, produce and play every instrument on her record. It upsets me sometimes.”
Zauner has been considering what it means to spend so much time on the road, and believes that womanhood imposes a certain guilt. She shares ideas about people’s expectations of her and her love, “that it is less real,” when it comes to touring, marriage, eventual motherhood. Soft Sounds From Another Planet contains concurrent ideas about homemaking, domestic love notes to a partner, visions of a household of women playing music together.
“People ask me all the time what it's like to be in a male-dominated industry, and sometimes I honestly forget," she says. "I feel like I am a part of these communities, and I create my own experiences and communities that are largely rooted with queer people, women, non-binary people, all different races. Sometimes I forget that the rest of the music community isn't like that. I've been really lucky that the one I'm a part of is really rapidly changing, and is starting to push marginalized voices to the front.”
Before embarking as Japanese Breakfast, Zauner was a member of the Philadelphia band Little Big League. The band previously recorded “Boyish,” one of the new album’s 12 tracks, as an early Japanese Breakfast demo. It’s a perfect summation of Zauner’s ideas around the axis of doomed love and sex—“I can't get you off my mind, I can't get you off in general”—and one of several songs that lay to rest the relationships that preceded her marriage. Another song is called “Jimmy Fallon Big,” about a former bandmate from Little Big League, who left the fledgling band for another opportunity. They’ve since reunited; he’s playing bass on her upcoming tour.
As a songwriter, Zauner plays with innuendo—with ideas of either having or wanting it all, and plays with the knee-jerk reaction of ideas evoked by her language. The song title “12 Steps” calls to mind recovery, but instead veers into “12 steps into the smoking bar I found you.” It’s based on a physical place—a bar called 12 Steps Down in Philadelphia, where Zauner met Bradley for the first time. Sometimes Zauner further retreats into coyness, taking a break from language altogether. Soft Sounds From Another Planet has two instrumental tracks, a plea for space on an album already uncontained by the terrestrial.
Then there’s “Body is a Blade,” which recalls an Ocean Vuong poem, of the thin membrane between violence and tenderness. “The body is a blade that cuts a path from day to day,” she sings. At once, she is the weapon and the woman who wields it. After the rigors of promotion, band practice, music video sets, life on the road (this time as the only woman on the lineup), she will return as the breadwinner. When she’s done with this expedition she gets to go home, leaving all the cold shells behind.