During SXSW last month, Visible, the wireless provider, created an interactive recording studio on 6th Street called The Music Box. Japanese Breakfast stopped by to perform “Boyish” in the transparent structure, which was also accessible to visitors to record their own music. With the confined yet exposed space, Visible provided spectators and performers the same platform, encouraging a new experience for equal visibility as well as vulnerability.
In the music video for Japanese Breakfast’s wistful song, three teenage girls walk into a school dance wearing suits, the lights glowing a bright pink and baby blue, while frontwoman Michelle Zauner performs on stage with her band. With a clear and ambitious vision, Zauner directed the video, culling inspiration from international films and casting the roles herself. The piece retells a generalized story we’ve seen in mainstream movies, witnessed firsthand, or maybe even lived ourselves. As the narrative of the typical gym dance unfolds, it defies stereotypes and undermines our expectations of the characters’ desires, all while set to a sweet and yearning melody. Zauner, a half-Korean female musician, and her presence on stage give the young girl the imagination to see music as a possibility. In this conversation—with humility, candor, and humor—Zauner expands on her experience at SXSW, directing her first music video, and the rest of the projects that qualify her as a Renaissance woman.
What was your experience performing in Visible’s Music Box while you were at SXSW?
We were so happy to play that showcase and be connected with Visible; we didn’t originally intend to go to SXSW. It was cool to see them put so much thought and art direction behind a stripped-down performance video for “Boyish.” We had two guitars and a piano. Since it was in a smaller room, and we didn’t know how much of the band could fit inside, we didn’t want too much stuff. I think a song is the strongest if it can hold up that way.
Every so often we do a stripped-down version of a song, and usually it’s kind of frustrating because the song changes so much. I really loved what the director of photography was doing with the lighting because it was really saturated. She had seen the video for “Boyish” and wanted to incorporate some of those elements...We’re really influenced by Wong Kar-wai, and he does that a lot in his films.
I can definitely see that connection and film inspiration after watching the music video.
He’s a huge inspiration! I studied his films in college, and the first film I saw was Chungking Express. My mind was just totally blown. And it’s definitely a frequent reference in my work.
That’s the film with Faye Wong’s cover of The Cranberries, and the main character is always singing “California Dreamin’”?
Yeah exactly, which is actually part of the reason we covered “Dreams,” and also “California Dreamin’.”
Did the Visible performance make you hear or think about “Boyish” differently?
That song has existed for about six years, and it’s gone through a number of versions. It started as stripped-down, and then it went a totally different direction and became a more aggressive, kind of punk song with my old band Little Big League. And then in 2017 we did the Soft Sounds version. So I knew it had the legs to be stripped-down like that.
Since there have been various iterations over the years, what were the most important elements of the music video for you? You directed it yourself, so did you have changing ideas of what you wanted to convey?
I knew since the Soft Sounds iteration that the video needed to be at a school dance. It’s such a sweeping, melodramatic song. That was the first video I had such a clear vision of what I wanted it to look like. And I had been talking to Adam Kolodny, our DP, about it for over a year. And he was like, “That is a really expensive idea.” [laughter] You have to rent a school gymnasium, get decorations, get extras, a big crew . . . it was just a lot of stuff. And we never had the budget to do it, but I really wanted to make the video, and I had to find a way to make it possible. Adam and I had this yearlong mood board that we would just keep adding and adding to, and fantasizing that someday we would be able to make it work.
It’s pretty funny to me that there’s this spectrum of people that either think you’re the kind of musician that either flies on a private jet or the kind that still sleeps on the floor. I think people don’t really know where we are. Eventually we worked with Apple, who provided a majority of the budget to help us get there. And once that budget came in, we were able to make our dreams come true.
Why was the gym dance so important? It’s such an archetypal environment for the average American adolescence.
I think the song at its core is so much about rejection and insecurity, and feeling ugly, and I think all of those things remind me of middle school so intensely. I don’t think there are three emotions that showcase the middle school experience better. [laughter]
We used to have these things called Snowball dances, which were extremely cruel, heteronormative practices. They used to line up all the boys on one side and all the girls on the other. They would start with one boy and one girl, and the DJ would yell, “Snowball!” And each person would pick another until everyone was dancing in the middle. That was such a breeding ground for insecurity, and everyone was terrified of being the last pick. I felt paralyzed in that kind of environment, so I knew the video had to take place there.
Totally, it’s such a relatable setting—those situations were so stressful. What were your criteria for your casting choices? It seemed like race played an important role.
Well, I knew that I wanted the protagonist to be a young version of myself, so at least part Asian. To have a diverse cast was important. In general a lot of our fans are Asian-American.
I picked a trio of girls that looked like they would be friends, and I wanted them to wear suits because when I was younger that would be the kind of thing we would do as a sort of “fuck you.” I wanted the main girl to not care and have this attitude of sticking it to the man—like, “I’m going to wear a suit while everyone dresses up”—but also with the sense of hesitance that comes with being that age . . . where she asks, “Am I missing out on something? Was it really my choice not to fit in?”
I actually cast the video largely myself while we were on tour in Europe, and I had no cell service. So every time we were at a rest stop, I would log in to the WiFi and post open casting calls for people ages 18 to 25 to my Instagram stories. I needed around fifty people, and they all ended up coming to this random school gym and participated for, like, no money and helped me make art.
Can you talk about the concept and story of the video? It didn’t really play into character stereotypes even though it was in a stereotypical setting.
I didn’t want to make it outcast versus normal person or popular person. I thought, “How can I take this common trope and take it out of girl one versus girl two?” I didn’t want the main character to be jealous of this other girl, or have this other girl be the villain. It’s two separate girls doing their own thing with their own interests. Even if you are popular in junior high, you can still be a tremendously insecure person going through your own problems—and ultimately I never want to pit two women against each other in a narrative. We set up this reverse shot leading the spectator to believe that this girl really wants this guy. But all along she’s looking at my character and seeing herself in me, and finding something else that she’s interested in, like playing music or being an artist, or being empowered by representation. To me that’s what the video is about. It’s playing with that expectation.
Right, she’s dreaming of playing the guitar, not making out with the homecoming king. I really appreciate that! When did you start making music?
Like all Asian kids, I was forced to start playing the piano at five. [laughter] And I really wasn’t into it as a kid. Then fifteen came around, and I started talking to a boy about how the acoustic version of “Everlong” is so much better than the electric. And then I was like, “Oh man, I really need to learn how to play guitar. . . so that I can be hot.” [laughter] So I begged my mom to let me learn how to play, and she was really concerned that I would stop playing the piano, which of course I did. It took a year and a half for me to get my first guitar.
As soon as I learned how to play my first few chords, I started writing songs and then sort of promoted my little solo act in Eugene, Oregon, by making MS Paint posters and printing them on my dad’s computer. I would tack them up around town to advertise the open mic where I’d play my shitty acoustic songs. And I just did that for a while, and then got more involved in the music scene. You feel like an outcast loser and then all of a sudden there are really cool people you can relate to.
And you’re also writing a book—can you talk about that? When did you start writing?
I think I always knew I wanted to write a book. Around the time I made my first record, I also wrote a nonfiction piece that was in Glamour magazine called “Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi,” and it was something similar to “Crying in H Mart,” which came out last year in the New Yorker. Both talk about Korean cooking and grief, the relationship with my mother and being biracial, and what happens when your immigrant parent passes away. It kind of fractures your identity. I turned to Korean culture and cooking as a way to grieve and as a form of therapy. Once the New Yorker piece came out, I was approached by a few agents and publishers about expanding it into a memoir. I recently signed a deal with Knopf and have been working on it, so hopefully I will finish this year, and it will come out the year after. . . hopefully.
I’m excited to read it, especially since we have similar biracial backgrounds. I think it’ll be an important book to a lot of people. Did you ever feel like others tried to categorize you into one race or the other, or did you feel like you were part of a community?
Thank you! Yeah, I feel like it’s a pretty common thing, where people will just feel like you’re just Asian, and then in Korea, people will assume that you’re just American. It’s confusing—I don’t even know if I have my own solid thoughts on it. What’s funny is that I did have a few peers that were biracial but I don’t feel like we had the kind of language or rhetoric to discuss that sort of thing, so we just didn’t really talk about. There’s a broad spectrum of how people relate to their identity.
Do you feel like there’s visibility for that sort of identity?
I feel like a lot of people are opening up that conversation; I remember having biracial icons and that becoming more and more of a thing. I was a big Karen O fan, and it was really important for me that she is half-Korean. I feel like more and more I’m meeting mixed-race people, and there’s more of a dialogue surrounding that identity, and it’s exciting.
Absolutely, I’ve felt that too. Besides Karen O, who were the other women you admired growing up?
I was a big indie fan, so not really too cool to talk about. [laughter] But I really loved Rilo Kiley and Emily Haines from Metric. I loved anti-folk and lo-fi, K Records bands. Kimya Dawson was a big deal to me, really simple music. It felt like you could still make something that is really compelling and has character even if you don’t have the traditional tools of what make a rockstar. You don’t have to be that good at guitar or have advanced recording technology or knowledge, or even a particularly great voice, to make something interesting. So I remember being really moved by artists like Kimya Dawson or Joanna Newsom.
And this is an open-for-interpretation question: what does visibility mean to you?
You know, the world has opened up in this way that is really great for the most part, I’ve found. I’ve met so many friends through different types of connections. I’ve always felt very alone in my personal identity, and that my experiences were too specific for other people to relate to in some ways. So communication on the internet has been really important for what I do, because there were things that I didn’t think were relatable, but I discovered they actually were . . . to a lot of people. I remember feeling that way when I wrote my album—that not many people would be able to connect to it—or when I wrote my nonfiction pieces, but so many people reached out.
Right, I think one of the reasons your story resonates with me so much is because of its specificity.
Totally. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the more specific your story is, the more universal it is.