Michelle Zauner makes music that's so melodically enticing, so dreamy on its enchanting surface, that it's easy to miss the depth of the trauma lurking beneath.
That was true on Psychopomp, the 2016 album that brought the 28-year-old Philadelphia songwriter a wide audience under her nom de indie-rock Japanese Breakfast.
And it continues to be so on the brand-new Soft Sounds From Another Planet (Dead Oceans *** ½), the accomplished follow-up that adds ambient electronic textures and sci-fi conceptualism to the chimey guitar-pop mix.
Japanese Breakfast just completed a tour with fellow Philadelphia indie luminary Alex Giannascoli, who is now known as (Sandy) Alex G. It ended with a sold-out hometown show last weekend at Union Transfer, and since then, both Japanese Breakfast and (Sandy) Alex G have been added to the list of Philadelphia acts on Jay-Z's Budweiser Made in America festival Labor Day weekend.
While Zauner's music can seem soothing, it's born out of grief. The songwriter — who grew up in Eugene, Ore., an only, artsy child in a Korean American family before coming east to study literature and film at Bryn Mawr College — was the leader of the notable Philly emo outfit Little Big League after she graduated in 2011.
That band went on indefinite hiatus in 2014, when she learned that her mother, Chong Mi, was diagnosed with rare squamous cell carcinoma, stage 4. Despite the protestations of her mother, Zauner moved back home — "She didn't want me to go, she was like: 'We can take care of it' " — to aid the woman who is pictured on Psychopomp's cover and tattooed on its creator's left wrist.
There was time for a trip back to South Korea, where Zauner was born, and where her parents met while her father, who's originally from Bristol in Bucks County, was working as a contractor with the U.S. military.
And also time for Zauner and then-boyfriend Peter Bradley to get married in the backyard of the house she grew up in. "We'd been dating for a year and a half," says Zauner, sitting at the kitchen table in the Center City apartment she shares with Bradley, to whom Soft Sounds is dedicated.
"I was like, if you're going to do this later on, and my mom can't be there, I will never forgive you," she says. She smiles and raises her voice so that Bradley, who plays guitar and keyboards in Japanese Breakfast, can't help but hear from the other room. "It was the best decision he ever made."
A week after the couple were wed, Zauner's mother died, at age 57, just six years after her sister — a favorite aunt — succumbed to the same disease.
"I wrote Psychopomp two months after my mother passed away," Zauner says. "So a lot of it is about being in a really vulnerable place and feeling really confused. It was like: OK, I survived this terrible tragedy, and how do I move forward and still be a good person? Because a lot of what I was struggling with was I was just so angry that this had happened to me. And that felt so isolating."
Psychopomp dealt directly with loss. "The dog's confused," is the opening line on the first track, "Heaven." "She just paces around all day, sniffing at your room."
The album also grabbed listener's attention and won Zauner acclaim with supercatchy songs like "Everybody Wants to Love You," with which she closed her set at Union Transfer.
That song has more to do with sex than death, but Zauner turned the video into a tribute to her mother, nonetheless. In the clip, she wears a traditional Korean hanbok that belonged to her mother, while cavorting around Philadelphia doing nontraditional things like shooting pool, pumping gas, and drinking beer out of a paper bag under I-95.
She wore the hanbok only for the shoot, and was worried that she would ruin one of her late mother's prize possessions. Yet, "honestly," Zauner says, in an indie-rock world where being an Asian American front woman "is so rare, I feel like I'm wearing it all the time."
Last year, Zauner won a Glamour magazine essay contest with "Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi" about embracing her identity by learning to cook Korean dishes that her mother fed her as a child.
Along with family photos and posters of Leonard Cohen and New Yorker covers, a friend's painting of Zauner and a bowl of kimchi hang on her wall. A fan of "dirty realist" writers — such as Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, and Junot Diaz — Zauner, who's currently on a diet of nonfiction, is at work on a memoir project that grew out of the Glamour article.
Putting her music out in the world has helped assuage her grief.
"Touring with Psychopomp and having my first musical success, I was having a lot of interviewers ask me about it, and a lot of kids who had lost parents asking about it," said Zauner. "And what I realized was, I'm not alone in my experience and that death and tragedy are part of life, and what can you do other than learn from it, and feel it, and, I don't know, just find a way to heal?"
When Zauner began work on Soft Sounds for Dead Oceans — which is part of the indie-label group Secretly Canadian that has nurtured such Philly acts as the War On Drugs and Strand of Oaks — "I went into it more deliberately and with a lot more confidence," she says. "I think there's a lot more wisdom in my understanding of the world."
The first single on the album, which was recorded in the Kensington studio of Japanese Breakfast drummer Craig Hendrix, with whom she co-produced, is called "Machinist." At Union Transfer, she introduced the song as "about being in love with a robot."
Her original intention was to make an entire album around that theme, but she found that while Soft Sounds was a step forward in the healing process, she wasn't ready to entirely move on.
So there are songs inspired by her relationship with Bradley, like "12 Steps," about the South Philly bar 12 Steps Down where they first met on karaoke night. (He sang Billy Joel's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.")
"A lot of what this new record is about is that you're able to tell who truly loves you by what they're able to endure with you. It was very much through an 'in-sickness-and-health' situation. "
On the opening "Diving Women," built around a transfixing guitar figure, Zauner takes inspiration from the sea-diving fisherwomen of the Korean province of Jeju, who plunge to frigid depths to spear their catch.
The discipline of the divers — known as haenyeo — inspired her as she worked her way through her grief. "Having a direct regimen," she says, "made me feel like a more emotionally stable person."
Her push to create is partly fueled by a fear that she could be stricken as her mother and aunt have been.