By Lior Phillips
Dazed Digital, July 16, 2021
Every moment of moderating a conversation with Liz Phair and Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast must be savoured slowly. When you bring two people together of this human calibre and invite them into a digital room, their minds, their stories, their words collide at high speed. Their complexity and gift for storytelling can make you pause like a swimmer just about to dive into the ocean, delighting in those hypercharged split seconds before the jump. You’ll instinctively lean forward, in awe, listening to two skilled artists discuss their craft – your brain melting into a sugary ice-lolly pool.
They both write, musically and autobiographically, in recognition that they are, in some important sense, not as they are seen to be. Only the best art makes the audience feel as if they’ve lived through the extraordinary circumstances of the artist’s life, an astonishing experience that threads the needle between the unimaginable and the intimate.ADVERTISINGREAD MOREHow club culture learned to thrive onlineFrom digi-drugs to Neurodungeons, amid the chaos and claustrophobia of COVID, people found groundbreaking ways to party, raise hell, and find themselves online
That uncanny duality redoubles in Phair and Zauner’s joint experience releasing their latest albums on June 4, each having recently published a memoir. For Phair, Horror Stories: A Memoir sees the indie-rock legend excavating her past and sharing the shards of beauty and murky pain in equal doses. Soberish finds her returning to work with producer Brad Wood, who helped shape her iconic debut, Exile in Guyville. In Crying in H Mart, Zauner explores how her mother’s passing impacted her relationship to her Korean heritage and identity; her latest with Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee, attempts to knock loose some of that sense of constant mourning.
“I’m going to make you my friend,” Phair smiles, speaking to Zauner over Zoom on a grey morning in June. “Just prepare for that.” And as the conversation rounds its many bends, the two seem to grow more and more intertwined, from their shared struggles in the music industry to revealing the ugliness of living, balancing candour and vulnerability, and talking openly about sex while dismantling sexist systems.
I’d love to start with the concept of an end. What did finishing these projects reveal for you?
Michelle Zauner: When I turned in my book, I was absolutely devastated because I felt like I had really fucked it up. I had not served my mother’s memory correctly… I had this vision of myself as an intellectual that was two steps above where I landed and I just thought it was awful. You just lose so much perspective when you’ve worked on a thing for so long. Months went by and then I heard the audiobook and I realised, like, ‘This is pretty good. I did a pretty good job.’ (Liz laughs) Is that something you felt (when writing your memoir)? What was the revision process like for you, and how did you know you were done?
Liz Phair: That was the hardest question: Is it finished? I had the benefit of having a second memoir that I’m writing now. I sort of did a yin-yang structure so that (the first book had) the dark stories with a little beauty in the centre, and now I’m doing light stories with dark in the centre. What you imagine in your mind is so different than what you’re actually able to do on the page. There was a lot of language revision for me, and less structure revision. What you did so well, and I don’t know if it was intentional, was you made it simple. You took those giant, impossible-to-put-your-arms-around ideas and you kept us completely engaged, the colours and the sounds and the scents. But you kept what you said about your mum really simple and relatable, which was so smart. That let everybody just feel it. I mean, I’m kind of obsessed with your mum now!
Liz, it really strikes me with regards to what you said about Michelle’s work, this is exactly how I feel about your music. It’s fascinating to see where the different facets of your expression intersect.
Liz Phair: Definitely. I thought of my prose as an extended song, actually. It was the way I structured it. I made each chapter a song in and of itself, but just to help me get through. I really hate bad endings. I hate endings that are lazy. I hate endings that are just like, ‘…and life went on’, you know? I get insanely angry about that. So it mattered to me how it landed each time.
Michelle Zauner: Beginnings are important, too. I think that has something to do with being a lyricist. You’re looking not only for a melodic hook, but a (lyrical) hook as well. I get asked a lot, and I’m sure you do too, about why I write about sex so much in this frank way. I think it’s because a lot of the times your lyrics can get lost in the melody and production, and to write frankly about sex is a way to really get someone to pay attention to what you’re saying. You’re always looking for that first line of what’s going to pull someone into the story.
Liz Phair: I write about sex a lot, too. I write shocking lyrics to do the same thing that you were just describing: to grab them in the beginning, and then when I have their attention, force them to look at the totality of my personhood. But a stupid interpretation of that is ‘Liz Phair is a chick who likes to talk about sex. She’s the blowjob queen.’ And it doesn’t bother me a ton because I know what I’m doing, but I was wondering for you, Michelle, do you ever get frustrated, because I certainly do, with the superficial interpretation of that? That you’re just some chick that’s really up for it? There’s a misconception about whether we’re writing or whether we’re just confessing and we can’t help it.
Michelle Zauner: And what do fucking Philip Roth and John Updike write about? They write about sex and they write about affairs and they are no less petty for it. Even though I write about sex quite a bit, I feel like my artistic narrative has been so rooted in grief that most of my questions are actually more focused on that. But the time in which you were putting out music, it must have been so insufferable.
Liz Phair: It was! (laughs)
Michelle Zauner: In the first story (in your book), you confessed to this really damning poor decision that you’d made, that probably a lot of us have made but would never want to share it. That seems to be the major conceit of this book. How did you unpack that?
Liz Phair: I feel like what spurred the book for me was screaming at the television. There was a point during the Trump presidency where I just kept yelling and shouting and judging in a way that I don’t normally do at all. It turned me into a person that I wasn’t and I thought about it and thought, you know, ‘They are totally wrong. These are horrific things that are happening. I should shout at the television.’ (laughs) That is an interesting, timeless question about human nature that I decided to put myself through for a number of reasons. I found a good balance where I was never harder on anyone than I was on myself. We need to spread more understanding so we can point out the actual monstrous acts, so we can go past, ‘I hate you. You’re Republican’ and move on to something more productive. It became something that allowed me to lay down 30 years of hidden bad feelings about myself.
Michelle Zauner: I remember I did reveal something about myself and my editor was like, ‘You seem very unlikable here.’ (laughs) Was there a moment when you were like, ‘And then I did this’ and your editor was like, ‘OK, I think you’ve gone too far, that is really such an ugly part of you’?
Liz Phair: There was one part that really troubled my agent, who is sort of my first editor. And it wasn’t about (being) unlikable, because my editors let me be unlikable. (laughs) There was a chapter about this boyfriend I had who had a baby with another woman while we were together. And it’s about the revealing of that to me, the signs I missed or ignored and the way I desperately needed this coupling for its surface value. And when I was writing it, she couldn’t relate to how I was thinking about this guy. She was like, ‘You didn’t really think that. You weren’t really that superficial.’ And I was like, ‘Well… No, I really did think he was hot.’ There was this sense that her image of me as being deep was shattered.
Michelle Zauner: I had a really hard time with the chapter where my family and I go back to Korea and we’ve discovered that my mum’s cancer is terminal – maybe the ugliest part of the book, it’s just this onslaught of really gross, human stuff that happens. It was really hard for me to write that chapter. So excruciatingly hard. And so much of it was just letting moments breathe. There’s a part where my mom almost gets on a ventilator and my dad and I go out for a drink and when we come back she is suddenly better and we are able to start planning a trip home. But I didn’t want to go there for so long that it was hard for me to space it out. And a real thing for me that I learned just working at it for a really long time was how to infuse human psyche and feelings into specific actions. So I might have remembered my dad looking out at the city, but I was able to get more space by adding things like, ‘He looked out at the city like he was looking for an answer.’ Or, ‘He wiped off the table like he was trying to get rid of a knot in it,’ or something. Finding ways to make moments heavier and spaced out. That was a huge Eureka moment.
Liz Phair: I find it very fluid going from music to prose writing. Do you? I feel like they’re not so distant for me.
Michelle Zauner: I feel it’s more separated. I’m envious that you feel this way. But your songs are maybe a little bit more narrative and at the forefront than mine. I’ve always hidden behind a lot of fragments of feeling. A lot of your songs are very full narratives, and the lyrics are very unhidden.
“Being an Asian woman, I feel this pressure that I have to tell Asian stories”– MICHELLE ZAUNER
Liz Phair: Are you planning to write another book?
Michelle Zauner: Yeah. But I feel pigeonholed a little bit. I have this idea for another book. It’s another non-fiction book. I love the idea of fiction and maybe it just hasn’t hit me with another idea, but I feel this pressure. Being an Asian woman, I feel this pressure that I have to tell Asian stories. Crying in H Mart, in my opinion, is so much more than an Asian story. It could be any mother and daughter story in there. And obviously it’s infused with this specific part of my life. But I worry if I were to write fiction, would I have to write an Asian character? If it’s an Asian character, everyone will be like, ‘Oh, that’s just you.’ But if you are writing a white character, then it’s like, ‘Why are you doing this erasure? White people aren’t neutral bodies.’ So I’m in this weird zone where if I were to write a fiction story, I’m a little bit paralysed by where to start in terms of character, you know?
Liz Phair: That’s hard. It’s like you’re stuck because of your success. Your creative freedom has been a little bit hampered by your success.
Michelle Zauner: When is your tour with Alanis (Morissette)? Have you toured together before?
Liz Phair: I opened for her a couple of shows back in the day, in 97, 98, or something. There was a lot of shitty press around the two of us where they were pitting us against each other in a funny way. She reached out to me to make sure that didn’t happen and I reached back. I think one of the most incredible things that’s come out of the last 30 years is women helping other women, which takes courage because everyone around you is saying, ‘Do this to win.’ And women have basically levitated above (that), the way that men have done (things), and said, ‘No, I’m going to reach over and I’m going to take your hand.’ It makes differences to people’s careers and it’s totally unprecedented.
I’m always going to be a certain kind of thing. I feel like an actress who has been given one role to play over and over again. It’s not a bad role. I’m not complaining, but it is limiting. So you have to sit there thinking about freedom, power and control. Any time I’ve tried to change a system, it doesn’t work. I’ve never been able to change a system. I’ve been able to change people. I’ve been able to change where I go, but I’ve never been able to change a system.
Michelle Zauner: But I think that you are changing a system. It just happens very slowly. Changing a system just takes a longer time than changing parts of the system. And by changing parts of a system, ultimately the system inevitably changes. You can’t get away with the kind of shit that you used to be able to get away with. We certainly get compared to each other a lot, but I think that if I saw the press pit someone like Mitski and I against each other, it would be shocking. A lot of people would have something to say about it. I even remember a big New York Times piece from three years ago (that was like), ‘The new face of indie rock is women!’ And even that feels so passé and gross now.
“Every person we went to go meet was going to try to cop a feel – like, literally, physically cop a feel. Every time we went to a radio station, we knew we were going to get hit on”– LIZ PHAIR
Liz Phair: I’m realising it, looking at you, listening to you right now, that you guys don’t have to deal with the physical threat that we had to deal with. Every person we went to go meet was going to try to cop a feel – like, literally, physically cop a feel. Every time we went to a radio station, we knew we were going to get hit on. That exchange, that sexual thing, was in every interaction. Every single one. Any time my management said, ‘Do you want to meet with this director?’ It’d be like, ‘Where are we meeting? What time of night?’ It was everywhere. It felt like running a gauntlet of horny dudes constantly, and you had to kind of joke with the troll under the bridge, pass a little Sphinx-like quiz, make them feel like you recognised their masculinity. That was omnipresent. And the one thing I feel really good about is that that’s not happening.
How does that factor into your ability to be vulnerable in your art, while also keeping some privacy?
Michelle Zauner: I’ve just spent so much time unpacking personal stuff that I feel like I hit a ceiling where what I find to be bubbling up to the surface is the craft-ier side. I want to write something that’s more cerebral, a little less constantly exposing myself and my personal life. I would like to do something that’s rooted in a little bit more privacy, something that’s a little bit more analytical. So my idea for a next book is something that’s more rooted in the present. I would love to live in Korea for a year and document the experience of learning that language, and explore my more heady interest in language and the brain and how human beings learn things. Similarly, in terms of music, I wanna write really timeless, elegant arrangements that are rooted in great tone. I’m more interested in the craft element of (my work) now than I am in unpacking.
Liz Phair: And it’s probably your age, too, because you’ve reached that point (where) the next challenge is mastery over all the things that you want to take on. That’s exciting. I’m completely ready to read that book. Take me to Korea for a year and let’s learn another language.