20 Questions With Japanese Breakfast: ‘Jubilee,’ Mitski’s Support & Rediscovering Her Love of Chess

Japanese Breakfast
Tonje Thilesen

Japanese Breakfast

Jubilee, Michelle Zauner’s third studio album as Japanese Breakfast, is a leap forward for the indie singer-songwriter, a bright and triumphant return from 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet that includes her most precise arrangements to date. Yet Jubilee, out Friday (June 4) on Dead Oceans, is not even the first major (and acclaimed) creative project that the Eugene, Oreg. native has unveiled this year.

Crying In H Mart, a memoir released in April, explored feelings of grief and acceptance following her mother’s death in 2014, and became a New York Times best-seller upon its release. In contrast, Jubilee -- led by the springy and rhythmic single “Be Sweet” -- moves Zauner’s artistry forward with joyful ambition, horns and strings helping round out Japanese Breakfast’s sound and unlock an even larger audience for the beloved indie artist.

Ahead of her new album’s release, Zauner chatted with Billboard about letting in new light on her latest album, writing a book versus writing a song, the importance of Mitski’s support and her past as a chess prodigy.

1. What’s the first piece of music that you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?

I want to say it was the Vitamin C CD. The album that had the song “Graduation.” That sticks with me as one of the early things that I bought in fourth or fifth grade.

2. What was the first concert you saw?

Raffi. (laughs) I was like five or something, and I brought my little Baby Beluga bath toy. When he sings “Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea,” I was like, waving my little plastic whale around.

3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid?

My dad was a truck broker, so he was the middle man between trucking companies and produce distributors largely in Canada. So he would help distribute produce across North America. And my mom was a homemaker.

4. What or who made you realize you could be an artist full-time?

I want to say Mitski, because Mitski brought us on our first real tour [in summer 2016], a five-week tour across the U.S. And watching her, I remember being like, “If I ever get to this point, I can die happy.” She definitely kick-started my career in such a major way, and I owe a lot to her.

5. What’s at the top of your professional bucket list?

I would love to play Fuji Rock, and Iceland Airwaves -- basically a lot of festivals that let me travel. We’ve played some stuff in the U.K., and smaller festivals in Norway and Poland. But I’d love to go to Iceland Airwaves or Fuji Rock or Glastonbury.

6. How did your hometown/city shape who you are?

I feel like I’m a very earnest person, and I feel like there’s a very Pacific Northwestern-type quality. A lot of indie rock from the Pacific Northwest is very earnest, confessional, dynamic. Certainly the music influenced my taste in a major way, but I also feel like we are just... an earnest folk over there! Maybe it’s the landscape of that region.

7. What’s the last song you listened to?

I was listening to the new Lucy Dacus [song]! I watched her Colbert performance, which was great. She has such a phenomenal voice, it’s incredible.

8. If you could see any artist in concert, dead or alive, who would it be?

That’s a toughie. It feels like you have to say someone dead! (laughs) Oh, you know what? I would see Kate Bush. She never tours and might never play a show again. I would love to see Kate Bush in her heyday, because I feel like she’s such an inventive musician and performer that I would have loved to see.

9. What’s the wildest thing you’ve seen happen in the crowd of one of your sets?

There’s this funny thing that happens in Seattle now, and it started with one of our first headlining shows. As a joke, my bass player left a banana on my keyboard station from the green room, and I thought it was really funny, so I sent a banana out into the crowd from my station -- and they passed back an orange and an apple. It was just such a funny exchange, sending out a fruit and getting two fruits back!

Ever since then, whenever we play in Seattle now, a bunch of fans will bring different types of fruit! (laughs) Like, when we played Sasquatch, someone tossed up a pineapple. It’s a very funny little tradition that’s started, and now I can’t wait to go back and play in Seattle.

10. How has the pandemic affected your creative process?

It’s been tough, because it shifted the album release back. We were supposed to come out with an album last year, and then we pushed it a year later. So it was actually pretty hard, because I had finished these two really big creative projects that hadn’t come out yet, so it was really difficult for me to work on new material while these two things had yet to come out. It’s definitely slowed things down a lot, for me. It was tough to be creative this year.

11. How has the album changed, if at all, over the course of the past year? Did you go back and tweak things, or keep it relatively intact?

I didn’t touch it. I feel like, once I’m done with a record, I’m done. I feel like with a record, you reach a point where the more you keep adding, the worse it gets. So yeah, nothing changed. (laughs) If anything, I just like the record more -- like, the time away from it after I finished it made me like it even more.

12. At what point did you realize that this album was going to be pretty different in its sound and sense of brightness than your previous albums?

Pretty early on. I knew that I had written two records about grief, and I was working on this book about grief, and I wanted to explore the other end of the spectrum, and sort of close the book on exploring that theme anymore.

13. How does your creative process differ in terms of your writing and your songwriting -- how you decide which parts of yourself to share in each medium?

It’s different and similar in ways. There’s actually a lot of borrowed lines and song titles in all three of the records that you can find in Crying In H Mart, and I’m really looking forward to fans getting to see which lines are utilized in both places. They both pull from a very specific period of time in my life. But it’s a very different process -- it feels like songwriting is a little bit more intuitive than writing a book, which is a little bit more analytical.

14. You’ve debuted on a few Billboard songs charts for the first time in your career thanks to “Be Sweet,” including Alternative Airplay and Rock Airplay. Do you pay attention to charts and how your songs perform on different platforms?

I did hear that this was our first chance of having a radio single! This is also the first album that I’ve had a manager on, so that helps you develop that sort of thing. But that’s cool! I did not know that that was happening, even if it was something that we were hoping would happen.

15. You’ve talked about your ambitious plans to tour behind this album -- working with local string sections and horn sections on tour stops. How is that process coming along?

We’re really hoping that all goes well with the tour in the late summer and fall. I knew that we were definitely going to have to have a bigger band for this, so we’re gonna have a six-piece band with a saxophone player who’s going to double on keys. And I believe we’re going to have someone playing violin and guitar as well. We’ll have a bigger band, and for the bigger shows, we’ll probably reach out to a local quartet, or a trombone and trumpet player to add, because some of the songs are quite large.

16. What’s your karaoke go-to?

“Like a Prayer” by Madonna.

17. What’s one thing your most devoted fans don’t know about you?

I feel like they probably know this -- maybe some of them know! -- but I used to be an avid chess player, from fourth to seventh grade. I used to see a Russian chess tutor once a week, and participate in tournaments and stuff. I was once on a billboard for playing chess. (laughs) I’m not very good at it anymore, but I’ve started casually playing on Chess.com, since watching The Queen’s Gambit.

I feel like there’s this thing that happens in people’s lives, where you dedicate a large part of your life to something, and then you realize that you’ll never be good enough to be among the top tier of people who can do it for a living. Some people did gymnastics as kids, and were really good, but had to face up to their mediocrity, you know? And that was me with chess. I can enjoy it as an adult now, and that sort of reinvigorated me to start playing casually again. I had so much passion for the game when I was younger, and watching her [on The Queen’s Gambit] go through that made me want to play again.

18. What movie, or song, always makes you cry?

There’s this scene in My Neighbor Totoro, where the mom brushes her hair. Lose it every f--king time.

19. What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

I wish I could tell my younger self that everyone who peaks in high school and middle school will wind up a major... embarrassment. (laughs) And that your time will come! (laughs)

20. What do you hope to accomplish or experience by the end of 2021?

I hope I get to go back on tour, so badly! I really want to experience that again. That’s all I can really hold out for.