Identity, Awareness & Representation: An AAPI Heritage Month Conversation With Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, Billboard is highlighting Asian-American voices within the music industry through a series of conversations on identity, representation, and raising awareness. First up, we have Michelle Zauner -- the acclaimed indie rock singer-songwriter behind Japanese Breakfast -- who wrote the New York Times bestselling book Crying in H Mart as a love letter to her late Korean mother and their shared connection to food and culture.

“It’s a good idea to eat along with the book,” says Michelle Zauner. In her latest project, Zauner switches gears from songwriting to memoir writing, as she recounts memories with her late mother, and the food that kept them connected. 

Now a New York Times best-sellerCrying in H Mart is the indie rocker’s opus on grief as she details her Korean mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis and death in 2014. Korean food is also a central character in the book, with dishes like tangsuyuk (deep fried pork) and jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles) receiving spotlight moments, and the book's opening scene unfolding at the titular H Mart -- a Korean-American supermarket chain, where Asian immigrants come to eat and feel at home. 

Upon finishing up the final draftZauner also dove into Jubilee – her third studio album as Japanese Breakfast, out on June 4. In stark contrast to Crying in H MartZauner takes on joy in her latest collection of songs, and has previewed her upcoming album with two advance song releases: “Posing in Bondage” and “Be Sweet,” the latter of which recently became her first song to crack a Billboard airplay chart, reaching No. 34 on Alternative Airplay. “I've said everything I needed to say about loss and grief, and I was excited to take on a new part of the human experience,” she adds.  

In a candid conversation with Billboard, Zauner talks about her culinary memoir, the value of cultivating a community of Asian-American artists, and the joy-bringing powers of soft white bread.  

Your memoir about grief came out on April 20, while your album about finding joy is dropping on June 4. The two projects have very different vibes – were you writing them at the same time?  

I was. I finished the rough draft of Crying in H Mart in July of 2020. My editor had it for five to six months, so I was free from it for a little while. I decided to take that time to start working on a new album. They were kind of working off of each other in this way.

I was excited to work on this album in general, because writing a book is such a lonely, isolating process. Working on a record is much more collaborative and familiar to me.  

How is songwriting different from writing a book? 

There are a lot more words. [Laughs.] I counted, and there are around 1,500 words that go into a record. My book is probably close to 80,000 words. 

With music, you can pick up another instrument or let another element of a song take over if you’re stuck on something. When I write a song, that process is sort of entwined with a lyric or a chord progression that suits the vibe, and that’ll work off each other. There’s also rules that help you with songwriting. It has to flow. It has to have a certain number of syllables. It has to rhyme. But, there’s also a looseness to it. You can write fragmented feelings and have it be more impressionistic. It doesn’t have to make complete sense, and [can be] very up to interpretation. 

With a book, you have to guide a reader in what you’re trying to say, and say it in the most efficient way. That was very challenging.  

In a recent Vogue article, you mentioned, “There's this instant camaraderie with other Korean artists, but [they’re going to] be the most judgmental, you know what I mean?” What responses have you received so far from both Koreans and non-Asians?  

I’ve been relieved, because I really didn’t need to pander specifically to the white audience. So much of the time, we consider whiteness neutrality, and our experiences as deviations from that. It was about striking that balance and I feel like I had a lot of anxiety about it. As a Korean-American reader, I devour other Asian-American writers voraciously, but I am privately critical of how it’s done. The same way you are -- like any writer. But especially, for someone who’s doing what we’re doing. Even with a lot of anxiety, I kind of tried to stay as true to the course as possible. How can it be wrong if it’s so deeply personal in your truth or experience?

I kept trying to comfort myself in this way, and I’ve been relieved to find that it’s touched so many Asian-Americans in particular. My favorite thing that I’m learning, in particular, is that the type of love between an immigrant parent and their child growing up in America is a particular nuanced type of love. It was unfamiliar terrain, because you don’t see that all the time. I’m grateful that other people feel seen by that. When I was growing up, I didn’t realize that the idiosyncrasies of my mother’s character had something to do with our culture. After growing up and reflecting and making more Asian-American friends, I learned that a lot this is something a lot of people grow up with.  

Were you ever worried about white people not relating to it? 

I wasn’t too concerned about it. I’m half white. There’s obviously a lot about being Korean in this book, but at its core, it’s a mother-daughter story. A lot of daughters can relate to that feeling of having a troubled adolescence and tumultuous relationship with your parents, and then struggling for independence and returning to each other in your early 20s. That’s a universal feeling.  

In the book, you wrote about how monumental it was to discover Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. What did it mean to you to find someone who looked like you on stage?  

It changed my whole worldview. There’s this dual, bittersweet moment when it feels like seeing her in this sphere made me feel like I could make it and break in, but also feeling that there’s this scarcity mentality. Like, if there’s already one Asian woman in this industry, she’s filled that diversity quota -- and there’s no room for me anymore.

That’s something I still struggle with. It’s really hurtful to think that I’ve been lifted into this position not because of merit -- even though I’ve spent the last 10 years honing my craft -- but because of identity politics. Just today, I did an interview where someone asked if I felt like my book was experiencing so much success because of the time period and the response to the anti-Asian hate crimes. And I was like, “I hope not!” That’s so cruel to say to someone that your success is not based on merit, but instead based on identity.

It’s frustrating to me because I don’t feel like white people ever have to think like that. They’re there because they carved it and grabbed it for themselves with their craft and work ethic. And I’m here because I’m maybe fulfilling a diversity quota? I’ll never be comfortable feeling like I’m here because I worked to be here. There will always be a part of me that has this curiosity of the role my identity plays. That is one of the major anxieties I feel personally as an Asian-American, and that’s why for so long, I never wanted to write or talk about that experience.  

That imposter syndrome is so real for a lot of us non-white creatives. In the book, you wrote about how white boys don’t feel the scarcity mentality when they see Iggy Pop on stage. As an AAPI artist, how do you overcome that feeling that there’s no room for us?  

I don’t feel like I’ve overcome that feeling. It’s something that you always wrestle with. It’s really beautiful to think back to 2016 when Mitski brought Jay Som and me on tour. At the time and in that era, she was the only Asian-American at the top. The "It Girl." She could’ve coveted that position. I’m sure she had some type of scarcity mentality and that same kind of anxiety, but maybe she didn’t. But if I were in her position, I definitely would. Instead of coveting that position, she paid it forward and brought other Asian-American artists on tour. It kickstarted both of our careers in a huge way. I owe so much of my career to her.

Because of that experience, it makes me want to do that for other Asian-Americans and other marginalized artists. That’s how you break in. Bringing them on tour and lifting them up on social media are really powerful ways to use your platform and share their work. I’ve really tried to do that in my career because I’ve gained so much from the people who’ve looked out for me. I feel like there’s this band karma thing, in which you really have to pay it forward and do that for other people. It’s a really positive thing to put out into the world.  

Which Asian-American artists are you loving at the moment? 

I’m really excited about Luna Li, who will be touring this us in September. She’s an amazing multi-instrumentalist. She plays violin, harp, guitar, and bass so extraordinarily well. I love Mitski, Jay Som, Long Beard... yeah, those are some of my favorite artists right now.   

Being a touring musician isn’t the traditional immigrant path. When you started touring, did you encounter a lot of Asian-Americans in that space?  

I started in a band called Little Big League. We were lumped in with the emo, punk, and hardcore genre. I would be the only girl or the only non-white person on a tour party of 15 white guys. It was very different back then. A lot has changed, largely because of this community of people who have extended a hand and lifted each other up. On the Mitski tour, it was the first time that not only was the gender dynamic evenly split, but the crowds were also 50% Asian-American. There were a lot of young girls. It was a shock to go on that tour and see not only the makeup of how the bands had changed, but also the crowds.  

What do you think of the music industry’s response to this year’s rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans? 

I couldn’t tell you anything that the music industry has done, but I don’t know what anyone has really done. Obviously, we’re speaking up about these types of things, but I don’t really know how helpful an infographic or a “Hate Is a Virus” poster is. For some people, that means a lot -- like we’re acknowledging something that’s never been acknowledged before. There’s a real reckoning with something that’s gone on for a long time.

I’m struggling with it. I couldn’t really tell you something that the industry has done to combat Asian hate. I don’t know what I’ve really done either, other than speak out about it. It never really feels like enough.  

With your album titled Jubilee, what is bringing you joy right now?  

Not to be basic, but the weather changed, and it’s bringing me some joy. My partner is a huge part of my life, and he brings me great joy. Shrimp toast is giving me joy. White bread is giving me joy. That’s a very Caucasian thing to say, but I had a very nice, soft white bread today with egg salad. I got it from the bodega, and it’s giving me joy.  

And lastly, how do you feel about being a guest on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah tonight [May 12]?  

It’s really surreal, but really weirdI’m very nervous about it. I watched an episode with Mitski as the guest thinking that it would make me feel more comfortable. But she was so sharp and so funny, so then I was like, “F---, now the pressure is so much higher.” It doesn’t feel real because it’s gonna be exactly like this -- on Zoom. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not getting my hair and makeup done. There are a lot of feelings associated with that. But today, I’ll be sitting in my apartment in the same place I’ve been for the last year, playing the chess app on my phone, reading a book, and then, “Oh I’m gonna be on Trevor Noah.” It’s surreal, but it also feels fake, like a weird simulation.