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Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast talks 'Crying in H Mart' film and Björk at SXSW

Eric Webb
Austin 360

"Thanks to South by Southwest, I have a job," Michelle Zauner said on March 19 at the final keynote of the Austin conference's 2022 edition.

Zauner, a Eugene, Oregon, native, credits the music festival for helping her get signed to a label and a booking agent back in 2016. The feeling is no doubt mutual, because she's the kind of creative figure that SXSW loves.

Her band, Japanese Breakfast, last year put out a critically acclaimed third album, "Jubilee." That record netted two Grammy nods, for best new artist and best alternative music album. Zauner's also a New York Times-bestselling author, for her 2021 memoir "Crying in H Mart," based on a 2018 New Yorker essay of the same title. 

And to boot, she directs her music videos and recently did the soundtrack for the video game "Sable." No wonder Zauner joined fellow polymaths Lizzo and Beck in the 2022 SXSW keynote class.

On Saturday, Zauner sat down with Rolling Stone's Angie Martoccio. Here are three things we learned.

Singer and guitarist and author Michelle Zauner, who creates music under the name Japanese Breakfast, speaks during her SXSW keynote, the final one of the festival, Saturday, March 19, 2022.

1. Her success isn't surprising in the least.

"My artistic path has always felt very slow and fast," Zauner said. At the age of 5, she wanted to be a pianist, but she hated playing. She just needed time to find her thing; as she got older, she decided to be a person who was "into" music. She started with Led Zeppelin CDs, then got into alt music like Elliott Smith, Built to Spill and Modest Mouse.

Women like art-pop singer Kate Bush and anti-folk artist Kimya Dawson also influenced her, as did pop-punk star Avril Lavigne, whom Zauner credits with showing a lot of young women her age that a woman could play guitar on a mainstream stage. The DIY scene in the Pacific Northwest also left a mark: "It feels like anyone can (make music) if you have something to say," she said.

But Yeah Yeah Yeahs leader Karen O has been one of Zauner's biggest artistic north stars, she said. (Even if she's still never seen the "Maps"  band live.) Watching Karen O, who also is a biracial woman of white and Korean descent like Zauner, lasso cables around her head and spit water at a rock show dazzled Zauner. Karen O seemed to be getting away with everything Zauner's mother told her not to do.

She's also very excited about some of the industry chores that others loathe. When she was coming up, Zauner loved to do her own PR and booking.

2. She's taking advantage of the moment.

First off: The Grammy nods have helped Zauner with anger management, she said. Now, when people cut her in line, she tells herself, "Well, you're a Grammy nominee."

She calls the past year "the year I have to meet all of my idols," roasting her team a bit for approaching her with celebrity rendezvous opportunities: "You love this person, now meet them!" 

Last year, she played the "Austin City Limits" Hall of Fame show with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. She confessed that she thought he "was going to be an asshole," but that could not have been further from the truth, she quickly added. Tweedy had previously covered Japanese Breakfast's "Kokomo, IN."

Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast performs at the Mohawk during South by Southwest on March 18.

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Zauner was concerned about becoming an artist known primarily for work about grief and loss, so for her third album, she explored joy. She said that third albums are the time to think about your catalog and how your new material will relate to previous work. 

"You can hear this cloying desire to get into an arena-sized space," she said of some artists who go pop on their third full-length.

Björk's "Homogenic" was a touchstone, and Zauner was inspired by a "singular, bizarre artist that can maintain massive appeal." 

"Jubilee" also meant new music videos. Zauner thinks of her albums' visuals as trilogies, inspired by an obsession with the work of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. For the video to the track "Savage Good Boy," Zauner collaborated with actor Michael Imperioli. She was inspired by seeing Charly Bliss musician Spencer Fox repost Imperioli's content on social media.

"I am a big 'Sopranos' stan," she said. 

And Martoccio asked with a wink if Zauner had any beef with pop star Olivia Rodrigo, also nominated for the best new artist Grammy this year.

Not at all: "I think that she's an incredible talent," she said, adding that she's always rooting for another person who's half white and half Asian.

Singer and guitarist and author Michelle Zauner, right, who creates music under the name Japanese Breakfast, speaks with Rolling Stone Associate Editor Angie Martoccio, left, during Zauner’s  SXSW keynote, the final one of the festival, Saturday, March 19, 2022.

3. Writing outside of music isn't just a one-time thing.

The big news: Zauner said she's finished a draft of the screenplay for the film adaptation of "Crying in H Mart," which will be produced by Orion Pictures. The script's currently in the revision process.

Writing narratives actually helped free her from her last day job for an advertising company, she said. As she was starting to mix first album "Psychopomp," Zauner won a Glamour essay contest. It helped her secure an agent, right around the time she first came to SXSW in 2016. 

Writing "Crying in H Mart," which tells the story of how Zauner lived with and grieved for her late mother, has helped her come to terms with the isolation she long felt, she said. She and her mother were in a cross-cultural relationship, and Zauner said she always felt like a difficult daughter. Writing helped her forgive herself, she said.

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She hopes to write a second nonfiction book. One dream: to go to South Korea and learn the language. Finding memories for her first book was difficult, Zauner said, and next, she'd like to focus on the present and chart the progress.

Does she prefer songwriting or nonfiction writing?

"They’re all a type of narrative," Zauner said. No matter the medium, she looks to tell stories about ordinary life and what makes it "moving and extraordinary."