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Rock and Roll Book Club: Michelle Zauner (Japanese Breakfast) talks about her new memoir 'Crying in H Mart'

Michelle Zauner's 'Crying in H Mart.'
Michelle Zauner's 'Crying in H Mart.'Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

April 22, 2021

Michelle Zauner, known to music fans for the indie pop she makes as Japanese Breakfast, is the author of a new memoir called Crying in H Mart (buy now), in which she reflects on her relationship with her late mother. I connected with Zauner to talk about the book and how it relates to her career as a musician. Above, watch our complete conversation; below, see an edited transcript.

Michelle Zauner is also making several appearances at upcoming virtual book events; and Japanese Breakfast are playing First Avenue on Sept. 19.

Jay Gabler: Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk with me about your new book, Crying in H Mart. Congratulations on the book.

Michelle Zauner: Thank you. Is that a hard copy?

It is. Have you not seen it yet?

I have seen it, but I haven't seen anyone else with it. So it looks great in your hands.

Yeah. So you had the moment when your box of author copies came, and you got to open it and see it in physical form.

It came a couple days ago. It felt very real for the first time.

Yeah, this has been a long process for you. It's been several years now since your mom died. And you've made music about your family and your mom. And you've written essays. And now you have a book and it just strikes me: I can't imagine you could have known when you started writing that this book would be coming into the world at this time when this book about grief is going to be landing in the hands of so many people who are experiencing grief because of COVID. And everything else going on in the world: racial violence, political violence. How have you been processing the idea of publishing this beautiful book about grief at this time in 2021?

It's definitely so unreal. I have an album coming out in June. So I've been just speaking to so many different people about this part of my life that's felt...I finished the book in July of 2020. It takes quite a bit of time to get to the finishing point. But yeah, it's hard to know...for the album, it's so easy, because it's called Jubilee. It's this album about joy. And I feel like it will resonate with a lot of people. I feel like I certainly have a lot more hope for the future moving forward. And the summer is coming. And it feels like a great time for that. But this book, I don't know. I think for some know, we all want to interact with grief in a different way. I think for some people it will be maybe cathartic to read; they'll maybe feel less alone by reading this book. And I think some people might not want to read it during this time, they might want to just focus on feeling good. So I'm not sure. I think it will mean different things to different people.

Yeah, totally. Well, you know, I get to read a book about music every week for this feature, Rock and Roll Book Club. And that means I do read a lot of musicians' memoirs, and in most cases, they're explicitly about music. That's the reason why the artist is writing the book, typically a little bit later in their career, it's time to do the memoir thing and write about how you formed your band and released this album and that album, whatever. And your book is sort of the other way around. It's about your life and your relationships with your parents. And then music sort of comes into it. It's about how you discovered your voice as a musician as this experience was happening. Do you think any differently about yourself as a musical artist after the experience of writing this book about this time in your life?

I do, actually. I was really nervous about writing about music at all in this book — especially because this book is so much about Korean food, and this is the main thematic vehicle. I was really worried that introducing my relationship to music was going to kind of muddle that theme or get a little bit confusing. And I also definitely don't identify myself as like, the type of know, I'm in my 30s, and in many ways, I'm still sort of beginning my career as a musician.

So you have these fantastic memoirs by people like Jeff Tweedy, and Patti Smith, and like even Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon...these iconic people who like have really put in the work that I definitely don't hold myself up to in any way. So I was really nervous about that, but then as I began to write it, I realized that was such an important part of my character, and also my relationship with my mom.

Ultimately, it's a coming of age story. It's a mother and daughter story. And that was a main point of contention for me and my mom was that I wanted to be an artist, that I was this creative person and I wanted to be a musician and really fell in love with this thing that she couldn't really wrap her head around. And I think part of that was like her cultural upbringing and being an immigrant parent. She really felt like it was something to protect me from. And so I actually turned in the book with very little reference to my my relationship to music. And then on the second revision, I realized it was really something I needed to wade into, and I'm really happy that I did because I feel like I was honestly able to like forgive myself in a big way. I feel like I was like kind of a difficult teen. And part of that was like my real love for [music]. And it feels like this kind of weirdly full circle bittersweet, serendipitous thing that I sort of found this space of belonging, on my own terms in the music world. And I think that that's a lot of what the book is ultimately, really about.

So if music was a point of contention between you and your mom, did you have any points either with your mom or your dad of musical connection, moments where you shared musical experiences that have stuck with you?

My parents, at least to my knowledge, weren't big music fans. I wasn't really raised with like a whole lot of music, but the you know, the bands that my dad listened to, definitely stuck with me. Like I remember having like Motown compilations in the car, like Fleetwood Mac records. Michael Jackson, some Beatles. And I remember really loving those albums. But yeah, it was mostly something that I really just fell in love with on my own. And, after [my mom] passed away, I realized that there might have been maybe more of a connection to it than I realized. My aunt actually introduced me to this Shin Jung-hyeon song they both really liked; when we did a tour in Korea, the promoter there introduced us to his music, and I just really fell in love with it. But then I had no idea it was a composer that my mom enjoyed. So that was like a fun discovery in writing this book.

What's it been like to see the explosion of K-pop in the last couple of years?

It's been wild. You know, I never cousin was really into K-pop. And like, I remember liking some girl group when I was younger, but I never really kept up with it. It's been really amazing like to watch Korean culture really flourish in the States. Korean cinema is like having such a huge impact in the arts. It's been really exciting. I actually just started watching the BTS show, and I'm hoping that it helps me with my Korean language skills a little bit. "In the SOOP," it's called.

Nice. Well, you were just talking about how you're learning a little bit more about some of your mom's musical tastes. And I thought that was a really poignant aspect to the way that this book is about food. Because obviously, food is something that you and your mom and her family shared, but you write in the book that it's not like she taught you how to cook, that learning how to cook Korean food is something you've kind of been taking upon yourself in recent years, through YouTube tutorials and, and other ways. And it struck me as, you know, that's obviously very specific to you and your mom and Korean culture. But what feels universal about it to me is that all of us have parents who...we know our parents so well. And yet there are things that our parents don't talk to us about, don't teach us, don't share with us, including some deep, profound early experiences. I feel like you spend a lifetime getting to know your parents, even after they're gone. Do you feel like you're still sort of getting to know your mom?

Absolutely. I think that especially being in my 30s now, there are no personality traits that I have that feel natural to me anymore. Like they're all like, related to one of my parents. If I do something, it immediately gets ascribed to whichever parent I think it comes from. So yeah, I think especially as I get to know myself better, I see a lot of my my mom — or, like, a lot of her lessons and have a better understanding of them in a way that I never did. But yeah, so much of what I tried to talk about in the book, too, is: I feel like one of the really heartbreaking parts of losing my mom at 25 was that was around the time when your relationship with your parents starts to get really good generally. At least it was the case with my mom and I.

I feel like a lot of teenagers...there's a lot of contention [with] parents, a lot of friction. And you get to return to them a little bit as an adult in your 20s. And I feel like I had just started getting to this place with my mom where we would talk on the phone and she would tell me more about her day and life and stop just fixating on mine. We were becoming friends and peers in this new way. And I think that was really exciting. But even then writing this book, I feel like I was investigating my mother in this new way. I learned a lot about her.

You write about your dad as well in the book, and you just published a moving essay about where he's at in life and how you sort of come to terms with some of the decisions he's made. When you think about your personality, what parts of you do you feel like come from your mom and what parts come from your dad?

My mom was a very like social person, [in] the way that she interacted with people. She was very comfortable with them. And not to toot my own horn, but I do feel like I get that from her a lot. And a lot of the things that really bothered me about her when I was growing up are things that I absolutely do now. Like, I would always get scolded if I accidentally spilled something or I got hurt. And now I realize, I unfortunately am very much like that with the people in my life that I love. Because I get so frustrated if they don't look out for themselves or take care of themselves in a certain way. And I realized now that it came from this real place of love. And my dad...I'm just very impatient. I have a real bulldozer type personality, where it's like, whatever it takes to get from point A to B, I will get there as quickly as possible, even if it means sort of bursting through the wall. To my detriment at times. My father is very much like that.

Sounds like both sides of that have served you well as an artist.

Yeah. In some ways, yeah.

So yeah, you're a musician, of course: you've got your new album Jubilee coming out in June. You're a director: you made the new video for your super fun new song "Be Sweet," and an author. Have you given any thought to the next book?

Yeah, I have. I don't know when I would be able to write it, but I definitely feel like now I just know that I can do it. There's a part of me that's like, well, it feels like you want to employ the kind of lessons that you learned from the first one. That's really exciting to me and, and just knowing that it's something that I can conquer and have conquered before. So I definitely see myself writing another book someday. I'm not entirely sure when that will happen, but I look forward to it.

Well, congrats again on the new book and the new album. I expect you'll be talking with The Current more about the music so I won't ask any more about that. But again, I love the music, love the new single. When I saw the video for "Be Sweet," one of the things I thought is, you know who I'll bet loves this? Sophie from Soccer Mommy. I talked to her a couple years ago, and she explained she's obsessed with The X-Files.

She has kind of like Scully hair, too. Like that same color, if I remember.

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