This might’ve been a mistake. It’s before 11 a.m. on a Thursday, and I’ve asked Michelle Zauner, the brain behind the band Japanese Breakfast, to meet me at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the city she calls home. It’s the only museum in Philly that houses a planetarium, and given the title and themes on her sophomore album Soft Sounds From Another Planet, it felt like the perfect place to meet. It did not occur to me that imagination, even by its most right-brain definition, is the foundation for scientific research, and that the Franklin Institute is, in fact, actually a children’s museum. Whoops.
When Zauner appears the marble entryway, passing through a hall of Benjamin Franklin busts, she’s clutching an open can of flavored LaCroix and wearing all black—flowy pants with a crop top worn backwards so its neckline is placed highest in the front. She’s running late; it’s one of her few days off since the record came out. She removes her sunglasses halfway through the lobby (also black), standing out in a museum which, at this hour, is littered with children on field trips from different summer programs, easily identifiable by their matching travel T-shirts.
We’ve missed the beginning of To Space & Back, a popular daily program at the Institute’s planetarium about space exploration; a kind museum employee lets us sneak in. Much of what we caught (as we navigated the pitch-black dome trying to find seats—they don’t usually let people in after doors close, fun fact) was about modern space advancements, how they are less about discovering the unknown and more focused on expanding technology to help with earthly endeavoring—medical devices, satellite communication technology, and the like. At its heart, it’s a story about how space plays a role in our smartphones.
Something about it felt selfish, like our place in the universe is only to learn how it can benefit us—a narcissistic mode of thinking that’s not present in Zauner’s album, or in her way of thinking. She laughs throughout the screening, jokes about the generic music supervision (She says it sounds “like that Madonna song!”), and walks out of the room joyously. There’s something inherently silly about planetariums—how they are used mostly for grade-school education and Pink Floyd laser-light shows—and that humor resonates with Michelle. Her album works through love and loss partially through science fiction, which is rarely allotted straightforward, serious discourse. It doesn’t phase her. “I watched Sailor Moon a lot as a kid,” she tells me after bravely ingesting a museum pretzel. “I liked science fiction before I even knew what science fiction was. I think it’s a natural thing for kids to be interested in—in fantasy.”
Zauner has been playing music since grade school. Her serious aspirations started when she relocated from the Pacific Northwest to Philadelphia to attend Bryn Mawr College and fronted an indie-pop band called Post Post that didn’t sound too dissimilar to the popular indie bands of the time—a group like Freelance Whales comes to mind. Soon after, in 2011, she joined emo group Little Big League and enjoyed minor success—until Zauner moved back home to Eugene, Oregon in 2013 to take care of her ailing mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer.
While home, Zauner began to write her own material and immediately felt a certain freedom in doing so—gone were the collaborative pressures of band appeasement. She was able to use individualistic songwriting as a tool for meditation, a healing and creative practice that would continue onward after her mother’s death the following year. Zauner became Japanese Breakfast (though she herself is Korean American, Korean on her late mother’s side), releasing a tape titled June, in which she wrote and recorded a new song each day of that month, and another called American Sound, including demos of tracks that would eventually make it onto her 2016 debut LP, Psychopomp. The record, a heartbreaking affair that is almost unrecognizable from her earlier recordings, is as expansive as it is commanding, with strings and synths far bigger than the bedrooms that inspired them.
For the most part, and in much of the press following its release, it is considered Zauner’s mourning record—an album defined by the loss of her mother (who graces the cover), a beautiful indie-pop record that questions life, loss, and death with real immediacy. The wounds were fresh. “Psychopomp was just so raw and confused and in your face, both sonically and lyrically,” she reflects as we search for an unoccupied space in the bustling museum. “This [new] record is a little bit more melancholy, existential and mature-sounding. It’s subtler in how it relates to my life but I still think it’s a personal record.” It’s tempting to write about Soft Sounds as a more private album, but Zauner continues to offer up her innermost sensitives—this time, in an even bigger space.
At this point, Zauner and I have gotten lost in the museum’s maze-like layout (a real joy for the children around, a nuisance for us). Searching for an exit, we pass by and stop to touch an old meteor; we attempt virtual reality (inside the human body, a virus wins and we die); we admire a wall of Mars drones. (Michelle shouts, “Look at all those Wall-Es!”) The energy of the place is intoxicating. Eventually, we find our way outside, nearby an untouched spacecraft model and construction across the street. “Machines are so cool,” Zauner observes with sincerity. Functionality—structure, organization, purpose—fascinates her these days.
Watch our video with Michelle Zauner at Philly’s planetarium:
It comes across in Soft Sounds. The music, when not preoccupied with ideas of space, is defined by its meticulousness. The album’s strength extends beyond her artistic development—there’s something mathematical to its magic. And it begun in an unexpected place. “A year ago, my friend applied for the Mars One Project and was rejected. Around the same time there was this Time Magazine article that came out that was about the 100 people that were selected to be a part of it, to undergo the training,” she says.
She sits up. “I was really fascinated in the psychological element of what it would mean to have 20 people inhabit a planet and those be the last 20 people that you spend time with—how would their accents form? If there was someone in a group of 20 people who had a slight affectation in their speech, would that develop into a Mars accent? What kind of new vocabulary would arise? Obviously you would have to come up with a vocabulary for certain rock formations or gases. What psychological feelings will you have feeling stuck, not being able to breathe the air that is natural to your body? Would you become fixated on your own face? Your pores? Would there be a new word they develop to express these kinds of feelings?”
At no point does she pause to consider whether or not it’s possible to colonize Mars. For Zauner, the fascination is all in the fantasy, and that’s what she wanted to write an album about. “I wanted it to be heavy-handed in concept...I wanted to write a sci-fi musical without camp, that were real songs.”
That vision for the album was never realized, but Zauner did something arguably more fascinating—something she started with Psychopomp but developed further for Soft Sounds. She created a hybrid of her desires—songs of space, songs of fiction, love songs, grief songs, all spanning genre, ignoring limitation. But of her sci-fi musical desires, “Machinist,” the first song she wrote of the record and its lead single, comes closest. It’s a story about a woman falling in love with a robot. “It definitely made people nervous that that was going to be the direction of the album, that it was all going to be songs with auto-tune and electronic drums but I liked that.” “Machinist” might sound out there, but it’s a metaphor for falling in love with someone who feels cold, distant—or being numb in a relationship after facing loss, a particular dullness incompatible with the idea of movement.
Some of the songs on Soft Sounds were written many years ago, having been revisited—they’re typically the most romantically desperate and despondent on the album, “Boyish” and “Road Head,” highlighting Zauner’s aversion to linear songwriting and perhaps subconsciously illustrating the emotional growth that can happen in a few short years.
They sit next to two tracks of real romantic reality, the apologetic “12 Steps” about telling her previous partner she was leaving them for a new man, who she’d wed a few years later, and “Till Death,” an ode to the latter, with whom she feels cosmically connected. It’s an eerie love song, where she lists her mental difference with eloquent defiance: “Your embrace, healing my wounds / Teach me to breathe, teach me to move / PTSD, anxiety, genetic disease / Thanatophobia,” all the horrible things she faced and continues to face in loss, and the love that’s led to her survival. “When you promise to love someone ‘til death, it’s really eerie. Then to spell it ‘till’ is like, we’re all just tilling our way to the end,” she makes a digging gesture. “Part of loving someone is wanting so badly to take away all of their burden. There’s this inexplicable desire to do that and yet you can’t do that. The last year that I was going through all of this stuff, arranging a funeral and giving a eulogy and watching my mom lose her hair, just witnessing all of this stuff—here is this person who stood by me throughout all that, who must’ve also had a tremendously difficult time watching the person you love go through hell.”
The track arrives near the record’s end. In a book or a play, it’s almost like comic relief—a moment of shimmery bliss in a macrocosm of grief. Soft Sounds is a record of joyful sounds, of pop music rhythms and ascending structures that enter your pores and levitate you to another planet. Japanese Breakfast’s earthly realities come to the forefront in the lyricism, a tension that mirrors the most human experiences: losing a loved one and finding solace in another. It’s the kind of record that reveals itself slowly and over the course of multiple listens—musicianship changes, structure morphs, songs chew you out, spit you up, and place you back together again. These are Soft Sounds from Another Planet—in science, sound can’t travel in the gravity-less space, but in Zauner’s universe, there’s no limitation to communication. The sentiment rings true to the planetarium showing, confirming some cosmic transference of energy that perhaps Japanese Breakfast understands better than most.
We exit the museum’s grounds, hug goodbye in its now mostly-vacant lobby and walk separately, near-ish another Benjamin Franklin bust. Outside, I see her standing under one of the building’s few shaded columns, sunglasses on, waiting for a car. She gives new edge to the museum’s historic structure once again, a striking image of someone with the creativity of science, who has written the fiction in the pursuit of verisimilitude. I’m reminded of something she said early on in our conversation. “The more I talk about the album, I feel like it’s a record about sorting and compartmentalizing pain and trying to relearn how to feel again. I spent the last year removed, disassociating in a way that felt like floating in space,” she explained. There, she becomes an artist of science fiction, even if the album avoids full conceptualization. It’s imaginative, another soft sound.