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Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner has a full plate

Michelle Zauner performs with Japanese Breakfast during the South by Southwest Music Festival on March 13 in Austin, Texas.Invision/AP/Invision/AP/file 2019

On the anniversary of her late mother’s birthday, Michelle Zauner is taking back-to-back interview calls.

“I don’t really break down on days like this. I break down in strange ways. Like I’ll go to Costco, and I’ll remember going to Costco with my mom really vividly, and I’ll just panic,” she says. Zauner’s ability to assess and synthesize her grief has been a hallmark of her professional success since her mother’s sudden diagnosis of terminal cancer in 2014. Her indie rock group, Japanese Breakfast, has released two critically acclaimed albums and is touring internationally. The band comes to Boston for two shows at Royale, April 1 and April 6.


After writing an essay last August for the New Yorker on navigating her half-Korean heritage without her mother (“Crying in H-Mart,” named for an Asian supermarket), she signed a deal for a book of the same name. Zauner has also emerged as a visionary music video director: first, for her own videos, and now directing for other musicians such as Charly Bliss, Jay Som, and Better Oblivion Community Center. She’s even scoring a video game, called Sable, to be released late this year from Shedworks.

“I think the one thing that happened to me, when my mom passed away, is that I started becoming really obsessed with work,” says Zauner. “I am most scared of not having time to do everything I want to do.” When asked if she ever gets tired, she pauses, then laughs and says, “Yeah! Of course I get tired!”

It’s this balance between ambition and authenticity that animates Japanese Breakfast, and it is what makes Zauner such a creative force. Whether it’s music, writing, or video production, she wants it all.

Q. You’re directing music videos, you’re composing video game soundtracks, you’re writing a book. How do you do it and stay sane? Do you have to segment them off creatively in your mind or do they sort of bleed into each other?


A. I think I’m just naturally drawn to telling a story. It seems very different, but they all kind of boil down to the same thing. I think my strength as an artist is that I enjoy narrative, and that I enjoy telling stories in any medium that I can. I’m essentially like always working. Even when I’m not physically doing something, I’m always thinking about it. As I fall asleep, I’m thinking about how things are going to work, in that way. I’m just always plotting. [laughs]

Q. What do you find was your biggest motivation in wanting to expand upon “Crying in H-Mart” in your upcoming book? Was it catharsis, or getting that platform to speak openly about grief?

A. I have two records. I’m on three, and with the next one, it feels like I have to move on a little bit. And I feel like there’s also this part of me that’s just really not ready to move on with my mother. I think that writing a book feels really natural to me because it feels like there’s so much to say that hasn’t been said. I mean, obviously, I will always be grieving in some way or another. I just feel like, “It’s time.” I need to write it.

Q. Have you always had an interest in filmmaking, or did that develop from the pressure on artists to make music videos?


A. I studied film in college and I directed a short film for my thesis. But, you know, I didn’t really think I was good at it back then. I think it helped finding a [cinematographer] in Adam Kolodny — he was the one who really pushed me to kind of take on a directing role. It took a couple videos for him to be like, “You know what? I really . . . feel like you have the capability to be a great director, and you come up with such vivid concepts — you should really take on this role.” So we co-directed “Everybody Wants to Love You,” and I really fell in love with it and decided to take it on from there. And I’m very bossy, so it was very easy to take on the role.

Q. What do you find is your favorite part of getting to be “the boss” of directing?

A. I have two favorite parts: One is when I’m alone, and making the treatment. You’re basically creating a movie in your brain, and it’s the ideal version of your vision, because in your head you can see it so clearly. And I love the call when I finish the treatment, and I call Adam, and the two of us freak out and he has some genius idea of what to add without trying to change it. When you have that collaborative relationship with someone who’s another brilliant mind and excitable and has passion, you just start riffing off each other like that.


And I guess it’s also when you see a shot of all the things that you had come out of your brain come together, and all the people just doing their best in their roles. The moment when you see that all come together — I love that feeling.

Q. You’ve also kept people from Little Big League in your band. What do you find are the benefits of working with people over and over and over again?

A. I think that there’s a certain kind of psychic repartee that you develop with someone. You basically can accomplish a lot more because . . . you know their strengths and you know their weaknesses, and you know how to anticipate them. Especially with directing, it’s so much about just like getting things done in a short amount of time, so you really need to have kind of level of communication, where you’re basically one person.

And lastly, I just think that people work harder for you when they love you. Like, I know that sounds really cheesy but it’s really true.


At Royale, Boston, April 1 and April 6 (sold out) at 8 p.m.. Tickets $25, 855-482-2090, www.axs.com.

Interview was edited and condensed. Eva Maldonado can be reached at eva.maldonado@