Psychopomp’s landscape feels of loose rocks, doughy clouds, errant sparklers, and latticed emotions. It’s an album that climbs, dives, and pushes its ethereal boundaries with longing-vocals and marred pastels. Michelle Zauner is the architect behind both Japanese Breakfast and the weightless reveries of Psychopomp. The aforementioned record, imbued with equal parts pain and hope, is one of the pure marvels of 2016: It’s uncompromising, confessional, and unafraid to reach through the thorns. Having had experienced the guttural agony of losing her mother to cancer, Zauner responded by constructing some of the most intensely beautiful compositions in recent memory, this time under the banner of Japanese Breakfast. With a powerfully airy lilt, Psychopomp burrows into a myriad of pressing themes (“Triple 7” is a total revelation, and one of the best songs of the year). In advance of her September 15th show at The Irenic, we interviewed one of our favorite musicians about lyrics, loss, and the Pacific Northwest.
Rob Patrick: Your lyrics have wonderfully powerful imagery and visceral symbolism. From the texture of “Rugged Country” to the repetition compulsion of “Triple 7”, your music works in the currency of pain and beauty, hope and devastation: it’s a complete color wheel when it comes to the human experience. In your opinion, what makes an effective lyric?
Michelle Zauner: I’m really moved by lyrics that can conjure a real, physical mood/space/event. I studied creative writing in college and really fell in love with the dirty realists/Kmart realism. Writers like Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Breece D’J Pancake. I think I enjoy creating short story like scenes with my lyrics and focusing on micro-moments that maybe reveal some kind of greater meaning. I think an effective lyric is when you bring beauty to something that at first glance seems simple and ordinary, like teenagers in a parking lot or a tarpaulin in the weeds.
Music has played an integral role in your processing of sickness and loss. My father, only recently, was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Psychologically, how has art changed your internal compass when coping, expressing, and reacting to something so incredibly painful?
I’m sorry to hear about that. I’ve said this before but I felt surprisingly very quiet in my grief. I felt it was really difficult to connect to or communicate with anyone and so I became very insular and I think songwriting was a big part of navigating some very complicated feelings of shock and pain.
You have a wonderful, quietly powerful stage presence that is both engaging and affecting. To you, what makes a resonating live performance?
Thank you! I guess just giving yourself up to be a vessel that channels the songs. So much of it is just exuding confidence and feeling like you deserve to be there and connect with people. There’s that quote about people paying to watch you believe in yourself and I think I really believe that.
Your music videos have always possessed an ethereal, moving, and emotionally sweeping aesthetic. Thematically, what is important to you when discussing – and creating – images that correspond with your art?
I’m really lucky because I’ve found a really perfect relationship with my cinematographer and co-director Adam Kolodny. We have a really natural, easy and fun collaborative relationship and are always just psyching each other up for the next project. We talk a lot about color, we wanted lots of pinks and blues and neons for the “In Heaven” video, lots of dark colors and night shots for “Jane Cum”, and lots of like faded greens and yellows for this upcoming music video. We also mood board our favorite films and music videos and what we hope to accomplish. Somehow we’ve always been really aligned with the way we want to represent a song and it’s been such a fun process.
There are definitive shades of celebrated filmmaker Wong Kar Wai in your video for “In Heaven”. Being a visual artist, have you ever considered scoring a movie, and if so, who would you want to work with?
I’d love to, though it’s definitely an intimidating endeavor. I adore Wong Kar Wai, clearly. Honestly I’d love to write a film someday with Adam and score it. I’d also love to work with Sophia Coppola or Agnes Varda.
What are three songs that changed the way you look at music?
As an artist, what is a question that you wish members of the press would ask musicians but never do?
I like questions geared towards specific lyrical content, because I feel like there’s so much there I’ve never unpacked and it’s a part of the music I feel so close to.
How has the emotional and tangible topography of Philadelphia and Eugene affected your compositions when writing music?
I think a lot, actually. Eugene has inspired a lot of my writing because the place I’ve always written there is really inspiring. My parents lived on five acres of land in the woods and there was a small isolated cabin that made it very easy to be creative. It brings up a lot of childhood memories and natural beauty. When I first moved to Philadelphia I wrote a lot of songs about being in the city for the first time and being afraid of walking alone, stories of violence. There is a totally different kind of eeriness.
Finally, what can we expect from the next episode of Handsome Kitchen?
[Laughs] I really hope I get to do another one of these! Next time I think I want to make kimchi pancakes or radish kimchi!