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How Japanese Breakfast Builds An Album, Sound By Sound

Michelle Zauner, the singer and creative driver of Japanese Breakfast, and Craig Hendrix, the band's drummer and co-producer.
Daniel Fox
Courtesy of the artist
Michelle Zauner, the singer and creative driver of Japanese Breakfast, and Craig Hendrix, the band's drummer and co-producer.

This is an album about joy, goes Michelle Zauner's tweet-sized synopsis of Jubilee. It's a loaded starting place for the musician's third album as the central pillar of Japanese Breakfast, given how much of her work in recent years has engaged with grief: The death of Zauner's Korean mother from cancer deeply informed the band's first two albums, 2016's Psychopomp and 2017's Soft Sounds from Another Planet, and is the main thread of her new memoir, Crying in H Mart. It would be fair to assume that Jubilee — out June 4, after a yearlong pandemic delay — is a respite, easier to experience and understand than its predecessors, but it turns out that joy can be just as complex as grief.

To explore this notion, Zauner set out to craft songs through a less autobiographical lens and stepped up her approach to creative execution, co-writing orchestral arrangements for the first time and plotting songs out with meticulous demos rather than making production decisions on the spot. But there was at least one constant in her process: longtime friend, collaborator, producer and Japanese Breakfast drummer Craig Hendrix. Hendrix has been a steadfast presence in Zauner's musical life, working with her from behind the drum kit or sound board since the days of her previous band, Little Big League. Their relationship has evolved with each new release, moving from artist-and-engineer formality to equals in the studio, with an invaluable chemistry.

These steadily cultivated reserves of trust left room for new ideas to come to fruition during the making of Jubilee, even if the two occasionally found themselves creatively far apart. On the opening track, "Paprika," sustained synth chords give way to a carnival atmosphere, channeling the fantastical story possibilities of the films of Wes Anderson — or more accurately the late Satoshi Kon, whose sci-fi film of the same name, about the literal blending of dreams and real life, was a direct inspiration. After that grand entrance, the mental immersion doesn't let up: Enveloping warmth and a jolt of intrigue persist across all 10 tracks, manifesting in buffed brass tones, string harmonies shaped by sepia-tinted nostalgia and sounds whose trails dissipate with dreamlike indistinction, favoring ripped and fuzzy edges over clean, straight lines.

Scaling up in this way brought new challenges for the two musicians, but also a sense of excitement, as song skeletons grew into fully realized concepts and the arrangements they'd mapped out with software plugins inevitably transformed in the hands of human players, sometimes demanding hours of hands-on dedication to bring the sounds to life. In two conversations leading up to the release of Jubilee, I spoke with Zauner and Hendrix about how the album navigates the hazy boundaries separating analog and digital, real and imagined, close collaboration and the courage to occasionally step out of one another's way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kira Grunenberg: The two of you had made three records together before this one: Soft Sounds from Another Planet, Psychopomp and a Little Big League album that Craig co-produced. What does your dynamic look like when it's working well? Where are you in each other's thought processes, and is the answer different than it used to be?

Michelle Zauner: My main memory of Soft Sounds was that I was so convinced that Psychopomp was this fluke — I had this real pressure of avoiding the sophomore slump. My solution for that was to just go all in with Craig as a collaborator. The two of us had this incredibly insular experience, working for like a month in his studio in Philadelphia and playing all the instruments together. I learned so much about what each of our strengths were. ... He has such a wonderful knack for harmony, and how to use harmony to really fill out and build on a song. I think from that, I understood deeper everything that Craig had to offer as a partner and a producer, and knew what I wanted to push myself to do beforehand. A lot more of Jubilee was demoed out first, whereas Soft Sounds was more of a blank canvas.

Craig Hendrix: The Little Big League album was much more of a sort of artist-and-engineer relationship. On Jubilee, we didn't have to think about our roles as much: We both knew what we had to offer, so there was division of labor in that sense, but it felt more like working as one. I think one thing Michelle and I have in common is that we look at the song first, as an individual piece of art. That's how you get a song like "Tactics" and a song like "Be Sweet" on the same record — we're not necessarily preoccupied with making a record start to finish, that sonically has a similar palette.

Let's talk about how the album starts, with a track called "Paprika." There's a sustained synthesizer tone that gives way to a steadily rising stream of rounded beeps — dropping in like tiny lights sparkling in the distance — right alongside drumming that sounds ripped right out of marching band. That's quite the vivid way to introduce Jubilee, like a carnival is coming around the bend.

Zauner: That is definitely the vibe. The song title comes from this Satoshi Kon movie, Paprika, and this sort of surreal parade that happens. I was playing around with a lot of these Spitfire Albion orchestra plugins, and I had come up with this marching band thing that built up into this huge crash in the chorus. I basically brought it to Craig and was just like, "How do we make this real?"

Hendrix: The challenging part for that song was getting the feel. I wasn't part of high school drumlines, and I don't have the muscle memory or really solid snare drum chops that a lot of drummers have, so it definitely took some time to replicate those and maintain that momentum that a marching band would have. But afterwards, it was a lot of fun to just put up every drum we had in the studio, and get all the different tom tones and the cymbal crashes and the big splash cymbals and everything. That part lives up to the name Jubilee. I think it's tough not to dance while you're playing those.

The brass and woodwinds in "Paprika" have a rounded, almost buffed sound; everything feels very snug. Other aspects of those instruments could have imparted the idea of joy — their natural timbre, pitch range, dynamics — but you honed in on warmth. How did you end up there?

Zauner: This was a very "more is more" kind of track, and a big challenge of it was finding the right pocket for everything: We maxed out our Pro Tools session because we had strings, brass, all these keyboards and all these drums. It's a very overused word in recording, but I feel like there is always this desire to make something feel really warm and inviting. So much of what I think about this record, of it being about joy and having this warmer color palette, also extends to the sonics of it. That's what we were trying to do on this song, too: find everything, and be able to create dynamics, even when there's a ton of stuff going on.

Hendrix: Part of it has to do with the difference between MIDI horns and having actual players in the room with you. When you make demos of songs, you get attached to sounds, and then when they're different it takes a second to clear your mind and listen to with new ears. The horns have sort of a sway to them in the finished product that wasn't in the demo.

Zauner: It's tough because you can have plugins of orchestral libraries that are recorded with the best mics, and the best players, and the best preamps, in the best rooms. And then you go into a studio with, like, a string trio, and you're like, "Why doesn't it sound like this?!" I had a plugin on [the demo of] "Paprika" where all I had to do was hold one note and I had an entire marching band. And then Craig and I had to spend an entire day playing, like, 50 different toms to build up that sound.

You mentioned "Tactics," and I have to ask about its string introduction, which is just gorgeous and kind of gets its own moment before the song really starts.

Zauner: That song is interesting because, when I wrote it on piano, it basically had two introductions. I knew it was going to be a piano ballad, and that I wanted to have strings on it and have this sweeping quality. I was particularly thinking about the Randy Newman song "Marie," where all the choruses get really wrapped up in this beautiful string moment. It was Craig's idea to turn [the beginning] into a string intro, and he transposed those chords into the beautiful introduction that you hear there.

But what I really love about that song, that makes it so successful, was, I remember Craig saying, "I hear this kind of, like, Bill Withers beat — this sort of Bill Withers pocket." And I had no idea what he was talking about. I was like, "That sounds so weird. This is clearly a piano ballad." But because we've built up so much trust with one another over the years, it was one of those things where even though I could not conceptualize it at all, I was able to be like, "I'm gonna get out of your way. Let's try it on." And when he put the beat on, I was just like, "Oh my God, that Bill Withers thing — that's amazing." That's what makes the whole song for me in such a huge way now, is those two things working together.

Michelle, if we muted your vocals, where on this record would we hear your presence most clearly? Are there pivotal moments in the music that tell the listener, this is Japanese Breakfast, using tones or chords or melodies rather than just your words and voice?

Zauner: One thing that I've always tried to do is create lifts — the moment that you have a rush of feelings. That's always something that I'm trying to communicate in music, and particularly the style of music that I write for Japanese Breakfast: I'm always trying to build things up into each other. If you take away my vocals and focus on the instrumentation, all of that is functioning to hit a lift, to make you gasp into feeling.

I think you can have a lift in joy, and you can also have a lift in a major break of emotion. If it's a climax of some kind, you can have a joyous climax and you can have a climax that's full of agony. For me, in music, it's really exciting to lift someone into whatever type of feeling — like, this moment that lifts you into finally letting go.

When I listen to this album front to back, there's a lot of movement: peaks and valleys and twists and turns dynamically, sonically, tonally. What made you map out the dynamic path the way you did?

Zauner: I always had a good idea that "Paprika" was a sort of thesis statement of the album, and was definitely going to be the first track. Sometimes I can really agonize over a creative project and forget that it's essentially professional play, you know? I think that song is a reminder to myself to not take things so seriously. After that, you could only really follow it up with a track like "Be Sweet"-- that's the sort of sucker punch, this real in-your-face pop number. And then, from there ... I have my own reasoning, but a main part of it is just that's it's vibe. Even as a teenager, when I made mix CDs for people, it all had this sort of track flow: I like to start off very in-your-face, and kind of chill out towards the end and have this almost, like, denouement.

Hendrix: [Usually] when you're deciding on track listing, everything is so fresh: All the production details are closer to the front of your mind, and all the lyrical content, and what the minutiae of all the songs is. As frustrating as it is having taken so long to get to the point where we're able to release it, there was the unexpected benefit of having a couple months where I didn't listen to the record one time. There's no way to replicate that. And I think we both had a similar moment of listening to it again and being like, "Yeah, this is really strong. I totally stand behind this." It's kind of a relief.

Zauner: Yeah. I like it more now.

Where are you, emotionally, by the album's end? It's one thing to say this is an album about joy, but where would you say your own relationship with joy currently sits? And did Jubilee help you arrive there?

Zauner: Especially during these times, I realize how precious and rare of a commodity joy is, and how we are all sort of chasing this sort of fleeting feeling in our lives. So the songs aren't all "zip-a-dee-doo-dah" — they interact with joy in different ways. "Paprika" is about reminding myself what a joy it is to have the career that I do, and to not feel like I have to experience so much anguish and turmoil in order to create great art. "Slide Tackle" is about sort of battling with your brain, and trying to tackle it into submitting to experiencing joy and happiness. "Posing in Bondage" is about the sacrifices that you make to make sure you have joy in the long run. "Savage Good Boy" is about, maybe, the seedy underbelly of experiencing too much joy, and what excessive greed looks like when you're constantly rationalizing your personal joy over others'. It's such a broad theme to work within that I realized, I guess through writing it, that we [all] interact with that feeling, and it's ultimately what drives all of our lives.

Kira Grunenberg is a journalist and editor based on Long Island. She writes about music, tech and culture.

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