A solo moniker for Philadelphia musician Michelle Zauner, Japanese Breakfast is known for her artfully experimental, deeply intimate brand of indie pop. Taking a break from her band Little Big League, Zauner debuted in 2013 with the melodically lo-fi cassette release June. Along with further work with Little Big League, she has continued to expand her sonic palette, weaving in atmospheric synths, electric guitars, and electronics on 2016’s Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet. In 2021, she hit number two on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list with her memoir, Crying in H Mart, which found her exploring her Korean heritage in the wake of her mother’s death from cancer. That same year, she released a companion album, Jubilee.
Born in 1989 in Seoul, South Korea to a Korean mother and Jewish-American father, Zauner grew up in Eugene, Oregon, where her parents moved when she was still an infant. Later, she attended Bryn Mawr college and played in several indie rock bands before forming the group Little Big League around 2011. In 2013, she moved back home to Oregon to help care for her mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer. It was during this period that she initially started Japanese Breakfast as part of a month-long, song-a-day writing challenge. The result was 2013’s June, an intimate set of melodic, electric guitar-accompanied lo-fi tunes issued on cassette by Ranch Records. She continued to write solo and with her band, releasing Japanese Breakfast’s sophomore album, Where Is My Great Big Feeling?, and the Seagreen Records cassette American Sound, in the summer of 2014. Little Big League’s Tropical Jinx arrived that October.
With a varied palette including markedly bigger, synth-boosted sounds that bridged lo-fi and indie pop, Japanese Breakfast’s Yellow K Records debut, Psychopomp, was released in the spring of 2016. The album dealt with the emotional fallout of her mother’s death, and was, in Zauner’s mind, the one and only Japanese Breakfast record. She soon changed her mind, signed with Dead Oceans (which re-released Psychopomp to a wider audience), and began work on another album with the help of producer Craig Hendrix, who had also helmed Little Big League’s debut LP. The pair played the bulk of the instruments on the record and went for a much bigger sound, taking the project out of the bedroom and into a large space. An expansive mix from indie pop alchemist Jorge Elbrecht made it sound even larger, as Zauner delved into themes like grief, dead pop stars, outer space, and moving on. Soft Sounds from Another Planet was released by Dead Oceans in July 2017, hitting the upper reaches of multiple critics’ end-of-year lists.
Further sessions with Hendrix — this time with a sprightly, pop-focused, string- and horn-bolstered sound — led to the completion of another record in 2019. However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused Jubilee’s release to be delayed until 2021. Productive as ever, Zauner used the downtime to write a memoir, Crying in H Mart, which found her exploring her Korean heritage in the wake of her mother’s death. Released several months prior to Jubilee, the book reached number two on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.