Korean-American indie rock musician, Michelle Zauner, is best known as the front woman of the band Japanese Breakfast and author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Crying in H Mart. At SXSW 2022, Zauner sat down for a Keynote conversation with associate editor of Rolling Stone, Angie Martoccio.
Over the years at SXSW, from first getting signed to a label to now closing out this year's Conference, Zauner remarks on how the event serves as "a special way for me to see how much our band has grown every year." Her SXSW highlight this year? Ordering room service and eating a very excellent club sandwich in bed. (SXSW, it's a marathon and not a sprint, y'all.)
Diving into the creative process, Zauner's modes of expression (i.e. music, writing) are all a type of narrative. Fascinated by the type of storytelling that comes from ordinary life, she never anticipated the caliber of responses for her album Jubilee, with Grammy nominations, and Crying in H Mart landing on bestseller lists.
“I feel like something that all of my work kind of has in common is just the way that ordinary things move me and finding the story in that."
With an unabated passion for music, Zauner started off with influences that were geared more towards classic rock like Led Zeppelin because “that’s what people who like music listen to.” Growing up in Oregon, she honed her own taste and became an avid listener of regional indie rock, specifically from the Pacific Northwest. As for her female influences, Zauner recalls the memory of her childhood friend and their DVD of the American rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Watching the band's front woman Karen O., she was exhilarated to see someone who was also half-Korean doing everything her mom told her not to do.
Jubilee is the artist's third album, the one where "it's the first album you can really start to think about your catalog as an artist." Zauner would look to records she loved that were third albums and the perfect third record for her is Björk's Homogenic. Her admiration of artists like Björk and Kate Bush stem from how they are these totally bizarre artists that can still make a massive appeal while making pop music completely on their own terms.
“I just really wanted to find what was bizarre and weird about my particular style of songwriting and lean into that as much as possible.”
During the time that Zauner was working her corporate “cool” job, mixing the album Psychopomp, and going to H Mart, she was writing an essay. An essay that in the beginning she thought was a cute story “like Julia & Julia, Korean-style,” she realized that there was a lot in it and much was uncovered that needed to be written about. In that time she started to send out her essay to any and all literary contests with free entries. Without realizing that she even submitted it to Glamour Magazine, Zauner received notice she won essay of the year with Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi. This life-changing moment led her to quit her day job and the essay eventually made its way as a reworked, stand-alone piece to Michael Aggard of the New Yorker. Thus, Crying in H Mart was born.
Zauner notes that non-fiction writing was never a want in her time studying creative writing. She was never interested in having to explain her whole life before getting to any type of real narrative. "But then once my mom died, it was just like this very organic thing that it felt very necessary for me to write about." The writing helped her grieve and learn so much about her mom because "when you're writing, you're taking a magnifying glass to all these pieces of someone and so you gain such a deep appreciation and a deeper understanding in some way of that person."
When asked why she thinks so many people can relate to Crying in H Mart and how she feels about it, Zauner explains that although people might look at it as a niche book because she's an Asian writing her story, that it "...isn't an Asian story. It's a story about a mother and daughter. It's a story about grief. It's a story about memory."
Crying in H Mart is soon to be adapted into film. With so much more to come, she notes looking forward to getting better at her craft and that she even aspires to move to Korea to learn the language. Michelle Zauner is just getting started.
2022 Keynote, Michelle Zauner – Photo by Raegan Labat