The Greeks eased the sting and uncertainty of death by inventing a spirit said to help souls transition, without judgment, from one life to the next; later, Carl Jung would adopt the symbol as a mediator between the conscious and the unconscious. Collectively referred to as psychopomps, the word encompasses imagery that’s endured for generations, from Charon to the Grim Reaper. The myth took on special relevance for Little Big League vocalist Michelle Zauner as she wrote new songs and reworked old ones for the album that would become her devastating solo debut as Japanese Breakfast. Holed up with her family in small-town Oregon as her mother battled cancer, and ultimately succumbed to it, Zauner saw herself as a sort of psychopomp, too–and with an onomatopoeic relationship to the “psychotic pop” of its sonic contents, Psychopomp happened to make a perfectly fitting title for the record.
When I call Zauner to chat about her current tour with Mitski and the unexpected success of Psychopomp, the caravan is driving from Portland to Vancouver, hungover from a hometown karaoke session the night before–Zauner’s go-to number, she says, is Madonna’s “Like A Prayer.” The homecoming seems fitting, because sense of place, specifically, the fact that the Pacific Northwest anchors every song on the record. Sonically, Psychopomp is a clever amalgamation of Angelo Badalamenti’s moody Twin Peaks score and the lo-fi, flaws-and-all drama of Phil Elverum’s work with the Microphones and Mount Eerie.
“I wrote, arranged and produced solely based on how the songs made me feel and what emotions I wanted–it’s totally intuitive,” Zauner said. “I am very much not a perfectionist; that’s just not my vibe. All of the songs were written pretty quickly, instead of slaving away on a record for five years and making sure the production was perfect. I’m much more interested in capturing creative work quickly and making an abundance of it.”
The sense of urgency is part of what gives Psychopomp a lightning-in-a-bottle effect. As albums go, there are few that offer a more accurate introduction to the artist at the heart of its creation, and it’s not just the Pacific Northwest roots Zauner wears on her sleeve. Truly, it’s a diary of where she’s been as a songwriter–the material here has a compilation feel, and was composed while Zauner was between the ages of 19 and 25–as well as her life beyond music. Zauner studied film and creative writing at Bryn Mawr, and her lyrics are at once literary and cinematic, but also honestly reveal the most intimate moments of her personal history, particularly the death of her mother. It’s a portrait of Zauner as she finds herself flung into adulthood and its attendant anxieties without the benefit of maternal guidance, yet empowered to meet the world on her own terms.
Surprisingly, Zauner almost shelved her music career in the fallout of her mother’s illness. “I knew I wanted to make a record because it was a private, productive thing I could do, but I didn’t want to tour because I didn’t think touring was conducive to my mental stability at the time,” she said. Her experience was informed by playing all over the country with Little Big League and knowing firsthand how grueling a tour could be.
“It’s very difficult to be away from your support system and loved ones, and sleeping in different places every night,” she continued. “I just wanted to have real routine in my life after losing my mom. I kind of decided that [music] wasn’t my true calling and I needed to be doing something else.”
Eventually she moved to Brooklyn but hated the sales job she landed; fortunately, a trip to SXSW earlier this year proved to be fortuitous. Dead Oceans offered to give Psychopomp wide release, and tour offers started pouring in–including her current stint with Mitski and Jay Som.
It’s no accident that the three performers that make up the bill are all women of Asian-American descent; headliner Mitski has been vocal about wanting to subvert the white male dominance within indie rock even if it’s a less pressing issue for Zauner. Still, she recognizes the Lilith Fair-logic behind it–if anyone had dared to call the tour niche enough that tickets wouldn’t sell, they’ve been proven wrong. Thus far, 21 of the 27 tour dates have sold out, including the New York shows that book-ended the tour, last month at Bowery Ballroom and tomorrow’s show at Music Hall of Williamsburg. And when Zauner looks out into the crowd night after night, she sees a reflection of herself.
“Little Big League looped into this weird white boy world of ‘emo’ music, which was really bizarre,” she said. “This is the first tour where the demographic is super different. There’s a lot of young women that come to our shows–a lot of young women of color–and it’s really, really amazing to see. It’s one of those surreal moments–I don’t know if there was space for us [to do this] last year. When I was growing up, if I had seen this tour, I would have been really pumped about it.”
Her audience isn’t the only thing that’s changed since her days in Little Big League–Zauner has changed, too. Her vitriolic vocal delivery as the leader of a band indebted to East Coast hardcore is distilled on Psychopomp to a quieter intensity, a darkness nearly masked by glistening pop hooks. Always savvy with lyrics, Zauner says she found inspiration for some of Psychopomp in a surprising place: country music. “I really like the logic of female country singers,” she says. “Their lyrics are insanely dark but the songs are so poppy–melodramatic but kind of funny in a way, like satire but also very real. I really like playing with that style of writing.”
Zauner says her next album will have a dark dance-pop feel, though she warns that that might change by the time it comes out. She’s working on a video for her next single with House of Nod, who produced videos for “Jane Cum” and “In Heaven” as well, and soon she’ll set out on her first European tour.
It wasn’t so long ago–just two years or so–that Zauner released a collection of seven tracks called Where Is My Great Big Feeling? worried that she hadn’t captured the vulnerability she heard in her friends’ songwriting. But with Psychopomp, Zauner’s great big feelings–and her big moment–have finally arrived.