In WSJ. Magazine’s series “12 for ’21,” we highlight a dozen of the most creative artists and entertainers working today—all poised to have a breakout 2021.
On her first tour through Asia, it made sense that indie musician Michelle Zauner would perform the last show in Seoul. “Even at the height of my ambitions I had never imagined I’d be able to play a concert in my mother’s native country, in the city where I was born,” writes Zauner, who performs under the name Japanese Breakfast, in her forthcoming book, Crying in H Mart: A Memoir. “Conscious that the success we experienced revolved around [my mother’s] death, that the songs I sang memorialized her, I wished more than anything and through all contradiction that she could be there.”
Zauner diligently dove into her solo project Japanese Breakfast out of grief after her mother’s death from cancer in 2014. She notes in her book that it wasn’t until her mother died that things, “as if magically,” began to happen, including the release of her first album under the new moniker, Psychopomp, in 2016, and second, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, the following year, and the world tours tied to both albums.
The 31-year-old singer and songwriter faces with zen-like cool-headedness the year ahead, which includes the release of her book birthed from her widely shared essay in The New Yorker with the same title, a new Japanese Breakfast album and the soundtrack to the indie videogame Sable.
As a teenager growing up in Eugene, Oregon, Zauner turned to music as an antidote to the rift growing between her and her mother at the time, attending shows at the WOW Hall, where she saw artists like Menomena, Joanna Newsom and Bill Callahan. Perhaps the most influential artist for Zauner during that time was Karen O, the dynamic frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs who was also half Korean and half white. Watching O perform made music feel more accessible to her as a career for the first time.