THE BELIEVER: Your debut album, Psychopomp, has been widely acclaimed since its release, in 2016, and your lovely and grabbing Soft Sounds from Another Planet has also done incredibly well. Can you talk about your transition into embodying Japanese Breakfast?
JAPANESE BREAKFAST: It has been a very slow and gradual process. I think from the outside some people think it was really quick, but you’ve known me for quite some time and know that I’ve been playing music for over ten years. We both have been playing the Philly music scene for over ten years. In the DIY scene, you’re trudging through touring, booking your own shows, marketing your own stuff, and paying for your own records. So all of these changes and developments are really welcome and make my life a lot easier. I definitely have way more confidence as an artist now, because for so long I was toiling away and asking myself, Why have I been doing this for so long? I feel we were really lucky in the sense that we weren’t a band that blew up out of nowhere. It was a real process. For ten years I toured in a shitty van that broke down all the time, and I made no money. I really knew what it was like to drive eight hours and play to ten people and be constantly disappointed.
THE BELIEVER: You have a book in the works called Crying in H Mart, which is also the title of your essay, published in The New Yorker, about grieving the loss of your mother and her ability to make you feel at home and immersed in Korean culture. The book also speaks to your passion for making Korean food. With regards to your grief and self-expression, what’s been your experience shifting from writing music to writing this incredibly personal book?
JAPANESE BREAKFAST: When my mom passed away, I was twenty-five, and before that she was always concerned about me not making it. By then, I had put in ten years of my life and it really didn’t seem like it was going anywhere. Once I lost my mom, a lot of changes happened. My band had broken up and everything was really new in my life. I thought that in order to not fall into a deep depression, I just wanted to work really, really hard. So I was working a nine-to-five, mixing my record, and I also decided to write this essay that compartmentalizes my feelings and the experience of starting to cook Korean food in New York. Around the time that Psychopomp was finished, I had written this nonfiction piece called “Love, Loss, and Kimchi,” and I sent it out to all the small publications and essay contests I could find without an entry fee. I was rejected for a full year and eventually got an email from Glamour magazine saying I had won their essay of the year. I didn’t even remember applying. After that was published, I started working on what I thought would be a book, and the first chapter of that was “Crying in H Mart.”
THE BELIEVER: Will the rest of your book be as heavy as that first chapter?
JAPANESE BREAKFAST: There are parts of the book that are much lighter, and there are parts that are much heavier. I’m still very much in the process of writing and very far away from it coming out. Each section of the book has been about exorcising certain things that I wanted to come out of me. It’s fun to remember really beautiful things between my mom and me. Things I really loved to live in and to relive. It’s a very traumatic thing, watching someone die and go through chemo. I was very, very involved in my mother’s caretaking. I don’t think a lot of people in my life or my fans know the depth of that trauma for me. It’s a very hard thing to write about, but it’s something I really want people to know. This is a huge part of who I am now. I speak about managing my grief and trying to come out on the other side.
THE BELIEVER: Your voice, both figuratively and literally, is very expressive and pronounced. Would you say your means of coping exists within your art?
JAPANESE BREAKFAST: In every way! [Laughs] It’s always been what I’ve leaned into, and I’ve always been simultaneously a social and a very insular person. As an only child, I spent a lot of my childhood alone. It was very natural for me to escape into my own head and worlds that I was making. It feels like a very natural place for me to turn to. When I look at my darkest times, I have always used music in that way.
THE BELIEVER: What advice would you give your younger self, who hustled for a decade—through challenges, disappointments, and financial difficulty—while you established your career in music? And what would you tell yourself now that you’re seeing so much success in this work?
JAPANESE BREAKFAST: Introducing a creative regimen into my life was a really big part of how I became a more prolific artist. I’ve grown as an artist by enforcing sick deadlines on myself to produce stuff and not having to wait around for inspiration to strike.
One other thing I would share is not to be so precious about your work. No one is going to know who you are if you’re continuously working on a project that never comes out. There are records and songs that I put out a long time ago that I just hated, and now years have passed and I look back and think, You know, that’s a great song, or: They’re just markers of the time period.
I also know that just because something is rejected, or unappreciated, it doesn’t mean it’s not good. Do not be discouraged by rejection. Especially for young women and nonbinary people. This is a very “Fake it till you make it” field. It’s so much easier for cis men who have been told their entire lives that they can do anything and to be confident. I’ve doubted myself so much as a woman. It took me a really long time to think that I could ever engineer or produce anything on my own. It’s still a process of undoing that mentality.