On Psychopomp, the debut full-length for Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner romanticises need, knowing precisely how futile it can be, as she howls on the record’s final song, to “cling to your sleeves ’til they’re like lacerated sails.” She drew from the masters of the form—Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn—for “the way they sing with over-exaggerated longing, wail on the inability to go on without someone.” Originally, recorded as a straight forward rock record, indebted to country and folk lineages, Michelle co-produced Psychopomp with Ned Eisenberg to give it what she calls “a psychotic pop sound.”
Around Summer 2014, Michelle’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. The illness was brief and unsparing. Two weeks before she died, Michelle married her husband Peter, “because I didn’t want things to end that way,” she wrote in a beautiful contemplation of her 2014 for the website Heartbreaking Bravery. “I wanted it to end with flowers and macaroons and my mom watching her only kid get married.”
After her mum passed away, Michelle stayed on the west coast to help her dad. The family had always lived out in the woods of Eugene, Oregon—the same place that Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell is based, “which sounds kind of like the landscape,” says Michelle. “It’s very quiet and grey and grainy, but also beautiful and majestic.” With time on her hands, she wrote a few new songs, and culled from the archives of her writing exercises to find older material to update. She wrote “Rugged Country,” about becoming the person who had to love and nurture her father after he had lost the woman who had been in his life for 32 years: “It’s a heavy hand where I wear your death as a wedding ring in the rugged country,” she sings—two weeks after her wedding, she started wearing her mother’s wedding band.
“In Heaven” too was written in the wake of her death, and the ensuing assurances that she was “in a better place now,” Michelle recalls. “Oh do you believe in heaven like you believed in me?” she sings, a light beam surrounded by strings and sparkle. Unable to believe in the afterlife, the commonplace consolations of loss frustrated her, and she began investigating other frameworks to deal with her grief. In an essay by Carl Jung, she stumbled across the word ‘psychopomp’, a mythological guide to the afterlife who forgoes judgement on the life of its charge. The figure echoed the role she felt she had played in her parents’ lives: not judging her mum when she decided to end chemotherapy after only two sessions, having seen her own sister endure dozens of treatments that ultimately proved unsuccessful. (That’s a photo of her mother on Psychopomp’s cover.) “I was there to support her and help her through that time, and in some ways I feel like I was there to help her die,” says Michelle. “For Jung, the psychopomp is also a mediator between the conscious and unconscious. When I was having a lot of dreams about my mother, the idea brought me comfort that I could continue to connect with her.”
The record stands as a testament to that connection, across the gulf of life and death, and across the more specific cultural bridge between Michelle’s Korean mother and her own biracial identity.
Psychopomp has allowed her to embrace parts of herself that she used to hide. The video for “In Heaven” is set in the giant Koreatown of Flushing, Queens, Michelle’s favourite place to shop for groceries. “It gets to be much more a part of my life now,” she says of the record and her heritage. “People are interested in this really personal aspect of the record in a way that I didn’t anticipate. It makes me think, maybe I can do it more. I feel like it’s allowed me to be really comfortable with being who I am.”