She’s up for two Grammys. Her bestseller will be a movie. Meet the Korean American who’s shaking up entertainment
(CNN)As Covid cases decline and the world reopens, Michelle Zauner is having a moment.Her indie rock band, Japanese Breakfast, has been nominated for two Grammys — best new artist and best alternative music album for last year’s “Jubilee.” Her bestselling 2021 memoir, “Crying in H Mart,” is being turned into a film, and she’s writing the screenplay.She composed the music for an award-winning video game, “Sable,” that came out last year. She was a keynote speaker earlier this month at South by Southwest. And her band is scheduled to perform this spring at major festivals, including Coachella and Bonnaroo, along with a bunch of other dates across the US and Europe.
It’s a full plate for the biracial, New York-based musician, who just turned 33 on Tuesday.
So when Zauner isn’t writing about her life or making dreamy, atmospheric music, she turns to another creative hobby: cooking. She likes to rustle up meals that connect her to her late mother and their shared Korean identity.”I love the creativity of putting together a meal and putting a lot of care into it. It’s still a very therapeutic part of my life,” says Zauner, whose book chronicles her struggle with grief after the loss in 2014 of her mother to cancer and how she found solace in the Korean foods they enjoyed together.CNN talked to Zauner as she prepared to attend the Grammy Awards on Sunday. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Your band’s called Japanese Breakfast. What’s the story behind the name?
It’s a really awful story. I used to be in a band called Little Big League, and this was before my mom got sick or I started writing about my Korean American upbringing. I wanted a side project where I just kind of recorded demos and put them up online.I saw a photo of a Japanese breakfast set, and I was like, what a soothing idea — not thinking I would eventually write a book about Korean food, or that people would mistake me for being Japanese. It was just this on-a-whim thing that grew into something I had no idea it would grow into.
How does it feel to be a Grammy nominee? Is this your first ceremony?
Yes, and I’m so excited. Every single day, I say it out loud to myself. Like if I’m struggling to learn a song or if I’m not playing a scale fast enough, I’m like, ‘Oh, you’re nominated for two (Grammys), so that’s OK.’ Or if someone cuts me in line, I’m like, ‘It’s OK, you’re nominated.’ This is one of those things that you get to hold dear to you.
Who are you most excited about meeting at the Grammys?
I would love to meet Rihanna and Ariana Grande. I wouldn’t even want to talk to these people. Like if I saw Frank Ocean, I would just crumble. There are a lot of musical heroes that I’m really looking forward to quietly gushing over.
How did you get started in music and when did you realize you wanted it to be your career?
I started playing piano when I was 5 years old, like a lot of children of immigrants that are forced into that kind of thing at a young age. I hated playing the piano. I hated structure. I was not really interested in it until much later.I learned how to play the guitar when I was 16 and I started writing songs pretty much as soon as I learned, and just fell in love with it slowly. Not just the creative element, but even the business side. I loved advertising my band. I loved playing shows. I loved booking shows. I love all of the stuff that goes into building a band, and I just felt so at home.
Has your immigrant experience informed your music?
Definitely. My mom did not want me to pursue this path. She was concerned about the financial difficulties I would encounter. And also just the emotional difficulties of living that type of lifestyle. She was very worried about me, and she did everything that she could to kind of try to protect me from this thing that she felt would probably not end well for me.And so my whole life, she was always like, ‘You can do this on the side, but just always have something to fall back on.’ And no matter what I did, I always kept up with music. Like, I would work three jobs and always do music on the side, I would go to college and keep doing music. No matter how hard I tried to put my focus into other things, it always called to me.So almost being exiled from this path made me want to fight for it so much harder, and made me realize just how truly important it was for me — because it never would go away. And so I think it taught me a lot of resilience, and it made me such an ambitious and hard worker.