You should, of course, never try and pigeonhole great music. Traversing both of Japanese Breakfast’s long players, Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet, you might start to ask yourself how such varied songs get under your skin so quickly and easily. From the shoegaze guitar of tracks like ‘Diving Woman’, to the delicate electronic flowering of ‘Triple 7’, these tracks are as different as they are deeply layered, but there is a unifying feel, combined with genuine sonic emotion, that results in an uplifting listening experience that simply leaves you in a better place.
“I don’t know, I guess it’s indie band, but I also like the term ‘experimental pop'” says Michelle Zauner, the producer behind Japanese Breakfast, although she too does find it hard to describe her sound. I like to write music that sounds catchy and good but is also interesting, not super mathematically formulated and has some lyrical substance to it. I admire bands like The Flaming Lips and Fleetwood Mac – great poppy, feel-good bands that grab you on that second listen. That is the music I aspire to make.”
Zauner’s route to music production started out as “an afterthought” while she honed her sound via several indie bands through college. “Production was not my main reason for getting into music; it was just out of necessity, as my college band and I engineered our sessions together, just trying to get the songs down and record them well. Then, when I was around 25, Japanese Breakfast was the first project where I started to look at production as more of an instrument, so I started approaching it as a way of composition. I also decided that I didn’t really care about having a live band because I wasn’t anticipating touring. Then I got way more into production and I just let my imagination run wild as I didn’t have to think about what it would take to replicate it live.”
Michelle worked on the debut Japanese Breakfast album, Psychopomp, with producer Ned Eisenberg using FL Studio and a mostly in-the-box approach, “with a lot of virtual synths, plug-ins and a lot of sampling from sound libraries.” Then for Soft Sounds from Another Planet, she introduced a more analogue vibe thanks to some classic synths. “We used a Nord to do a lot of synth strings as we were really inspired by bands like The Flaming Lips who unabashedly use a lot of stuff like that. We got into using Roland Juno keyboards – we used the 6 and the 60 a lot on that record. I’ve also just got a Yamaha DX7, so yeah, some classics.”
Michelle’s writing style changed over both albums which must have led to the transformation in sound. “For many years I just wrote songs on the guitar,” she reveals. “It wasn’t until more recently that I started to vary it up a bit and see what would happen. So lately I have written a few songs starting with the bass and more with keyboards or some kind of sampled loop. I’m a really terrible beat maker and that’s why I got Maschine. I thought it would be a good way to get more involved.”
The MASCHINE has taken its place alongside other new purchases, including a Teenage Engineering OP-1, Universal Audio Apollo and another classic Juno synth, this time a 106, with Ableton Live acting as the central DAW. “It’s a simple set-up,” says Michelle of her current studio, but it is already one that has already been used on new Japanese Breakfast recordings, including 2019 single ‘Essentially’.
“The Maschine Mk3 came with a huge sample library that really informed our work in volleys when we recorded ‘Essentially’,” Michelle says. “I saw a gear feature with Empress Of and she was talking about how she was using Maschine for making a lot of her beats and I think some of her bass synths. I really admire [Empress Of] Lorely Rodriguez and luckily she has become a friend of mine since. Basically I guess I just wanted to copy her and I think I thought ‘maybe if I have that I’ll be as good a producer’ [laughs]!
“I also saw Lena Raine, who did the soundtrack for Celeste, talking about how she uses the Massive libraries for a lot of her synths. I’ve been working on the soundtrack for an indie game called Sable and saw that Maschine comes with whole libraries for Massive and Kontakt.
“I’m using it mostly for beat-making and working with the libraries, but now that we have more time off from being on the road I have got it out more and am trying to write more on it. A lot more people seem to be using consoles like this for writing; it seems like a really great system and producing that way is a real aid in the song-writing process.”
Michelle discovered more about this writing process when on a trip to Bali, where Japanese Breakfast had been invited to perform at the W Hotel and use the W Sound Suite studio to flesh out some ideas already recorded as demos.
“I’d bought Maschine to work with,” says Michelle, “and I was just in my hotel room, exploring the libraries and working on some ideas, and then decided to totally scrap the song that we had demoed and do something based off of what I’d written on it [Maschine] instead! So it was already a great tool for me and I was just using some stuff from one of the synth libraries, but it was such fun to play with.”
After spending much of 2017 touring, 2018 writing a book and this year writing the Sable soundtrack, Michelle is finally getting back into full-time music production for a third helping of Japanese Breakfast.
“I’m just starting to work on a new album; literally this week I’ve been brushing the dust off and trying to figure out how to do it again!” she laughs. “Next year the Fable indie game that I have been soundtracking comes out. It was a huge experiment in production and something that I am engineering and producing myself. That will come out early summer and hopefully a new record coming out soon after and then the book later next year. We’re also playing a couple of festivals this year including a cruise with Belle & Sebastian for the Boaty Weekender.”
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Photo credits: AVB Media Asia / Courtesy of W Records