“Is it bad that it’s…bad?,” Michelle Zauner asks me with a laugh as we walk through a collection of songs that helped inspire her new memoir, Crying in H Mart. The book, out earlier this week, originally appeared as an essay in The New Yorker, gaining enough traction to land the songwriter otherwise known as Japanese Breakfast a deal with Knopf. “Though it’s a little embarrassing, these are the songs that appear in my book, so it only felt right to include them,” Zauner adds.
Some of those hits that make Zauner blush? An acoustic version of “Everlong,” a song she would defend on AIM as a teenager because it was easier to hear the poetry in Dave Grohl’s lyrics without all the raucous noise. Or Billy Joel’s “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” which was the song her now-husband was singing at karaoke the first time they met. H Mart is so deeply infused with small details blown-up to massive proportions that you feel less like a reader than an active participant in Zauner’s story. The book, built around the death of Zauner’s mother, uses that heartbreak to examine multiple relationships, cultures, and ways of life. It’s a memoir that turns the personal into a guiding light for anyone curious about food, grief, death, life, music, Korea, and identity.
It’s going to be a big year for Zauner. Just two months after the arrival of H Mart, she’ll be releasing her third Japanese Breakfast album, Jubilee, on June 4th. Though her style of shoegaze-influenced indie rock is a far-cry from some of the artists on this playlist (see: Dion, Celine), there’s a marriage between her music and the artists here in terms of an emphasis on emotive, powerful vocals and anthemic songs. It’s this heart-on-sleeve confessional style that earned Zauner a book deal in the first place. Crying in H Mart is an excavation of grief—it moves cyclically instead of linearly, and explores the strength it takes in becoming comfortable with the weight of sadness. Though H Mart has plenty of tragedy, Zauner’s wit is infectious and she has a knack for describing the little things that propel every good story. H Mart is an affirmation of celebrating the good life as much as it is a tribute to Zauner’s complicated and radiant relationship with her mother.
Little Big League – “Dark Matter”
This was my band before the Japanese Breakfast days. The throughline of the book really begins with my mom getting sick. It was important to talk about what I was leaving. I was really floundering with this band. It was just not working. This is the band that I put on hiatus to go and be with my mom as she got sick. I was like 25 and I was starting to feel like maybe if it’s not happening, it’s not meant to be.
I wrote the song about finding out my aunt was sick. It just reminds me of that period of my life. There’s a chapter in the book that’s actually titled “Dark Matter.” The real Japanese Breakfast fans will recognize a lot of these types of Easter eggs in the book. A lot of the chapter titles borrow from song lyrics or song titles from my records.
Foo Fighters – “Everlong (Acoustic Version)”
When I was a teenager, my mom wouldn’t let me close my bedroom door. I just have this very specific memory of being on AIM and downloading songs from LimeWire, arguing whether or not the acoustic version of “Everlong” was better than the original. I remember being like, “Oh, you can hear the lyrics. They are much more moving in the acoustic version.” I was full of self-seriousness at that age, thinking that I was this very wise critic or something.
Modest Mouse – “Dramamine”
There was this period of time when I had decided to get into music when I was like 13 or 14. At that age you’re like, “Oh, what is good music? Classic rock is good music.” So I started listening to a lot of classic rock. I think it wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 that I heard bands like Modest Mouse and was like, “This is what I actually like.” Growing up in Oregon, Modest Mouse was a huge deal for my friend group. Isaac Brock was the poet of our time. He was so dynamic and just felt kind of sexy and really cool and gritty. I remember loving this band when I was a teenager and full of angst.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
The chapter, “Where’s the Wine?” dives into when I fell in love with music. My friend had the DVD of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs live at the Fillmore. Seeing Karen O for the first time changed my life. She spat water all over herself and used the microphone in ways I had never seen before. My world was changing. Finding out that she was half-Korean in the super white male dominated industry was just mind blowing. It was such a life-changing moment for me. It was the first person I saw that kind of looked like me. To find not only a Korean woman in the rock scene, but a half-Korean woman in the rock scene, meant so much to me. I felt so connected to her and she was such an important role model in my life.
Nirvana – “Molly’s Lips” (BBC John Peel Session)
In “Where’s the Wine?” I talk about meeting my first boyfriend, Nick Hawley-Gamer. He was this really cool guy that had had a band called The BarroWites when he was in middle school. We became best friends and he’s very responsible for me getting involved in music. I just remember getting a copy of his band’s CD when we were growing up. It was this burnt CD with the Sharpie writing. One of the songs was called “Molly’s Lips”.
I had spent so much time poring over, ‘Who’s Molly? Who’s Molly!?’ Because I was obsessed with this guy. I was like, ‘Is it his ex girlfriend?’ Later on I found out that it was a Nirvana cover. But then I would like to believe that Nick didn’t know that it was originally a Vaseline’s cover. There were just varying levels of cool that I failed at.
Velvet Underground – “After Hours”
I just remember loving Moe Tucker’s voice. There were so few women in rock whose songs you could cover. It’s a really easy song to learn how to play. When I was starting to play music when I was 16, it was one of the first songs I learned how to cover. I remember also in “Where’s the Wine?,” learning to play the song with Nick Hawley-Gamer under this tree in the soccer fields at our high school. It has a really sweet sweet memory attached to it.
Maria Taylor – “Xanax”
My first show playing at the WOW Hall―which is this venue in Eugene, Oregon that I grew up seeing shows at―was opening for Maria Taylor. I just love this album. I remember putting this on all of my little mixed CDs and just feeling so moved by her music. I loved Azure Ray so much. She actually said the line, “Where’s the wine?” I hope that she’s not upset by her depiction in my book, because it’s definitely not meant to be a negative look. I’m sure she was very road worn at that time. There weren’t very many people at this small city show at the WOW Hall. It felt so glamorous for me to get to open for Maria Taylor at 16 years old. She went into this shitty ass green room that was the size of a closet with brightly lit fluorescent lighting and one mini-fridge. In my mind, I’m like, “I’m in a green room!”
She comes in and she’s like, “Where’s the wine?” It was like, “They can’t even get me the one thing I asked for.” Meanwhile, I’m just like, “Oh, this is a glamorous lifestyle. Maria Taylor is so lucky.” And all she wanted was just a glass of wine to get her through the day.
Leonard Cohen – “Chelsea Hotel #2”
I got really into Leonard Cohen when I was maturing into an angsty poet type. I remember buying this record when I was younger. I had this really ugly record player that I carted back from Goodwill. I painted it with these ugly polka dots for some reason. It only played in mono. I remember loving this record and the line, “We are ugly, but we have the music,” and being like, “That’s me.” It made me feel like I was the smartest little teenager in existence. I felt so superior to all of my peers when I was listening to Leonard Cohen.
Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion – “Tell Him”
There was this crazy woman Kay who came to live with us. She began to edge me out of the caretaking process. Our relationship was really fraught. But I remember during that time my mom and I had this really nice moment in the car when I was taking her for an infusion. She had this Barbara Streisand CD and this song came on. I also remember in my childhood, my mom and I would play this and dance around together. I think a lot of mothers and daughters have that one song where they just ham it up. It was a really nice moment to relive for me in the book because I have such a vivid memory of my mom singing this song with me.
Billy Joel – “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”
This is the section that gets really weird [laughs]. I never knew of this song until I met my husband-to-be, Peter at a karaoke bar called 12 Steps Down for the first time. I met Peter when I was 23 and he was just like this really goofy guy that was singing this seven and a half minute long song with a 34 bar instrumental break in the middle. I was just like, “Who is this fucking weirdo?”
Carpenters – “Rainy Days and Mondays”
This was the song that I danced to at my wedding and the song that I chose for karaoke in Vietnam. This is the karaoke section of the book. My husband and I took a bunch of Adderall one night while we were working at a Mexican fusion restaurant. After our shifts, on some random Sunday, we got off at like 10:00 PM and just gunned it to Nashville. We were really into the Carpenters at that time. We just loved this song. Even though it’s kind of a weird wedding song, it reminded us of the wild first days of our relationship. We were doing things like that and bonding over songs that we just fell in love with together
Celine Dion – “My Heart Will Go On”
In chapter 15 I go to Vietnam and I have a big falling out with my dad. I stormed away from my dad at this restaurant and wandered into a karaoke bar. I met this Vietnamese woman, who of course picks this song to sing. It really was a comfort to me during this heavy time. It really lightened the mood. I feel like in Asia this song really lives on as such an iconic American jammer, even though Celine Dion’s Canadian.
Japanese Breakfast – “In Heaven”
The book kind of ends with the beginning of Psychopomp. This is the first song on that record. I was writing these songs about my mom’s passing. It was a very raw and vulnerable time. I wrote it in this little kind of glorified shed at the bottom of my parents’ property in Eugene. Writing this record was a real anchor for me.
My dog was pacing around her door after she had died. It just broke my heart that my dog had no idea what was going on. Her owner had died and she was probably just wondering where she went. Then she had started licking her paws obsessively. I had taken her to the vet and the vet was like, “That means she’s grieving.” It was just this really sad moment that I wrote about. The song was about the time when a lot of my parents’ friends were saying things to me like, “Oh, she’s in a better place. She’s in heaven.” That was really hard for me, because it was not something that I believed in. I felt like it would be so much easier if I did.
Kim Jung Mi – “Haenim”
The book sort of ends with the discovery of this song. We ended up playing shows in Seoul. My band had gotten bigger and we got to go on tour in Asia. We had our last show in Seoul and I remember the promoter, John, ran this record shop called Kimbap Records in Hongdae. He showed us the song and was telling us about Shin Joong Hyun, who was like the Phil Spector of Korea. He wrote a lot of ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s pop hits for girl groups. One of the songs that he wrote was this song, “Haenim”
We were out with my aunt and my husband said to her, “Have you heard of Shin Joong Hyun?” She was like, “Oh, how do you know about this guy?! Don’t you know that your mom and I used to love this song that he wrote for the Pearl Sisters?” It felt like a very fateful moment. There were all kinds of signs that felt like my mom was looking out for me in this way after she had passed. It was a way for me to connect with her and remember her.