It’s the great irony of tragedy that it imparts a desire to be isolated from the outside world in tandem with hoping to escape your own thoughts. You don’t want to have to be a person to other people; to have to perform to their expectations of sorrow or put on a mask of resilience. But you also don’t want to be alone — to have to begin the process of processing — and to face that inevitable task of making sense of what seems senseless. It is on these occasions many of us turn to music as a bridge to this ambiguous middle ground we crave.
When facing traumatic loss, I seek to hear anyone’s voice but my own. When I put on a record it gives the impression of an “other,” providing reassurance that I’m not alone, but allowing me to drift away from myself whilst still feeling safe in the intimacy of solitude. This is why I hold such admiration for musicians who channel their tragedies into song. To write down in words your aches in the aftermath takes a momentous amount of courage, but to then put it to tape and hear it played back to you requires an unflinching resilience that is almost unimaginable in the wake of loss. The musicians who do so grieve without a guide in order to become advisors for the rest of us on our path back to normalcy.
When Michelle Zauner, formally of Philadelphia’s Little Big League and currently known as Japanese Breakfast, found out that her mother had stage four cancer, she dropped just about everything, including her ties with her band, in order to support her through her treatment. And when she passed, Zauner stayed with her father to handle the emotional and physical rehabilitation process that immediately followed. It was around this time Zauner began a new solo endeavor, “mostly out of necessity, to help me process and produce and grieve.”
“I’m generally a pretty open book, but when I lost my mom I was surprised to find I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it,” Zauner says. “Writing songs is a way of communicating with yourself or other people, living or deceased. This album was very much written for myself, and for my mother, and in a lot of ways I felt like it was going to be my last album.”
What Zauner didn’t anticipate was that her songwriting journey out of the abyss wound up resonating with others in the midst of their own separation-induced haze. Zauner had planned to move on from music and live a “very normal, quiet life of routine,” she was surprised to discover the outpouring of support she received from the songs she wrote as simply a means of communication to her mother and self. “It kind of felt like I had to go back into the ring,” Zauner says, before adding, “Also I was completely miserable working a 9-5.”
This record, the glimmering Psychopomp, is a triumph — one that doesn’t downplay the power of loss, but makes sure to accurately portray the strength of resilience in the face of it. Psychopomp is dream-pop inspired from a nightmare out of necessity — built in the depths of tragedy as a vehicle to find some way out. And while not every song on the album deals directly with the passing of her mother, Zauner’s songwriting tends to focus on loss and dependency in some context, and always does so with respectful detail and sobering transparency.
Lead single “In Heaven” opens the album with Zauner describing a scene of anguish not from her own perspective, but from that of her mother’s canine companion: “The dog’s confused/She just paces around all day/She’s sniffing at your empty room.” It’s an immediately agonizing image; one of devotional mourning that highlights the space between fear and acceptance of the unknown. She then examines herself occupying a parallel course: “I’m trying to believe/When I sleep it’s really you/Visiting my dreams/Like they say that angels do.”
It’s within that space that Psychopomp derives its resonance. The world stays the same while we drastically change, and it seems insurmountable to make sense of old patterns that are now incomprehensible. Zauner’s expansive expression is reminiscence of another rising songwriter who defines empathy through echoing and amplifying the most volatile ripples of our emotions, and it happens to be that the two are performing with one another for the next few months.
“I first met Mitski at a show at St Vitus. I just kind of gushed at her so she was well aware I was a big fan. We had been texting and she mentioned she had suggested me for her next tour, but it was still sort of up in the air. I just kind of held my breath until it was confirmed and now I feel so lucky,” Zauner says. Truly we are the lucky ones, because along with San Francisco’s very own Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast and Mitski have put together the most significant summer tour billing of the season — especially for all the loners who, for the evening, don’t want to be alone.
Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, Jay Som
Starline Social Club
July 8, 2016
Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, Jay Som
Bottom of the Hill
July 9, 2016