On the day before Thanksgiving 2021, Variety interviewed Michelle Zauner about her close friend Sasami and her new album “Squeeze” for our “Up Next” series — and since Zauner had just received two Grammy nominations two days before, we asked her about those as well, along with the success of her moving memoir about the death of her mother, “Crying in H Mart” and its forthcoming film, her songwriting process, and what might be coming next.
We’d originally thought that we’d be publishing this article just a few weeks later, in advance of the Grammys Awards that were then scheduled for January 31, but the pandemic had other plans; the awards are now taking place this Sunday, April 3, from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Regardless, Zauner’s comments on all of the above are relevant and a revealing look at her creative and craft processes and inspirations — and check out our “Up Next” video on Sasami here.
Congratulations on the Grammy nominations — how does it feel?
I am in complete shock, still. It is completely bonkers. I’m about to just get completely wasted tonight with my friends for Thanksgiving. I’m completely stunned. I mean, I knew that I was eligible for those categories — I actually thought I had the best shot at maybe the spoken-word album for “Crying in H Mart.” But there was so much great music this year and it’s a true honor. I feel on top of the world.
Does it feel odd being nominated as best new artist when you’re three albums in and like eight or 10 years into your career?
Yeah, but I think that we definitely had a major breakthrough year, and I feel like I’ve been a growing artist in the indie sphere for some time now. I’ve played music for 10 years but I think it sometimes takes that long to get to this place. And, you know, for a lot of people, I am a new artist, and on the Grammy radar I definitely am a new artist, so I want everyone to kind of keep quiet it about that. (Laughter)
“Jubilee” is very different in tone from your previous albums, where did that come from?
My first two records were largely written about my mother, who passed away in 2014. And then after I wrote those two records, I wrote “Crying in H Mart,” which also explored that year of my life and my grieving process. And I think after that, I had said everything I needed to say about that experience and I was really looking forward to moving on and writing about something unexpected.
I felt like for someone who’s kind of been pegged as “grief girl,” an album about joy was the most surprising thing I could do as an artist. And it feels really wonderful that this album is being celebrated because I think it proves that you don’t have to live tragedy to create something that’s compelling,
Do people actually call you “grief girl”?
No, no, I call myself that. But I think that, you know, that’s certainly my artistic narrative; so much of my work has been focused on this major loss in my life and healing from it. And I think that this album felt like proof that you can move forward and experience joy again in your life after a very difficult time.
With the success of the book and now you’re working on the film, do you feel like you’re getting pulled back into it after moving on from it with “Jubiliee”?
I do, yeah — I mean, it’s a great way to get pulled back in! But I definitely was anticipating the next three months as a chill time to work on the “Crying in H Mart” screenplay. I’m not sure what the next months have in store for me, but I’m certainly looking forward to whatever it is.
Are you going to act in the film?
I will not be — I hate acting and I’m too old for that role, certainly. It’s not a craft I really enjoy — I wish I did, because there’s so much money in it (laughter), but I hate it and I’m bad at memorizing things. I am really looking forward to finding some new talent to to fill that role. I think it’s an exciting role for someone who will enjoy that experience.
You hate acting?
I hate acting. Yeah.
But you direct and are in your videos — although actually you don’t really have to act or memorize lines because —
There are no lines! And I have directed all of my music videos, so I can kind of construct what I’m comfortable doing.
Your videos are very painter-ly, do you have an art background?
I was a creative production major in college, and I studied creative writing and film and video production. So I was kind of working on those things in college and it seemed at the time that it was a very impractical major, but it is very much what I do for a living now, which is pleasant.
What kinds of songs have you been writing lately?
I’ve been busy on tour, and I’m typically someone who kind of turns on and off — and right now I’m off. So I haven’t had much time to work on new music, but I am looking forward to it. Before this last record, I really enjoyed taking lessons again, because I think it’s important to revisit your musicianship so you never plateau and you’re always striving to become better at your craft.
What did you take lessons in?
I took guitar lessons before working on “Jubilee” and focused on brushing up on theory, and during lockdown I practiced a lot of piano and tried to write more on the piano.
Do you find that it gives your writing a different perspective?
I think that my mother raised me to kind of look down on natural talent, so I always wanted to strive to work hard. I think we plateau all the time in our skill set, and if you’re constantly learning, you’re constantly improving and there’s always room to grow. And that really excites me to kind of expand my palette and push myself as a musician.
Is there anything you’ve been listening to lately that you love?
I really love a band called Hand Habits, which is a good friend of mine named Meg Duffy — actually Sasami produced Hand Habits’ phenomenal new album, “Fun House.” Meg is truly one of the greatest guitar players of our time and also a fantastic lyricist and composer, such lovely songs and lyrics and melodies. I also really loved Clairo’s new record, “Sling.” I listened to that track “Blouse” maybe a hundred times when it first came out. It was so different from her previous album and it’s such a brave song, I was in complete awe. I also really love the Spirit of the Beehive record, especially as a fellow Philadelphian.
Is there anything inspiring you right now, or suggesting what your next songs might sound like?
I’m not sure, because every time I say what I think is next, it ends up being so different. [Before] “Jubilee,” I was like, “It’s gonna be [Bjork’s] ‘Homogenic’ meets [Nine Inch Nails’] ‘Pretty Hate Machine,’” which sounds like an incredible record but not actually something I think I’m artistically capable of (laughter). Right now I’ve been really into classic, timeless dad rock, like George Harrison and Jim Croce and Yusuf/ Cat Stevens and those types of people. Part of me wants to make this very classic kind of quieter, woodsy album. But by the time I start writing, it might be very different.
Those records are so much older than you. What led you to them?
Uh, I don’t know! Maybe it’s just some cottage-core vibes that are calling to me at this time (laughter).
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