We spoke with Michelle Zauner about creative hyperactivity, the end of humankind, the touch of marble and hitting her forehead on a glass table as a child.
Some peoples’ purpose is to create art, but for others it might be hiking the Appalachian Trail for thirty days or whatever.
Your new record Soft Sounds From Another Planet (2017) clearly deals with loss. When I was a child, I had this ant farm where the ants made a mass grave for each other. They assigned different ant workers to bring their dead into a giant pile, until the final ant died on top, completing the life cycle of the colony. That’s stuck with me even now – is that all life is, waiting to be eventually hauled away? How do you process humans’ life cycles?
It depends on the day. Usually it’s pretty bleak. That’s kind of how I feel, but I have a nihilistic way of perceiving life now. And it some ways it’s sad that is what life is – and I think that we all kind of carve out our own meanings and go after them to give us the illusion of purpose. For me, that is making things, making art, connecting people and being in love. For some people, it’s climbing a mountain.
That’s an interesting phrase – the illusion of purpose. Why would you say it’s an illusion?
Because life is meaningless, y’know. I don’t really believe in any kind of afterlife, or that humankind is going to be around for much longer. Some peoples’ purpose is to create art and share it with others – that’s the most real thing for me. But for others, the most real thing is to hike the Appalachian Trail for thirty days or whatever. That’s something I can’t relate to at all, but that might be their purpose.
It already feels that way. You know, on really hot days I feel like “Oh my god, how can anybody be outside?” And I imagine when they will all live in an air-conditioned vacuum and how sad that will be.
Please think of these three textures – marble, glass and warm water. Can you tell me your very first childhood memory in relation to those three things?
When I think of marble, I think of fancy hotels – maybe when vacationing with my parents as a kid.
As far as glass, I’m an Aries and we’re supposed to hit our heads a lot. I was a hyperactive, uncontrollable child and I would do just that. Most famously, we had a glass kitchen table and I was just running around the house and I nailed myself in the forehead on the corner of the table. That was one of my most famous injuries. If I was ever at a party, I was the one kid who’d end up crying.
Warm water… hmm. I’m a fire sign, yet I have so much affinity toward water. I have such a hyperactive personality that showering all the time centers me. It feels like the almighty healer. Also, I’m half-Korean and there’s a big spa culture in Korea. I remember my mom taking me to the baths in Seoul, where there were different temperatures of water you would soak in.
If my mom had been given the emotional or financial support to pursue her creativity, what could she have ended up doing with her life?
Back to my first question – what do you think about passing on memories through generations? I know everything about my parents and most things about their parents, but if I go any further it gets hazy. Does death cancel us out completely, or can others’ memories of you shape our post-life?
This is why I feel that making art is my purpose. Both of my parents grew up in incredibly poor, working-class backgrounds and never were given the opportunity to be creative, nor even considered that as a possibility. I often wonder, because I’m such a creative person, where that came from in my family. If my mom had been given more of an opportunity, or any emotional or financial support to pursue the creative parts of her, what could she have ended up doing with her life?
I’ve been wanting to write a book about my mom. If she had been given more of an opportunity, or any emotional or financial support to pursue her creativity, what could she have ended up doing with her life? I’ve been thinking about how she gave me that support. I didn’t grow up having to worry that much about money and was very privileged in that way, so I could focus on what things called to me and what my personal interests were – and how I could pursue them.
As a result, a lot of kids come up to me after my shows and thank me for my reputation, and for talking about death and illness. Some say they feel less alone because of that. I feel like that’s my place in the world right now. Hopefully I can become a smarter, more aware artist who can put more good into the world. Right now, I write really personal music. I feel like I should take more responsibility politically. I’m learning about how I can do that eventually, and put forward more change in that way as I continue to create art.
Can you describe yourself as a child, as well as yourself in the future when you’re much older? How do you think the overall arc of your personality will play out over your lifetime?
I was really impatient, loud and hyperactive. As I’ve grown older, I think I’m quieter, and I try to listen more. I’ve softened up a little bit. My partner is a big part of that. I’ve always been so much like my father – very aggressive and intense. And as I’ve gotten older, I feel like I’ve become more like my mother, which is a very welcome change. My mom was much more patient and deliberate, and I’d like to be that way.
Kids pick on each other all the time. In public school, you’re basically screwed if you’re perceived by other kids as the chicken with blood on it. But I feel like there’s an odd discrimination that applies to adults, too. What do you notice that adults judge each other for, on an age, cultural or familial level?
We have a tendency to compare who’s busiest in their lives – the busier one is, the more successful. I simultaneously do this all the time and don’t like when others do it. I’m either constantly on tour or loading myself up with a bunch of projects when I’m home. I’ve always been like that, but especially since my mom passed away, I felt so close to death and felt I had so much I needed to pursue because I feel like I had this genetic disease that’s like a ticking time-bomb in myself, and I want to accomplish as much as possible before I die.
So, sometimes I catch myself getting judgmental when people aren’t super-busy – or they just work jobs for a paycheck and they’re happy with that, taking their enjoyment from spending the fruits of their labor and spending time with their loved ones. I don’t have that as much. My mom is gone and my father lives in Thailand, and we don’t speak often. I really just have my partner and my partner’s family. Even a lot of my friends have fallen off because I’m just gone all the time… it’s hard for me to maintain friendships.
As I brought up earlier, I have a friend whose husband hikes for three months at a time and doesn’t make any money doing it. He just carves out the time to do it. He doesn’t have a blog, he just does it. That’s how he creates meaning in his life, and it’s something I will never understand. It feels so selfish and silly to me. But I have to remind myself not to judge that, because being away from my partner, friends and family on tour for over half the year is incredibly selfish. We find meaning in our own ways, and we have to develop an understanding that everyone has a different course.
I’ve watched so many artist friends of mine struggle to let go of their material, then they become crippled by it and never release anything.
Growing up, I always thought I couldn’t do things because “my brain didn’t work that way.” But I think that’s a cop-out that people use. While I do struggle with math and my short-term memory, I’m always trying to learn. What relative weaknesses do you have in your memory or personality that you are trying to improve on day-to-day?
Fixing things. Patience in general. Sometimes I do too many things, then something else suffers. In my head, I’ll be like “Oh, you shouldn’t put that on the burner while you’re doing other things.” Even when I change clothes from the washer to the drier, I’m always like “Take your time! You don’t have to rush and take a giant armful of wet clothing and shovel it into the drier. You can do it in multiple sessions and not have all your shit fall onto the ground.” That’s something my mom scolded me about.
I also have trouble focusing on learning new things – specifically, like how to fix stuff. I’m always the “Throw my hands up and call someone” kind of person. And with engineering and production, I don’t have the patience to learn a new digital audio workstation or something. I just have a hard time sitting with things and I would like to get better about that.
It’s funny – when a parent holds you to a very high standard and then passes away, sometimes the internal voice that says “Do this better!” becomes twice as loud. Do you ever feel that way in regard to your mom?
I guess so. I mostly think “She would be so proud of you.” Because my mom never got to see any artistic success of mine. Recently, I did some weird modeling thing, with this photo shoot where I was wearing these clothes that my mom would have been so pumped to have seen. And, like, I was on the cover of my college alumni magazine. There’s a lot of really amazing stuff that has happened. I’m playing a show in Korea in December – my mom will never see that, and that’s so, so sad to me. So I think more about that, honestly, because it’s so ingrained in me from growing up with her that I never lost that. I always just worked really hard. But mostly, I just wish she could see certain things, and in some private way, I think she does, or whatever.
I liked your quote in Noisey where you said “I’m not really a perfectionist.” While I believe we should always be pushing ourselves and not doing a half-assed job, I feel like music is where we’re allowed to be slightly wrong, weird, and wonky. What’s the maximum amount of time and effort you spend on your compositions before moving on?
It’s not wholly truthful that I’m not a perfectionist. I definitely have a vision of how I want my work to be and I chase after it. But I feel like there’s something really important about rushing. For me, it’s really helpful to get the initial composition done quite quickly. It’s hard to say how much time my songs take – there are songs where I’ve spent ten minutes writing the verse and chorus and they stayed. But I’ve also spent hours or days on arrangements and production.
Do you believe that comfort or discomfort is more beneficial for us? Should we always be kind of on-edge to produce better work in our lives, or do we collectively need to chill out?
Well, I certainly hope that one isn’t greater than the other. I think we’re all really guilty of being like “You can only make art out of trauma and bad experiences,” and I don’t really want to promote that. Honestly, I think my two records are from two different places. Psychopomp (2016) was written out of trauma – I was incredibly sad and bummed out when I made that record. By Soft Sounds, I had experienced a lot of artistic success, which I had never had before. I was getting married and I was in a great place. I was still sad, a year and a half after my mom passed away, but I had gotten to a place where I wasn’t completely freaked-out and uncomfortable.
I think great art can come from both things. A lot of people related to the darkness of Psychopomp, but Soft Sounds is just as meaningful to me because it’s about healing and looking out the other side of that pain. Going through the hell-tunnel of trauma, I can finally look back at that and be like “This is what that was like, this is how I feel now, and this is how I’ll move forward.”
Finally, did you ever write a fictional story as a kid? Can you give us the plot rundown of what happened in it?
Yes! I had a character who I was obsessed with – its name was Sprite. It was modeled off of a character from this video game that I played as a kid called Secret of Mana, who had orange hair and a green robe and could cast attack magic. I would be this character who had these powers and could interact with anime characters from whatever series I was into at the time.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: August 16, 2017
Total questions: 12
Word count: 2293
Reading time: Eight minutes
End of the world: Soon
Trauma: Hell tunnel
Head impact: Likely
Cool marble: Hotel
aggressive, ant farm, Appalachian trail, Aries, arrangement, art, audio, brain, bummed, burner, chicken, climate change, clothes, colony, creativity, crippled, culture, Dad, death, digital, discrimination, drier, forehead, glass, global warming, hell, hotel, illusion, intense, Japanese Breakfast, June, kids, Korea, Little Big League, marble, memory, Michelle Zauner, modeling, mom, mountain, nihilism, partner, perfection, photo, production, Psychopomp, recording, sadness, Secret of Mana, Seoul, spa, table, Thailand, trauma, tunnel, warm, washer, water, workstation
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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