Michelle Zauner's life was forever changed when she caught Built to Spill at Crystal Ballroom 14 years ago.
"I was about 16, and it was such a big deal to be allowed to drive up to Portland for a show," says Zauner, who grew up in Eugene.
But it wasn't Doug Martsch and crew's riffage that inspired Zauner so much as the opening band Denali's frontwoman, singer and multi-instrumentalist Maura Davis. "Built to Spill was of course great, but seeing Denali really struck something within me," Zauner says. "It was the first time I'd seen a woman who was really in the band and not just a pretty singer. It was a special night that definitely had a profound and lasting impact on me."
When Zauner takes the Crystal Ballroom stage this week with her band Japanese Breakfast, she'll be achieving the kind of personal milestone that's literally the stuff of childhood dreams. Her upcoming memoir, which she recently turned in to editors, will feature a chapter dedicated to her life-altering first Crystal Ballroom show.
Although she currently resides in Philadelphia, Oregon shaped Zauner as a person, as well as the trajectory of her career. In 2014, while her band Little Big League was in flux and after her mother had been diagnosed with cancer, Zauner returned home to Eugene to be with her family. She planned to take a creative hiatus. But, wracked with grief and uncertainty about her future, Zauner found herself seeking solace in her art, and began creating what became Psychopomp, her 2016 debut under the Japanese Breakfast moniker.
Like so many artists before her, Zauner spun her heartache into gold—the album is full of sublime, cathartic lo-fi rock that's equally pretty and rugged. Beyond Psychopomp, Zauner transmuted her pain into her essay "Love, Loss and Kimchi" a rumination on food, identity and grief that was named Glamour's essay of the year in 2016.
The beauty of artistic triumphs born out of personal pain isn't lost on Zauner. "You know, I'm not a religious or spiritual person," she says. "But it feels like if there was a God, that maybe my mom must be up there threatening him to do well by me—or else."
Psychopomp was followed by 2017's Soft Sounds From Another Planet, another collection of dreamy rock that bounds effortlessly between genres, from the auto-tuned futurism of "Machinist" to the nostalgic swing of "Boyish."
The success of Sounds pushed Japanese Breakfast firmly into the spotlight. Zauner also began directing videos for the likes of Jay Som, Charly Bliss and Portland's own Aminé, as well as several of her own. A polymath of the highest order, Zauner has become something of a fashion icon after being featured in Vogue and, last year, penned the touching "Crying in H Mart," an essay for The New Yorker that shares a title with her upcoming book. It's easy to see why the literary world is as eager to accept Zauner as the music world. Zauner writes the way she talks—with vivaciousness, sincerity and a thirst for everything life has to offer.
Somehow, Zauner has also found the time to remain focused on Japanese Breakfast. She's released two new singles this year, which show her sound expanding even further: the stark, emotionally bare "Head Over Heels" and the infectious "Eventually," which brings Zauner's disco leanings to the forefront. Both songs were released in conjunction with W Hotels, which flew Zauner to Bali to record. This year has also seen her headline a show in Central Park in June and tour Asia in May, and recently, she started writing her next record.
One wonders if Zauner feels overwhelmed, but she seems to be taking it all in stride. That's partly because of the way her touring structure has been set up, playing small runs of shows here and there instead of running the grueling monthslong gauntlets that burn out so many musicians.
Despite her hard work, Zauner seems humbled by the well-earned good fortune. "I'm beyond all fantasy and expectation for myself at this point," she says. "My bucket list was like, 'One day we'll headline the Wow Music Hall [in Eugene].' The idea of playing the Crystal Ballroom was ludicrous. I played many shows in Portland and Eugene to nobody."
Still, headlining in the storied room where it all began is a moment to take stock of just how far she's come. "Once we played at Rontoms to like 50 or 60 people and it was like, 'Wow, this is great!'" Zauner says. "It's going to be very emotional for me. It'll mean so, so much to be up there."
SEE IT: Japanese Breakfast plays Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., crystalballroompdx.com, with Bedouine and And And And, on Friday, Aug. 23. 9 pm. $25. All ages.