Michelle Zauner Never Gets Recognized in H Mart
Despite writing an entire book about H Mart, Michelle Zauner remains largely unbothered whenever she shops at the Asian supermarket chain (which is very frequently). “They definitely don’t care,” she says over the phone. “It’s humbling.” Though the musician and writer, who performs under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, can procure groceries in relative peace, total obscurity may be fleeting. Since releasing Crying in H Mart, a memoir that explores her complicated relationship with her late mother, in April 2021, Zauner’s star has catapulted: She’s currently touring with Florence + the Machine and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, building her name on the festival circuit, and working on a film adaptation of her bestseller.
Naturally, a brand partnership followed suit—this time, with The North Face. For Zauner, who hails from the Pacific Northwest, the endorsement was fitting. “The North Face was basically a uniform where I grew up,” she says of the Oregon coast, which she describes as “very windy and wet and gray and cold.” Many of us look back fondly on our beloved North Face fleeces from middle school; Zauner is no different. “It was a very coveted item,” she admits. For the outerwear brand’s fall 2022 campaign, “It’s More Than a Jacket,” Zauner tapped into her inner artist to re-record Brandi Carlile’s hit song “The Story.” Here, she discusses the merits of cozy fleeces, Korean sheet masks, and her TikTok algorithm.
What was it like recording a Brandi Carlile song? Does your approach to songwriting change when you’re doing a cover?
I really like it when people bring a different flare to a song, and when I have time to think about it, that’s what I like to try and do. When we took on this cover, it was very intimidating, because it’s a real belter, and a style that I don’t do very often, so it was a fun challenge. Our main goal was to have sparser elements done really well. I knew I wanted to have a very beautiful string arrangement, a really good vocal take, and a really beautiful-sounding acoustic guitar, and then build on a song that already has the perfect chorus lift. Whenever I’m writing, I’m always searching for that…part of what makes this song such an iconic ballad is there’s a real crest of the chorus. I tried to find a new way to present that.
What’s in your wardrobe rotation on tour?
I do love a fleece. I was never really a fleece guy until recently, but I’m really looking forward to living in this white North Face fleece jacket and matching pants when we go to Europe, because I’m always really cold over there—we always do fall/winter tours. There’s definitely “performer me” and, off-performance, I typically dress like a stagehand. But after the pandemic I started to be a little bit more extra with my style, because, as a performer, you get the opportunity to be. I started wearing more tailored looks, and I started to embrace color in this big way once we got out of quarantine, which I never used to do.
Korean culture is definitely having a moment. Were there any style or beauty lessons your mom passed down to you?
I think skincare in general is something that my mom definitely raised me on. When I was growing up, no one I knew used sheet masks, and now they’re such a universal thing. Self-care and skincare and wearing sunscreen were all things that my mom was a strong proponent of, and I was such a tomboy that I didn’t really care about them. My mom was such a stylish woman, and it’s such a new thing for me to embrace…it was something I really rejected when I was younger and thought was a very frivolous interest. Now that I’m older, it’s heartbreaking that I can’t talk to her about all that stuff. She would’ve loved to finally get to bond over it with me.
What is your skincare routine these days?
I pretty much listen to whatever my dermatologist says. In the beginning of the year, I was struggling with really bad hormonal acne in a way that I never had before. Now, I pretty much just use an Alastin serum, a retinol, and a moisturizer. Occasionally I’ll dabble with an eye cream, and the Korean sheet masks that my aunt will give me large packets of. I try to do that during travel days when my skin needs a little more moisture. I use a sunscreen called MDSolarSciences, too.
I have to ask: Do you still go to H Mart?
Oh, all the time. They definitely don’t care. It’s humbling. When I go to H Mart now, it’s kind of like I have a secret. Sometimes I’ll be on the TV doing a cooking demo that I did with them, and I’ll tell the cashier, and she’s just like, “Oh.” They’re very unmoved by it. I don’t get recognized very often in H Mart. They’re all so busy, and it’s okay—I prefer it that way.
How else has your life changed, or perhaps stayed the same, since Crying in H Mart came out?
I’m always surprised that I made it. It was such a long process for me—I’ve been playing music since I was 16, and I’m 33 years old now. It wasn’t until age 26 or so that things slowly started to happen, and even at that point, it was really exciting to play to no one. There were many, many years of playing to nobody. This was the year that I got to meet and play with a lot of my heroes. It was really surreal to share the stage with Yo La Tengo and become friends with Jeff Tweedy, who changed me as a songwriter. We’re about to open for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Karen O is the reason I could see myself in this sphere to begin with. It’s been crazy. I’m honestly just happy that anyone listens to our music.
Any update on the film adaptation?
I’m working on final revisions of the script for the studio. Before this interview, I was actually writing a teenage argument between me and my mom [laughs]. Hopefully we’ll be attaching a director soon.
Do you have a dream casting choice?
Kim Hee-sun for the role of my mother’s friend, Kye. Apart from that, I don’t really have anyone specific in mind. The biggest thing for me is I’d really like to see Korean actors with real accents. Korean Americans that were raised in the U.S. [are] too jarring for me. So, similar to Minari, I’d love to get more South Korean actresses involved in this project.
How has the screenwriting process been so far? Is it drastically different from writing a memoir?
The hardest thing has been retelling a story. I think so much of the joy in art is finding a new story, so to tell the same story in a different medium was challenging. And it was a very different process altogether, because with books, you have so much space to explore and meander and investigate and discover; going into a screenplay, a lot the advice I got from my producers and the studio was to have a very, very clear outline. You have to have a really strong structure. So much of the work is in the outlining process before doing the actual writing.
I know from the book that you’re a fan of YouTube cooking tutorials. Have you gotten into viral TikTok food videos yet?
I love Doobydobap. She lives in Korea now, and I feel like Korean people are so into hot trends, so it’s fun to learn from her. She’s also just an amazing cook, and is really great at making content. My entire TikTok algorithm is pretty much people eating Korean food. Sometimes I also get horse hoof cleaning videos. I’m not a horse girl, not to shame anyone who is.
Do you bring any food on tour with you? I always pack snacks in my bag whenever I travel because I’m nervous I’ll get hungry at some point.
Me too! I wonder if it’s a Korean thing. On the plane I have a real food fear. You would think that I grew up with a lot of food insecurity, which couldn’t be farther from the truth because I’m so afraid of being hungry and stuck on a plane. Recently, my husband and I got into packing a Scandinavian lunch, which is probably not ideal for the people around us [laughs]. We’ll get a baguette and smoked salmon and goat cheese. It’s odd, but always tasty. The band has also started to put Uncrustables on our riders, which is such a quick snack to have around that’s easy on the stomach.
What’s next for you?
We’re supporting Florence + the Machine in Vancouver, BC, then heading to Austin City Limits and Europe, and South America in November. Apart from that, I’m just gonna be slowly working on the movie, and hopefully we’ll pivot to writing another record next year. For my next book in 2024, I want to move to Korea and document learning the language.
Watch The North Face’s “It’s More Than a Jacket” campaign video here:
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Claire Stern is the Deputy Editor of ELLE.com. Previously, she served as Editor at Bergdorf Goodman. Her interests include fashion, food, travel, music, Peloton, and The Hills—not necessarily in that order. She used to have a Harriet the Spy notebook and isn’t ashamed to admit it.