Michelle Zauner On Playing Her First Live Gigs: Excerpt From Her Memoir, ‘Crying In H-Mart’

Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast
Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images
– Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast
plays Railbird Festival at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 28, 2021.

When I had written a few songs of my own, I decided to sign up for an open mic night at Cozmic Pizza, a restaurant downtown with cafe table seating and a small stage behind the front bar. It had glossy cement floors and high ceilings and usually hosted jazz nights and world music. I invited my friends to watch me play. The place was mostly empty, but still you could barely hear my Costco acoustic over the clanking of pint glasses, the slamming of the pizza oven, and the cashiers calling out names to collect their pies. I was elated by my seven minutes of fame. Because I’d brought a group of friends, the open mic slots slowly transformed into my own sets, opening for small local artists. I took press photos of myself in my bathroom with a self-timer, scanned them onto my dad’s computer, and used MS Paint to design promotional flyers. I bought a staple gun and hung them on telephone poles around town and asked local businesses if I could tape them up in their windows. I made a MySpace and uploaded the songs I recorded on GarageBand. I emailed the link to local bands and promoters and begged them to add me to their bills. I played high school benefits and developed a small local following, mostly of friends and classmates I pressured into attendance, until finally I was “big enough” to land a slot at the WOW Hall opening for Maria Taylor.  

Crying In H Mart
– Crying In H Mart
On the day of the show, Nick came early for moral support and waited with me in the greenroom until it was time for my set. I‘d never been in a greenroom before, but even so it hardly felt glamorous. The room was brightly lit, closet-sized, with two benches and a mini fridge that sat atop a wooden table. Nick and I were sitting on a bench facing the door when Maria Taylor came in with a flannel-clad bandmate. She was intimidating. Dark, wavy hair framed her intense features, most recognizably her long, prominent nose and willowy figure. I held my breath as she entered. She mumbled “Where’s the wine?” and then left. 
My parents came and stood together in the back. I played six acoustic songs, seated on a metal fold-out chair, wearing a striped rainbow shirt from Forever 21 with faded flared jeans tucked into brown cowboy boots, an outfit I actually thought made me look cool at the time. By then, thank god, I had at least upgraded to a Taylor acoustic and played out of an SWR strawberry-blond amp I’d chosen solely because I liked the red-and-cream color combo. I fumbled through open chords, using a capo along the neck for each song so I could use the same chord shapes. I sang teenage songs longing for the simpler times, not realizing that’s exactly what these times were supposed to be. When I finished, I got a “Good job, sweetie” from my parents, who generously allowed me to hang around for the rest of the show. 
Maria Taylor played a red Gretsch hollow body that looked comically large on her thin frame. I grabbed Nick’s shoulder in excitement as she started the chords to “Xanax,” the lead single off her new record that I’d been putting on all of my mixes. The song started like a ticking clock, drumsticks clacking against the snare rim as she cataloged her anxieties and fears. “Afraid of an airplane, of a car swerving in the lane … of the icy mountain roads we have to take to get to the show.” She jolted her torso forward into the last strum, and the members of the band, who’d stood stock-still through the entirety of the first two verses, collapsed in union into the chorus. 
Even as I sang along to a song that specifically addressed the constant challenges of life on tour, even as I watched them play to a small ridge of at best thirty people in a small town they probably regretted booking, witnessing someone who toured the country playing songs they wrote was a revelation. I’d shared a stage with this person, sat two feet away in the same room as them. I had glimpsed the life of an artist, and it felt, for a moment, like a path slightly more within reach.  

“Crying In H Mart” can be purchased via http://japanesebreakfast.rocks/ and everywhere books are sold. 

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