Gabby Smith and Michelle Zauner make powerful, compelling music. As Eskimeaux and Japanese Breakfast, respectively, these two young women are crafting songs that play like short stories – self reflective, specific, and incredibly relatable narratives within a self-contained three minutes or so. Each song in their body of work is another building block in a story or universe – capable of standing on their own, they nonetheless add color and nuance as part of a bigger picture.
As artists and creatives based in Brooklyn, Smith and Zauner have been in each other’s personal and professional orbit for several years, without previously working together directly. Finally afforded the opportunity to go on tour together, these two creative geniuses are seizing this opportunity wholeheartedly – much like everything else they do.
Eskimeaux and Japanese Breakfast play Washington DC’s Rock and Roll Hotel (relocated from Comet Ping Pong) on December 12, and New York’s Shea Stadium on December 14. Eskimeaux’s Year of the Rabbit is out now on Double Double Whammy and Japanese Breakfast’s Psychopomp is out now on Yellow K.
Brightest Young Things: You are both known for writing deeply personal, confessional lyrics. What compels you to share so much of yourselves and your lives in your music?
Gabby Smith [Eskimeaux]: I think it’s less of a compulsion to share myself with the world than a desire to look at myself objectively. Somebody pointed out to me recently that I’m a super emotional thinker; I use songwriting to process my feelings before I react to things. This way, if I have a strong emotional reaction to something little that happened, which is usually what I find my favorites of my songs to be about, I get to zoom out and see how those feelings trickle into my life through my actions and reactions and paint a picture for myself to reference again and again.
Michelle Zauner [Japanese Breakfast]: I think Gabby put it really well, I’d also say it’s more of a compulsion to look at myself objectively. A lot of writing Psychopomp was a way for me to navigate very dark and mysterious emotions I was having trouble communicating.
BYT: Has any topic given you pause before? How do you grapple with that hesitation?
MZ: I think there are so many different interpretations people can bring to your work, so something that may seem really revealing to you may mean something completely different to someone else.
GS: Not really. If I listen back to a demo song and cringe about its topic I just don’t release it or show it to my band.
BYT: How do you define success?
MZ: I think as long as I’m creating work that I’m proud of, continuing to learn about my craft and how to collaborate, I feel successful. I spent about a year working a job where I worked from 9-7 everyday at a desk and just left feeling like I hadn’t accomplished anything. I’d drive to Crown Heights in rush hour traffic for an hour and work on mixing Psychopomp til 1 in the morning just to feel like my life was worthwhile. It’s definitely very exciting to finally be able to meagerly support myself with my art. I never want to feel that way again.
GS: For me success is just about being about to support myself, however meagerly, on my art. Right now performing is my job. I’d like to extend that to making records as well, but I’m super proud of myself for being where I’m at right now.
BYT: This is your first time touring together, but I gather you’ve both been a part of a loosely-affiliated group of artists and musicians – it feels like you’ve shared billing with some of the same people over the years. Is there a sense of community or camaraderie in this larger group? Does this ever lead to cross-pollination of ideas and projects, or do people try to remain in their own lanes?
GS: It is, finally!!! We’ve known each other sort of peripherally for quite a while and bands of ours have shared bills as different projects and iterations in the past, so it’s exciting to finally get to spend some one-on-one time playing together. We did a project writing a song a day for a week back in 2014 that ended up laying the foundations for my record, O.K. I think that project was a good example of cross-pollination in the community; we were just chatting casually at a show when we came up with the idea!
BYT: How did the two of you decide to tour together? Any plans to collaborate directly going forward?
GS: Michelle texted me asking if I wanted to do a solo tour together and I was just like “hell yeah.” Our sets are going to be round-robin style, each playing on a couple of each others’ songs. I’m super psyched!
MZ: We are prepping a special cover for the tour and I think we may be writing a holiday song together for something? It’s very exciting! I’ve always loved Eskimeaux and I’m really excited that I basically concocted this plan to get to spend time with her.
BYT: Gabby – you wrote Year of the Rabbit, an album you’ve described as being “a little bit more pissed off than sad or yearning or psyched or whatever” while in the process of recording O.K. – how have those feelings evolved?
GS: I think the overarching themes in my new songs are placidity, grappling with anger, and drawing strength from small gestures of support and love. Maybe…less yearning and more observations about the intricate romances that exist within friendship and partnership.
BYT: Do you find having this kind of emotion is necessary to produce good art?
GS: I believe that the best songs have a balance of ease and conflict. I think what I meant is that “O.K.” is kind of all over the place emotionally. The songs were written at different times over the span of a few years, so they draw from all different experiences and feelings. “Year of the Rabbit” was all written around the same time, therefore focused on one rut, which happened to be more angry and intense. I don’t think those are my best songs, to be honest, because they are mostly sadness or anger with no real resolution. They’re definitely cool songs, but mostly as a time capsule.
BYT: Michelle – the songs on Psychopomp were written over a six year period – a relatively long and transformational period for anyone in their early twenties. In what ways do you think your songwriting changed during that period? Was it difficult to tie all of these songs from disparate points in your life into a cohesive album?
MZ: I honestly didn’t really think about making a cohesive album. I wrote and co-produced all the songs and felt they would be cohesive based on that fact alone. I think the album is diverse, which is something I enjoy on albums. I like songs to sound very different from one another. I think I’ve always valued a similar kind of thing over the course of six years in songwriting, I’ve always liked to really create a place and time and mood for the lyrical content to live and I like the sonic content to constantly be “lifting” into new parts.
BYT: How did you find the transition from writing as part of a group/band to having total creative control?
MZ: It was really exciting. One stunting thing for me in terms of working with a band is that I think it’s easy for everyone to get stuck in their roles. Kevin wrote a majority of the lead guitar lines, Deven wrote bass parts, etc. etc. With Japanese Breakfast I really got to guide the arrangements and production the way I felt it should go, so it was much more creatively fulfilling for me, but also a lot of pressure to have to be that decisive.
BYT: Obviously the last month or so has been really difficult for minorities and people of color – as well as allies – including this whole Pizzagate nonsense surrounding Comet Ping Pong, where you were originally scheduled to play. As artists, do you feel a responsibility to address any of this in your art or public personas, or should your art remain personal, but apolitical?
MZ: I do feel a responsibility. I think especially when you are a very personal artist, and there are so many younger minorities and people of color who attend your shows and look up to you in some way, and feel close to you, you really have to step up to that platform and try your best to use it for good and also give others strength.
GS: For a long time it made me uncomfortable to use my platform for political stuff, but lately it’s been all I can think about, so I’ve been more active/vocal. I don’t really have the words to make my feelings about the current political climate into art, but I definitely want to make my shows as safe as possible for everyone to come check out art together, and use my work to donate money to people and places that need it in this weird, new time.
BYT: How do you guys cope with being away from home for so long while on tour? What do you do – personally and mentally – to stay sane?
GS: It depends on the mood of the tour. Sometimes I find myself drawing a whole bunch, sometimes keeping a poetry journal. Sometimes both! On our most recent tour we listened to “Democracy Now!” every day to stay as informed as we could on the horrific, current events. I think most importantly, Allison Crutchfield advised me to allow myself to have routines that make me feel good and centered. She was totally right!
MZ: It really cheers me up to go to Korean restaurants, so frequently if there’s one in the area I will carve out sometime for myself to treat myself to Korean food. It really makes me feel physically and emotionally grounded. I read a lot and try to seek out every private moment I can find. I also feel like after touring so much I have had the opportunity to carve out special spaces and friends that feel like home to me in many cities.
BYT: Are you guys able to write while on the road? When do you decide that it’s time to get back home and start working on something new?
MZ: I think I try to absorb and survive mostly on tour. I typically need a lot of privacy to write.
GS: I write a lot of poems on tour. They’re usually more linear than songs, so when they become songs they’re more winding melodies that don’t have refrains. I think they’re really cool and they’re ear ear-wormy to me, but I don’t know how other people would react to them. I guess we’ll find out! 2016 for me was almost all touring and it was cool, but not productive for writing and recording. We’ve been talking a lot about shaping next year with more space for studio/alone time.
BYT: As music consumers and fans, what sounds or styles do you gravitate towards? What are you listening to in your free time?
MZ: I really love the album as a format. I really love this new trend of super long albums, because I feel like it gives you this new opportunity to watch an artist be really playful and just really live in a record without the pressure of everything being some huge hit. I felt that way about the new Solange, Frank Ocean, Blood Orange & The 1975 albums (the latter has been probably one of my biggest guilty pleasures.) I also really loved the Crying & Weyes Blood albums. I also just started listening to the new & Jenny Hval & Big Thief records and think both are so great. Oh, and the new Japanese House EP.
GS: Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Angel Olsen and Hop Along. I also have these live recordings I made – one is of Rick from Pile playing solo in like 2014, the other is 100% playing this summer. I listen to those a lot.
BYT: What are you guys most looking forward to in 2017, personally or professionally?
MZ: I’m so excited to share my 2nd LP (my first with new label Dead Oceans!) and get to make more music videos with my friend/co-director/DP Adam Kolodny. I’m also excited to start work on a memoir!
GS: Time with my dog, haha. And recording an album.