The title “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” alludes to the promise of something that may or may not be there. Like a hope in something more. The songs are about human resilience and the strength it takes to claw out of the darkest of spaces.
Michelle Zauner wrote the debut Japanese Breakfast album in the weeks after her mother died of cancer, thinking she would quit music entirely once it was done. That wasn’t the case. When “Psychopomp” was released to acclaim in 2016, she was forced to confront her grief. Zauner would find find herself reliving traumatic memories multiple times a day during interviews, trying to remain composed while discussing the most painful experience of her life. Her sophomore album, “Soft Sounds From Another Planet,” is a transmutation of mourning, a reflection that turns back on the cosmos in search of healing.
“I want to be a woman of regimen,” Zauner sings over a burbling synth on the album’s opening track “Diving Woman.” This serves as Zauner’s mission statement: stick to the routine lest you get derailed, don’t cling to the past, don’t descend. In fact, ascend to the stars; Zauner found artistic solace removed from Earth, in outer space and science fiction. “I used the theme as a means to disassociate from trauma,” she explains. “Space used as a place of fantasy.”
And yet, “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” isn’t a concept album. Over the course of 12 tracks, Zauner explores an expansive thematic universe, a cohesive outpouring of unlike parts structured to create a galaxy of her own design. In the instrumental “Planetary Ambience,” synths communicate the way extraterrestrials might, and on the shapeshifting single “Machinist,” which Zauner has been performing live for over a year now, she details the sci-fi narrative of a woman falling in love with a machine. “It’s pure fiction,” she explains, “But it can map onto real relationships in a relevant way.” The track, which begins with spoken-word ambience, moves into autotune ‘80s pop bliss and ends with a sultry saxophone solo, perfectly marries the experience: there’s a perceptible humanity in mechanical, bodily events.
Within its astral production, much of “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” stays grounded. “Road Head” is the last chest compression in attempt to resuscitate a doomed relationship, while the penultimate track “This House” is an acoustic dirge that honors Zauner’s chosen family. The baroque pop “Boyish” has a haunting, crystalline clarity that recalls the pathos of a Roy Orbison ballad, while “Body is a Blade” embraces the dark intimacy of Zauner’s Pacific Northwest heroes Elliott Smith and Mount Eerie.
With help from co-producer Craig Hendrix (who also co-produced Little Big League’s debut) and Jorge Elbrecht, (Ariel Pink, Tamaryn) who mixed the album, Zauner recontextualizes her bedroom pop beginnings, expanding and maturing her sound. The sheer massiveness of the big room production on “Soft Sounds From Another Planet” introduces listeners to a new Japanese Breakfast. Zauner’s familiar, capacious voice will serve as their guide.
“Your body is a blade that moves while your brain is writhing,” she sings. “Knuckled under pain you mourn but your blood is flowing.” There’s discernible pain in the phrasing, Zauner recognizing limitation, a lack of control, but then subverting the feeling, creating her own musical language for confronting trauma. Where “Psychopomp” introduced the world to Japanese Breakfast, “Soft Sounds” dives deeper. It builds space where there is none, and suggests that in the face of tragedy, we find ways to keep on living.
Nandi Rose Plunkett writes, records and performs under the name Half Waif. Her music embodies her pensive nature and her lifelong endeavor to reconcile a sense of place. Raised in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Nandi was the daughter of an Indian refugee mother and an American father of Irish/Swiss descent. Growing up she listened to everything from Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos, to Celtic songstress Loreena McKennitt and traditional Indian bhajans. In college she studied classical singing and became engrossed with the works of Olivier Messiaen and Claude Debussy. Her output as Half Waif reflects these varying influences, resulting in a richly layered collage of blinking electronic soundscapes, echoes of Celtic melodies and the elegiac chord changes of 19th-century art music.
Half Waif has self-released two EPs and two albums – including 2016’s Probable Depths, which caught the attention of the worldwide music media, with NPR singling out track ‘Turn Me Around’ and Pitchfork awarding it their coveted Best New Track distinction. In 2017, Half Waif joined the Cascine family to release her form/a EP – a collection of tracks that expanded on her exploration of placemaking and home, and that earned her acclaim from a wide range of culture critics. In the same year, Cascine reissued Probable Depths, giving the album its first ever vinyl pressing. Half Waif also spent 2017 on near constant tour, supporting artists such as Julien Baker, Iron & Wine, Land Of Talk and Mitski. This year, Half Waif will release her latest body of work: a new album titled Lavender, due for spring release on Cascine. Nandi shared the following on the album:
Lavender is so named for my grandmother Asha – a nod to the lavender she would pluck from her garden and boil in a pot on the stove. The first time I noticed her doing this, it struck me as a kind of magic: the small black cauldron bubbling with a piece of the earth. She did it to make the house smell good. I believe it was also a ritual of purification, clearing out any shadows that may have tried to creep into the old English home she’d lived in, alone, for fifty years.
When I wrote and recorded Lavender, my grandmother was alive, and though she wasn’t ill at the time of her sudden death in September, it was obvious her life – after 95 years – was drawing to a close. As a result, themes of aging and collapse are all over this album. It is an elegy to time, the pilgrimages we take, and the ultimate slow plod towards our end. It is an examination of the way we fracture, inside ourselves and inside our relationships – the fissures that creep along the structures we build, the tendency towards disintegration.
We face many endings in our lives, on the path toward that unfathomable yet omnipresent ultimate Ending. Break-ups and divorces, marriages and the estrangement of the self, hard times and bittersweet relief, steep precipices that rise up beyond our control over and over again. These endings are markers of time and growth, small personal apocalypses that pockmark our days. And yet there is more to come when the terror subsides; even the night itself – that great darkness – must end and give way to new light. Lavender is a talisman to hold in the midst of that uncertainty, to heal and remind ourselves that it’s not over. It’s not ending yet.
Half Waif’s Lavender was co-produced by David Tolomei and mastered by Heba Kadry. It launches April 27, 2018 on Cascine.