Japanese Breakfast on the virtues of the cover of “Under Pressure” by Karen O and Willie Nelson


The 5 O’Clock Shadow is two versions of a song, and today we have a special guest, Michelle Zauner, lead singer of Japanese Breakfast. Hello, Michele.

Hello. How are you?

I’m genius. You are play Milwaukee this Friday at the Turner Hall Ballroom.

I am. Very excited.

And you have shade suggestion for us. So what’s the song? What is your shadow?

Well the song is “Under Pressure”, famously sung by Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. And I think last year I saw that Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, my all-time hero that I talk about a little bit in my book, “Crying in H Mart”, did a cover of “Under Pressure “with Willie Nelson. And I think at first glance, when I saw that they covered that song, my first thought was like, “It’s bold”. You take like the two greatest performers of all time, and just the most iconic song, and you dare to cover it. But of course hearing Karen O with Willie Nelson, I mean, this is the couple you never thought you needed.

Peter Ash Lee Japanese breakfast | Courtesy of the artist

What memory is attached to the original song for you?

Well I would say my family didn’t listen to so much music growing up except the biggest of the biggest. So my dad would have Fleetwood Mac CDs. We had Motown compilations and then there was Queen and I feel like I grew up with these three main artists. Well I know Motown is like a lot of different artists.

But I feel like the only music that I really grew up listening to that came from my parents before I formed my own musical tastes, and so I know Freddie Mercury very well and I just… to be a kid and dancing Queen, and belt Queen with my parents, and I just feel like they’re such a beloved band that probably a lot of people my age listen to with their parents in their childhood, just like a song so perfect and undeniably awesome.

What does Karen O give to the song “Under Pressure”?

I think Karen O has just that quiet, intimate power that is so unique to her voice, delivery, and performance. It takes the song that’s like… Requires some really fierce vocal chops and attacks it just in this totally different way. I mean, I was really surprised when I heard this song slowed down and delivered in this very different kind of emotion that I never expected.

This is my favorite type of cover, is when an artist can take that untouchable song that you think can’t be improved upon, and make it whole, and you’re able to enjoy it that way. totally different.

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