Japanese Breakfast, the moniker/project of Philadelphia-based musician Michelle Zauner, is the first artist whose show I’ve been to more than once. The first time I saw her was in my home city of Hong Kong at the MOM Livehouse, a small and truly intimate venue located in the basement of a micro-mall tucked away underneath an apartment building. I’ll confess that at the time I didn’t know a single song of her’s other than “Road Head” and that I was there mostly because I wanted to see an international indie act live, a rare opportunity in Hong Kong. The most I remember of that night was that the police raided the venue to check the venue’s liquor license, and that a drunk man obnoxiously yelled out “I LIKE YOUR HAIR!!!” in between every song.
A year and a half onward from that night, I’m standing in the press pit at the Royale, thinking about all the things that have changed since the first time I saw her. For starters, I am the one who has crossed the Pacific Ocean this time, not her and her band. The Royale— a spacious upgrade from the Sinclair, where Japanese Breakfast has played most of her Boston shows— has a capacity of 1000 people, an incomparably far cry from the 150-person capacity of the MOM Livehouse. And on a personal level, Japanese Breakfast has since become one of the most important artists in my life for a whole number of reasons.
Zauner’s essay “Crying in H Mart”, which was published in The New Yorker around the time that my freshman semester started, did more than just knock the wind out of my sails. It left me a quivering, shaking mess in the bathroom, silently weeping so that nobody outside would know I was crying. Finally, somebody had put the endless complexities of a cross-cultural identity, that odd, unspeakable, ethereal ache that I’ve felt for my entire life, into words. The way that Zauner so poignantly connected food to ethnic identity, grief, and memory made me feel truly heard and understood for the first time in my life, and put me on a path to working through the pains and silences surrounding my identity that I repressed for so long. Words cannot express just how excited I am for her upcoming memoir of the same name.
2018 was also the year that I really took an interest in indie rock and indie pop. Japanese Breakfast’s 2017 release Soft Sounds from Another Planet is a standout album in those genres, a cosmic exploration of love, trauma and healing that contained an auto-tuned, space opera-worthy ballad, ambient instrumental interludes, stripped down acoustic guitar numbers, and loud, roaring traditional rock songs. Never have I heard anything that sounds so expansive in scope, yet remains so beautifully intimate and focused all throughout. 2016’s Psychopomp is also incredible, an earth-shatteringly honest recount of the aftermath of her mother’s death. At times, it is joyous and exuberant— “Everybody Wants to Love You” is one of the perkiest and most energetic songs to ever exist— and at others, it is utterly heart wrenching and unimaginably heavy— “The dog’s confused / She just paces around all day / She’s sniffing at your empty room”.
Opening for Japanese Breakfast was Long Beard, the project of New Jersey based musician Leslie Bear, who deliver a cozy and mellowed out set. It’s the sort of music you might play when you want to curl up next to a window on a rainy day, shimmering and blissful in nature. Later we learn that Leslie used to play bass for Japanese Breakfast, and also appears in the band’s video for “Boyish”. Do keep an ear out for Long Beard’s follow-up to their 2015 debut Sleepwalker, which arrives later this year!
A little while later, Zauner and band take to the stage. Her voice cuts through a blisteringly meaty electric guitar on “12 Steps” as she tells a narrative about needing to leave a partner for another person— “So tell me, “I can’t blame you, we let love run its course””— and retains a similarly perky energy on the high-spirited “Everybody Wants to Love You”. They couldn’t have chosen a combination of songs to start off the set, as the infectious energy of these two tracks was seamlessly absorbed by the crowd. “In Heaven” follows, and I am instantly struck by the stark contrast between the upbeat instrumentation and the song’s painfully candid recollection of death. The simple reality conjured by the lyric “As I sift through the debris / While I empty every shelf” hits me like a truck every time I listen to this song, and I can confirm that it hits even harder live. It asks how a person— an entire life— can be reduced to nothing more than their possessions. Here, Zauner’s ability to intimately connect the minutiae of real life to the complexities of grief and memory is on full display; it’s part of what makes her work so searing and so deeply affective.
The sound of airy and warbly synths fills the air, marking the beginning of “The Woman That Loves You”. Over the course of the song, Zauner’s voice shifts from a delicate coo into a roaring swell. She dominates the space, marching to the very edge of the stage in order to shout the song’s resounding chorus aloud— “You should try to do as little harm as you can to the woman that loves you”. And on “Road Head”, atop the track’s sweeping and vast sonic landscape, Zauner hits and holds notes so high that it sounds like her voice is on the verge of bursting at any moment, although it thankfully never does.
I hear the opening notes to “2042”, a song that I have been particularly excited to hear live. While I adore the studio version in all of it’s glorious haziness, I’ve been curious to hear what a version that sheds the fuzz and heavy reverb sounds like. I’m happy to report that I am completely blown away by how stunning this track sounds in a live setting. Nobody has ever played electric guitars in a way that sounds this tight and punchy. “2042” remains just as hypnotizing and addictive as ever, and the band fill the Royale with an absolutely electric energy as they play through it. I’ve always maintained that this track would fit perfectly into a Wong Kar-Wai film, and after hearing it live, I’m only more certain of that fact.
Zauner— an Aries herself— takes a second to wish the crowd a happy Aries season before launching into “Boyish”, at which the point the stage lighting instantly shifts to a cocktail of blues and pinks, mirroring the masterful “bisexual lighting” of the song’s music video. With a sparkling string arrangement backing her, Zauner sings of nostalgia for the unrequited romances of adolescence and young adulthood. It isn’t the romances themselves that Zauner misses. Instead, it is the period of her life when these simple, inconsequential romances were her biggest concern that she yearns for. “Boyish” was already magical enough, but live, its distinctly grand yet reassuringly familiar feeling is even more enticing.
“The Body is a Blade”— whose title references the poem “Head First” by Vietnamese American author Ocean Vuong— is the next song on the band’s set. Zauner’s voice flourishes over the sound of a fluttery and restless keyboard, but maintains a distinctly sorrowful edge throughout the song. The track culminates in a fiery explosion of abrasive electric guitar, during which Deven, Michelle, and Peter go to town on their guitars, rocking back and forth across the stage. Before debuting new song “In Hell”, Michelle remarks that she has “really fucked myself” by placing the two saddest songs that she’s ever written one after the other on the setlist. And true to her word, “In Hell” is nothing short of crushing. Written about putting her dog down, the songs overwhelming melancholy comes through loud and clear— “with my luck you’ll be dead within the year, I’ve come to expect it” — despite the bouncy and plucky energy of the backing keyboard and electric guitars. But on “Till Death”, a heartwarming ode that Zauner wrote about her husband Peter (who actually plays guitar for the band) and the support he gave her during a particularly hard period of her life, she hints that things are slowly, but surely, improving— “Your embrace, healing my wounds / Teach me to breathe, teach me to move”.
Peter and Deven exit the stage as Michelle retrieves an acoustic guitar, leaving only Michelle and Craig on the stage. Zauner takes a minute to provide a bit of context for the next song, “Triple 7”, revealing that she wrote it late one night while on a ton of adderall. The song’s stark arrangement is even more gorgeous live as every note lingers momentarily in the air, allowing the crowd to really take in the full gravity of the song. By the end of it, Zauner’s voice is nothing more than a hushed whisper. She then launches into Soft Sounds closer “This House”, a slow-burning and heartfelt ballad that will always make me tear up— “I guess I owe it to the timing of companions / I survived the year at all”.
After the rest of the band return to the stage, they begin to work their way through the last few songs of the set. The alt-country adjacent “Heft” sounds like an escapist solo late-night drive. They debut their cover of The Cardigans’ “Lovefool”, which is crazily infectious and unabashedly playful. Zauner sounds like pure bubblegum over the groovy and sticky instrumentation. She takes the mic at the end of the song, thanking the crowd for coming out before introducing us to the next song— “this song’s about falling in love with a robot”. “Machinist” is easily the band’s most dramatic work, and the track’s maximalist production and energy feels tailor-made for live performances. Zauner bounces around the stage throughout, reaches out to touch hands with some of her fans, and even jumps up onto a speaker to deliver the songs explosive climax, her voice reaching an earth-shattering fever pitch as she does so. The crowd can’t get enough.
After the band exits the stage before promptly retaking it for the encore, Zauner grabs the mic and yells out “April fools, motherfuckers!” before launching into Soft Sounds from Another Planet opener “Diving Woman”. The song is grand and roving in scope and sound, a sprawling, wandering, and shoegaze-y soundscape which culminates in an almost three-minute-long electric guitar breakdown that brings the entire house down. Michelle and Peter rest their heads on each other as they slowly bring the song to a close. “We’ll have it all / I’ll have it”, Zauner croons— with her hard work, audaciousness, and unwavering commitment to her seemingly limitless list of ambitions, it’s undeniable that she’s well on her way there.