Japanese Breakfast is full of teeny tiny contradictions – little contrary moments of lightness and dark that make their two solo records endlessly listenable and her live shows engrossing.
The intriguing name is in fact the moniker of soloist Michelle Zauner – previously known for being part of Philadelphian emo band Little Big League. In keeping with her contrariness, she’s not Japanese, but rather of Korean and Jewish descent, and the name stems from Japanese pop culture being the most relatable thing she had easy access to growing up in the US.
Under this alias she released two albums in as many years – 2016’s Psychopomp and last year’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet – and forged a sound that sits somewhere between shoegaze and college rock; in equal parts dark and urgently upbeat. Tonight she enters the stage under a wash of electronica; the room soaked in synths, and from the very beginning exudes the strange, twinkling optimism that infects nearly all of her songs, from the saddest, most minimal of tracks to giddy, explosive love songs. She’s accompanied by her long-time touring band, a three-piece that give life where needed, at times turning her more forgettable album tracks into more interesting propositions, but sometimes being somewhat overstated.
Take Machinist which, with its spoken word intro, channels Chvrches – all lulling, ambient electronics with distorted vocals and bursts of dance, it sees Zauner’s vocals pitched higher than usual, demonstrating an ability to flit between pitches as the mood takes her. For example, for 12 Steps she struts across the stage with her guitar, oozing The Breeders, while Til Death – a song “about marrying someone who’s there for you in difficult times” is a lyric-focused tearjerker – made poignant by the fact that Zauner has spoken about turning to music following the death of her mother, a tragedy that subtly weaves its way into much of her work.
It’s telling that her decision to play a few tracks alone with her guitar towards the end of her set is met with such enthusiasm from the audience. Now she lets her voice rule. When you can hear it without any distraction it’s a whole different instrument; absolutely heart wrenching, proud and clear. Yet she’s become known for these electro-bursts of songs; another pleasing contradiction.
Of course the band make her live shows an occasion, and without them there would have been an entirely different feel to tonight, but you can’t help but wonder whether by stripping back some of the guitars and drums, and letting her voice merge into the electronic sounds, she could’ve provided more opportunity to shine.
As a case in point, her last song – save an encore of The Cranberries‘ Dreams – is the wonderful Everybody Wants To Love You; an impossibly delicate yet sing-along-able track from her first album. It’s given a harder edge tonight and longs for the simplicity and care of the recorded version.
The cliché that sometimes less is more rings true For Japanese Breakfast. But not always – and the contrast between these fragile, intricate tracks alongside the more bombastic is what makes her so absorbing; you just don’t know what to expect. Tonight she played for close to an hour, yet could have carried on for another and still have held us captivated.