Japanese Breakfast — the lo-fi indie pop solo project of Little Big League’s Michelle Zauner — finally made it with a concert in the country of their namesake breakfast food, promoting their sophomore album Soft Sounds From Another Planet. The show, their first in Japan, was held at the intimate live venue UNIT located in Daikanyama, Shibuya on Dec. 11, 2017, melting away what had otherwise been a freezing Tokyo evening into a cozy trip through the ethereal, cosmic soundscape of their critically-acclaimed discography.
Bathed in gorgeous, hazy and glimmering violets, pinks and blues, and with Zauner sporting a futuristic and — in her own words — “PJ Harvey, Björk and Princess Leia inspired” get-up, worthy of Harajuku, the band offered a treat that was not only sonically-satisfying, but also, visually-appealing. And though these were soft sounds and visuals from another planet, indeed, Japanese Breakfast nevertheless made sure to include their older, more-established material from their debut LP Psychopomp, as well.
The set opened with the meditative, swooning “Diving Woman,” setting the stage for the rest of the show; equal parts dreamy and sobering, music that sounds even more entrancing and arresting live, what with Zauner’s fairy-like vocals from which you almost couldn’t discern words, but rather pure emotion, thus perfectly complementing the shoegaze-y, reverb-filled guitars pervading many of their tracks.
“Diving Woman” was then followed by a barrage of several fan-favorites, such as “In Heaven,” “Road Head” and “Boyish,” all of which highlighted the flawless musical cohesion between the band members and thoroughly captivated the audience. “Road Head,” a particularly popular song, saw many members of the audience dancing and singing along, even throughout the outro. This high energy was maintained throughout most of the set, with a particular highlight during “Jane Cum,” one of Japanese Breakfast’s heavier songs, which features dirty-sounding guitars and has Zauner actually screaming raw, Karen O-style, into the microphone — a welcome vocal technique which earned her much applause.
As the set neared its end, quieter songs juxtaposed the preceding louder tracks, and the set reached its high point with “Till Death,” my favorite Japanese Breakfast song (and apparently happens to be Zauner’s favourite track off “Soft Sounds,” as well). That song in album form was haunting enough, but actually seeing and hearing it performed live made me feel — and excuse my melodrama, but it was really that powerful — as if I were ascending to some higher plane of existence. Perhaps it was Zauner’s already characteristically-high pitched vocals, a definite highlight throughout the set, which caused this, as it was raised to even more challenging heights. She totally nailed it, though, and her heart-wrenching, otherworldly vocals pierced the soul with the ending lines, “PTSD / anxiety / genetic disease / thanatophobia!”
Perhaps the only drawback in what was otherwise a flawless show was when it became obvious that featuring a few sounds on the studio album, such as saxophones, unfortunately didn’t seem to be possible live. Instead of a live saxophone player for “Till Death,” a backing track had to be used. Nevertheless, it didn’t at all detract from quality of the show, as the music continued to feel just as authentic as it does on the album.
The latter part of the set became just as animated as in the beginning. I, and several other members of the audience, completely lost it during “Everybody Wants to Love You.” I couldn’t help but wildly jump up and down and not sing so much as shout out the (highly relatable) lyrics, and I’m pretty sure the band members saw me (Japanese Breakfast, if you’re reading this, then yes, I was the one jumping up and down close to the barrier right in the middle, accidentally stepping on people’s shoes, for which I am still very sorry).
The set then ended with the ambitious, almost theatrical “Machinist,” which Zauner says was written about “falling in love with a robot.” It opens with Zauner’s spoken-word intro, and the cool, Daft Punk-y vocoder voice effect that had been so interesting to listen to on the album was seamlessly replicated live; in fact, in my opinion, it was even more enhanced.
Most admirable was watching Zauner onstage; she was always very talkative, interactive (she had gone down the stage at one point to hold fans’ hands, and yes, I was one of them, and yes, I was starstruck) and energetic, which I found incredible, because this was despite the fact that over the past year, Japanese Breakfast have played around 120 shows already and had just come from Melbourne, Australia the day before. But her energy seemed to have no end and was infectious. Throughout the whole set, the audience couldn’t help but dance and sing along.
Being a Japanese Breakfast fan myself, I wasn’t at all surprised to see “Soft Sounds” make several year-end “Best Albums of 2017” lists, with many noting its successful foray into boldly expanding an established sound with more extensive musical experimentation, quirkier vocals and a world of enticing lyrical content that run the gamut of the many vicissitudes of modern life — ranging from nostalgia, love & heartbreak, loneliness and the current state of affairs of our world today. The vastness and immediacy of this musical world was not lost in this show; in fact, it was all the more amplified.
Important to note, as well, is the significance of Japanese Breakfast as one of many recent acts featuring a woman of color in indie rock music. In a world where “all our celebrities keep dying / while the cruel men continue to win,” Japanese Breakfast represents a hope — no matter how seemingly far-fetched or “from another planet” they may be — for indie rock fronted by women of color to flourish and gain well-deserved international success.
The setlist for Japanese Breakfast @ Daikanyama UNIT in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan was:
- Diving Woman
- In Heaven
- Road Head
- The Body is a Blade
- Jane Cum
- 12 Steps
- Till Death
- This House
- Triple 7
- Everybody Wants to Love You
Japanese Breakfast will continue to tour in 2018 and have recently announced U.S. tour dates with Jay Som and Snail Mail. You can buy their new album on Bandcamp.