Every so often you encounter a musical act so unique and strange that you can’t help but feel they’re other worldly. When Japanese Breakfast dropped into the Fonda Theatre down in Hollywood for one of their final stops of a brief U.S. tour, the experience certainly felt special.
Japanese Breakfast, the solo project of Korean-American singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner, digs a bit deeper than the Philly-based emo band Little Big League previously fronted by Zauner. Despite her terrestrial origins, Michelle transforms onstage under the Japanese Breakfast moniker with a wisely-used band in tow and heavy emotional beats. Before Zauner could entertain the nearly sold-out crowd of devoted fans, the Montreal-based quartet Ought took the stage.
Ought laid important groundwork for the headliner with just the right amount of atmospheric post-punk tunes. Their songs were drenched with darkness and sadness, but offset by dance-y guitarwork, heavy bass, and deep vocals most reminiscent of a less-polished version of Interpol. Much like Paul Banks, lead singer and guitarist Tim Darcy had an unassuming look quite incongruous to the voice coming out of him. His moody baritone made the theatre feel gritty like an old rock ‘n’ roll club while his dancing recalled something of the Talking Heads.
Ought’s most memorable song – “Beautiful Blue Sky” – perfectly captured the post-punk affinity of their sound with lyrics like, “I’m no longer afraid to die because that is all I have left / I am no longer afraid to dance because that is all I have left.” They clearly had an edge to them, but it wasn’t put-on; the crowd leaned into their jams and felt their mood more than the average opening band.
With energy still high in the room, Japanese Breakfast took the stage with a possessed power and strength. Opening with the suitably titled track, “Planetary Ambience” from her 2017 album Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Zauner dove headfirst into a dreamy pop atmosphere. The softness of her vocals and accompanying keyboards floated above her heavier guitar sound in a way that shouldn’t have worked but did.
Early on, Zauner picked up a guitar and danced around the stage with a self-assured saunter that asserted she was having fun, but still felt distinctly different from traditional rock ‘n’ roll. The most striking aspect of the performance – aside from the space-y aesthetics in the smoke and lights – was Zauner’s distinctly delicate voice. Sweet melodies paired perfectly with her singing and speaking voice when she announced to the crowd after picking up an acoustic guitar, “We’re gonna play some quiet songs now.” Despite seeming demure, there was a power and subtle assertiveness underlying her performance. She was vulnerable yet without weakness.
Fan favorites “The Woman Who Loves You” and “The Body is a Blade” inspired cheers from every member of the unusually diverse crowd of equal amounts of men and women across various age ranges. When Zauner whispered into the microphone, “This is my ugly girl anthem,” it was clear that she was tapping into something deeply felt by the audience. When a grown man yelled halfway through her set, “You’re magic!” it felt less like a heckle and more like a testimony. Some lyrics and musical moments were so powerfully felt by everyone in the room that you couldn’t help but wish the majority of her songs were longer than two and a half minutes. The emotional beats could’ve used more room to breathe, but the performance was still quite visceral in itself.
Even when Zauner’s band left the stage so she could perform an even more intimate acoustic performance, she commanded the stage with a strangely unique presence. The singer felt young but not naive, sweet but not too soft, and fierce but not overly harsh. Both song subject matter and performance felt other worldly without being truly alienating. Young women stood with glistening eyes at the barricade, and it became clear she was speaking not only to them but for them. There’s nothing a music fan need more during this darkly tumultuous time on earth right now than songs that carry us into a stellar realm. And for that, Japanese Breakfast provides a pitch-perfect escape.