Japanese Breakfast rockets Baltimore Soundstage through the stratosphere on Jan. 19, 2019 (Photo courtesy of Matt Ruppert)
Michelle Zauner, who goes by the name Japanese Breakfast, has toured for what seems like forever, or at the least as endlessly as a musician can, since releasing Soft Sounds from Another Planet in 2017 (though she took a recent break in Bali to wind down (and hilariously glance askance at an influencer taking endless photos of food). She was back on stage, where she belongs, at Baltimore Soundstage recently.
Michelle wrote her first album, Psychopomp, in the weeks after her mother died from cancer, operating under the assumption she would quit music when she finished it. When she released Psychopomp into the world to almost universal acclaim, it forced her to reckon with her grief in ways many of us cannot imagine — giving interviews about the most painful experience of her life — which shaped the record. Her second album, however, transformed that sense of mourning, spinning it into a search for movement, for healing.
A good friend of mine asked me to describe the music of Japanese Breakfast, and I settled on the descriptor cosmic indie rock, mostly because distilling her music to something as simple as a label is beyond my comprehension. There’s a deepness to her songs, her music, that focuses on the transcendence of being — just listen to “The Machinist” and get lost in it — and an implied emphasis on exploration and discovery. I like the term cosmic to describe the songs because there’s an element of science fiction, the fusion of dissociation and fantasy that comes with using an imaginary world as a kind of solace.
Soft Sounds from Another Planet, released by Dead Oceans, evokes more than just a kind of sound — although it rests firmly in the juxtaposition of shoegaze with PNW indie rock — it conjures a different kind of reality, however temporarily. With every song, from the extraterrestrial noise of “Planetary Ambience” to the quiet dirge of “This House,” Michelle delivered with honesty and confidence.
Stream Soft Sounds from Another Planet by Japanese Breakfast on Spotify:
On Jan. 19, Michelle exploded onto the stage in Baltimore with all the self-assurance of a supergiant blue star, hurtling into the first verse of “Diving Woman,” as close as she came to a thesis for the album — “I wanna be a woman of regimen / a bride in her home state / A diving woman of Jeju-do” before exclaiming that she wants it all. For those who don’t know (I learned via this Out Magazine interview sometime last year), in Korea, there exists a tradition of haenyeo, or sea women, who dive underwater with nothing but their breath and a knife, and they have done so for centuries. It’s a song full of magic and love, replete with Michelle’s history and backstory.
After the song, Michelle commented that she wore the right shirt for the night, sharing that she’d never realized Maryland and Baltimore so closely connected with crabs, then she guided the band into the next song. They built a swirl of sound around her, every bit as energetic, shuttling and bouncing around the stage as they rocketed through the heavy grief of “In Heaven” and the powerhouse proclamation in “The Woman That Loves You” — “You should try to do as little harm as you can / to the woman that loves you.”
The stage felt treacherous and slick, Michelle said before going into a lengthy story about bassist Deven Craige falling at Governor’s Ball, and ending it by announcing his recent engagement and pointing to his fiancee in the side-stage audience. She laughed with her bandmates, also including Craig Hendrix (drums/vocals) and Peter Bradley (guitar/keyboards), leading the band and audience through a roller coaster of songs pulled from her two albums.
From the single “2042” to the dark and stunning “Body Is a Blade,” Michelle and her band engaged the audience with smiles, dancing, and a stunning display of catharsis and joy. Deven and Peter left the stage for a pair of stripped-down songs, including “Triple-7” and “This House,” the latter introduced by Michelle as a song she recorded when she shared a house with her friends, including Meg from the night’s opener, Hand Habits, a kind of requiem for the time she lived with her chosen family of friends.
Everyone came back to the stage for “Jane Cum,” Michelle’s voice a conflagration igniting the audience, before they finished the main set with “Everybody Wants to Love You,” which she dedicated to the audience before tearing down the rafters in a fit of euphoria. They left but returned for a two-song encore, ending the night with “Machinist,” a narrative about falling in love with a machine, with Michelle dancing and climbing a partition to stand over the audience.
Japanese Breakfast waved goodbye, music kicked on, and everyone danced their way out the door.
The Woman That Loves You
Body is a Blade
Everybody Wants to Love You
Here are some photos of Japanese Breakfast performing at Baltimore Soundstage on Jan. 19, 2019. All photos copyright and courtesy of Matt Ruppert.