An Evening with Japanese Breakfast
by Grace Martin
I had heard about them for years, but on September 29th I finally got to see Japanese Breakfast live. They were playing a sold-out show at the brand-new Roadrunner venue in Allston-Brighton, with Yo La Tengo as their opener. Yo La Tengo formed in 1984 as a dreamy, folk-rock group, who have since amassed a devoted fanbase. When I heard their song “Nowhere Near” at sixteen I was hooked, so seeing this lineup was several years in the making.
Japanese Breakfast began almost ten years ago as a side project of lead singer and guitarist Michelle Zauner. After releasing their first two albums Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet in the mid-2010s, they toured with a multitude of artists including indie legends Alex G and Mitski. In an interview with Billboard last June, Zauner actually credits her time with Mitski as a “kickstart to [her] career”. Looking back on opening for her for five weeks across the US in the summer of 2016, she remembers thinking “If I can ever get to this point, I can die happy.” Sure enough, Zauner’s show came just two months after Mitski sold out hers at the exact same venue.
2021 was arguably Zauner’s most significant year as an artist. In April, she released her memoir Crying in H Mart about her experience of losing her mother to cancer, and how it led her to reconnect with her Korean heritage through food. The novel was praised by Japanese Breakfast fans and casual readers alike, earning its place as a New York Times bestseller. Just two months later, Japanese Breakfast's newest album Jubilee was released. If Zauner’s previous albums were night, Jubilee is day. The record is a celebration of joy itself. It’s a “jubilee” for achieving your dreams, gratitude for the past, for realizing your full potential. Her lyricism on the album speaks to her dazzling talents as a writer. Zauner weaves metaphors and imagery together to craft dazingly brilliant tracks about bittersweet farewells to childhood and a mushroom trip in the Poconos. On earlier albums, Zauner utilizes these skills to ruminate on grief and loneliness. She’s used taboo subjects like bondage and “road head” as heartbreaking, poignant metaphors for abandonment and feelings of inadequacy.
Like I mentioned earlier, I bought my tickets on a whim. I’ve been dying to see Yo La Tengo for years now, and after a quick search on Twitter I found someone selling a single mezzanine ticket. After exchanging PayPals and saying a prayer, the ticket was mine. It was the first show I’d been to alone, and I arrived right as the doors opened. I shuffled through the crowd up the stairs and secured a spot right at the front. Leaning on the railing, I waited anxiously for the show to begin. I had listened to a couple of songs off the setlist, and that was where my expectations ended.
Yo La Tengo took the stage around 8. Roadrunner is massive, yet they made their set feel incredibly intimate, sharing smiles across the stage with each other as they played. Their performance was a carefully curated blend of acoustic sound and profound lyricism. James McNew’s vocals on “Black Flowers” were the highlight of their set until Zauner joined them onstage for their last song “I Heard You Looking.” She took her place at the keyboard, and the energy she brought to everyone else onstage was nothing short of electrically contagious. As she launched into “Paprika”, the opening track from 2021’s Jubilee, with a momentous crash on her LED-clad Gong, the entire stage exploded with color. The dress code was business casual- she wore a blue suit with braids and black loafers. No matter how long the set had been going, Zauner continued moving, maintaining the crowd’s energy almost effortlessly.
For me, what made the show so spectacular was the lighting design. Behind Zauner was a wall of varying sizes of circular LED screens, all shifting colors and designs to match the overall setting of the songs. While more upbeat tracks like “Be Sweet” used a blend of neon pink and blue, "Glider” and “Posing in Bondage” used beams of light swirling down on the audience, enhancing the dream-like experience. Even in my place in the mezzanine, it created a surreal experience.
With millions of streams, sold out shows, and a massive following of devoted fans, it’s safe to say that Japanese Breakfast has joined the big leagues. They’re rounding out their North American tour this year with shows with Zauner’s childhood idols the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. If you ever have a chance to see Japanese Breakfast, do it. I’ve been to over a dozen concerts this year, and this is a show that stands out clearly in my mind. It’s rare to find an artist who is a seasoned writer, performer, and singer, but in my humble opinion, Japanese Breakfast has perfected that delicate balance.