Japanese Breakfast frontwoman Michelle Zauner flitted onstage for a brief moment during the set of New York-based opening act Cende at San Francisco’s The Chapel on Sunday evening. It could be the case that her appearance was planned — that it had become a carefully rehearsed routine that Zauner perfected over the course of several weeks of touring. Yet, her cameo had the bright-eyed vivacity of total spontaneity. She sang along with the band for a verse or two, the strikingly gentle clarity of her vocals contrasting sharply with Cende’s pop-punk sounds.
Just moments later, the full band took the stage with Zauner, exuding a much gentler version of the gleaming energy that she had given a preview of earlier in the night. The first few songs of Japanese Breakfast’s set hit all the tropes of dream-pop just right. The band members seemed to float across the stage, carried by the sounds of their own guitars and bass, and propelled forward by the slow spin of a disco ball. They seemed tethered to reality only by the steadiness of the percussion.
During “Road Head,” one of the earliest pieces recorded under the moniker Japanese Breakfast and a track that is being reworked for the band’s upcoming album Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Zauner finally came fully back into the casual energy from earlier in the night. Putting her guitar away, Zauner gave the moment to vocal distortion, playful facial expressions and more energetic movement. The glittering disco ball dreamspace that had cocooned the band disintegrated. What came to take its place was somehow sweeter and certainly much more engaging.
“I always imagined a snowball dance,” Zauner began, introducing “Boyish,” the band’s latest single. “Your crush is beelining to you, and they pick the person right next to you.” From the cheekily overblown splendour of the instrumentals to the eloquent angst of the lyrics to the gentle swaying under the light of the disco ball — which, at Zauner’s request, had come back out of retirement just for a few minutes — the entire venue had become the cinematic vision of a junior prom running just as rife with heartbreak as with optimism.
Zauner’s humor emerged slowly but steadily over the course of the show. With each remark delivered with a deadpan and a smirk, she cemented herself more and more as a tangible human entity and not simply as a flitting spark, a floating presence or the soundtrack to a quintessential Hollywood teen heartbreak. She was all of these and more.
The most brilliant glimpse of Zauner’s humor appeared as she introduced “Everybody Wants to Love You,” the band’s most popular track and the second-to-last of the set. “This is a song about oral sex,” she told the audience, once again with her signature delivery. Before there was a chance to react, the band began to play. The crowd was pulled in for a quick chuckle and was held spellbound, singing along fervently. It was a brilliant transition from one charm into another, a sustenance of momentum that may have taken days or weeks to perfect for timing but that, in the moment, seemed as joyfully spontaneous as anything else.
The show ended with “Machinist,” another single from Japanese Breakfast’s upcoming album. “This is a song about being in love with a robot,” Zauner explained. She strode across the stage over large swaths of sound, taking audience members by the hand and gazing fiercely into their eyes as she sang, almost challenging them to prove that they were warmer and more receptive than the robot she sang about. It was a perfectly crafted performance. Danceable, yet ethereally dreamy, built totally upon science-fiction pretenses yet still tangible and realistic, and interactive yet still grandly cinematic, Japanese Breakfast ended the show with a performance that lodged itself firmly into the vertex of the three modes that it had operated under all night.