Japanese Breakfast navigates gray area at San Francisco’s Gray Area

Aslesha Kumar/Staff

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Otherwise known as Michelle Zauner, Japanese Breakfast launched into Soft Sounds from Another Planet intro “Diving Woman” without any pretense or fanfare, catching the tepid Gray Area Grand Theater crowd by surprise. Zauner was eventually able to raise the audience’s pulse by walking into the crowd during the song and singing inches away from listeners’ faces.

Zauner wrote her first full-length album as Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp, two months after her mother’s death as part of her personal grieving process. While this melancholy, introspective subject matter characterizes most Japanese Breakfast songs, the mood remained lighthearted as a result of Zauner’s deadpan jokes. The resulting performance was acutely self-aware, never overbearing or affected.

“I write a lot of songs about oral sex,” Zauner quipped as she introduced “Road Head,” a song about desperately attempting to save a failing relationship. Her breathy, ethereal vocals floated over the track while she passionately emphasized each syllable to the extent that the song’s lyrics became unintelligible.

Throughout the show, Zauner alternated between singing, rhythm guitar and keyboards. While introducing “Boyish,” Zauner put her guitar down and addressed the audience in her most earnest tangent of the night, breaking from her facade of self-deprecation.

“Boyish” is one of the more cinematic songs from Soft Sounds from Another Planet. “We don’t have a disco ball here, so we’re going to have to pretend. I just recently directed the music video to this song,” Zauner explained, describing in depth the imagery of being rejected at a high school dance that inspired the track.

“The song is about wanting to feel pretty and loved. As much as I hate it, that’s what it’s about,” Zauner admitted. It was a rare, vulnerable moment uncharacteristic of her typical stage banter. As the shimmery, layered synths washed over the room, Zauner led the audience in remembering the earth-shattering heartbreak of a crush’s dismissal.

Zauner’s strength as a songwriter lies in expanding intimate snapshots of her personal life into bigger revelations of insecurity and grief. Her deceptively simple songs are powerfully sentimental while still completely relatable. As a live performer, she prefaces her work with off-handed jokes that nearly undermine her songs’ emotional impact, as though unsure herself with how to navigate this duality.

Stepping onto a platform amid crowd conversations, Zauner self-consciously announced, “Okay, can you guys shut the fuck up for a heartwrencher?” as the band entered the opening chords of “Till Death.” Zauner stood illuminated by colorful lights at the edge of the stage, singing about a relationship that saw her through the darkest time of her life.

Before playing the next song, “The Body is a Blade,” Zauner brought levity to the room by sharing an anecdote wherein she and a bandmate, Craig Hendrix, got into a fight at the last Noise Pop festival.

Zauner mused, “We’ve been really nervous that it’s going to happen again, but we’ve had a nice night.”

“I’m not convinced. The night is young,” was Craig’s comeback. The two shared a charming onstage dynamic, taking digs at one another throughout the night like siblings.

The mood picked up as the set came to an end — everybody knew the next two songs that Japanese Breakfast would play. Zauner picked up on the energy and egged the audience on, shouting “I love San Francisco! I think my job is just to excitedly say whatever city I’m in.” Cheers echoed through the Gray Area as the band started the upbeat crowd-pleaser, “Everybody Wants to Love You.”

Japanese Breakfast closed the show with “Machinist, a sci-fi themed narrative about falling in love with a robot. Zauner’s vocoder enhanced singing cuts through the electronica-tinged instrumentals, breaking for a spoken word interlude that featured her bandmates’ distorted vocals as the robot. She danced and posed like a robot on the beat as the lights shifted between a green and red haze.

Japanese Breakfast’s show, just like her songs, walked a fine line between the humorous and heartbreaking, the superficial and pensieve. Zauner deftly navigated the polarities, managing to balance self-deprecating humor and the sensitive, personal anecdotes conveyed by her songs. While her tone was uncertain throughout, Zauner ultimately served her audience a full breakfast buffet of a performance.

Contact Jasmine Garnett at [email protected].