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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

Japanese Breakfast Puts the Punk in Indie Rock

Updated: Mar 25, 2020


The Berkeley Bside

Since the release of her 2017 record Soft Sounds from Another Planet, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner has risen from the fairy-like starlett listeners were introduced to with catchy single “Everyone Wants to Love With You,” to indie rock powerhouse, touring internationally and becoming a self-declared spokeswoman for female empowerment and Korean-american visibility. In interviews and on record she presents herself with more gusto than is typically seen in the soft-and-feely indie rock world, and unfortunately, than is accepted from many female frontwomen.

However, her bravado makes better sense in the context of her career progression. Before taking the lead with Japanese Breakfast, Zauner was the lead singer of Little Big League, a punkier rendition of indie rock accented by distorted guitar solos and a throaty vocal delivery from Zauner. Tired of sharing creative power, Zauner boldly developed her own project under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, where she could have more flexibility to produce music on her own terms. It’s through writing Japanese Breakfast’s first album, Psychopomp (2016), that Zauner was able to channel her stagnated frustration over her mother’s death — a wound so fresh that she still measures time in months since it’s initial infliction. And, it’s with this project that she’s been able to come to terms with adulthood, marriage, and all of life’s gritty details.

Despite the nostalgic-sounding softness of many moments on Japanese Breakfast’s latest album, Zauner boldly takes the stage with punk-rock swagger. Zauner is more than a frontwoman — she’s the band’s commander, standing wide legged and imposing at the microphone despite her small stature. It becomes clear fairly quickly that she’s there to perform the music she wants to play rather than what anybody else might want to hear — candidly turning her back to the audience for brief exchanges with her husband and guitarist Peter Bradley before diving into each new song. Her inky arm tattoos show faintly through a long sleeved white crop-top, and her messy hair looks like it hasn’t been touched since she got off the tour bus. She stares out the corner of her blue eyeshadow-covered eyes at her band without facing them, giving them the subtle instruction to move forward to the next tune. Her small mouth holds a tight scowl in her most intense moments, and a suspicious-looking grin in her happiest. Looking pretty and presentable is clearly not on the agenda. Rather, it’s all about good music and raw emotion.

And, in true punk-rock fashion, that raw emotion includes the taboo — the least of which being drugs and sex. It’s with lackadaisical mumbling that Zauner utters out the corner of her mouth how she loves to write songs about oral sex before moving into Soft Sound’s lead single “Road Head,” or deceptively innocent sounding breakthrough song “Everyone Wants to Love You.” She moves into these songs with gusto, crudely bobbing her head forwards or backwards and stepping to the front of the stage, gesturing above her with with tensely curved hands as if to claw at something in front of her. She breaks any tension by making fun of herself too, joking that “as the front woman it’s [her] job to say the city we’re in” and exclaiming “S.F.” in a throaty yell until she starts laughing too hard to stay serious. She praises herself for being a “responsible woman” who avoided spicy hot wings before the show. And, best of all, she isn’t afraid to say that she’s growing — embracing every idiosyncrasy that comes with that.

Her sound is just the same way — angsty and intense at points, but glazed over with chipper treble-y inflection and professional preciseness. This dependable vocal performance ties the show together. Nuance and attitude aside, Michelle Zauner is a singer and her vocals are unique, intriguing, and compliment her poetic songwriting impeccably. In the end Zauner steps to the stage to do what she does best: sing her heart out. And, in true punk-rock fashion, she’ll do it how she damn well pleases.

Written by Veronica Irwin

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