arts   |   music

Japanese Breakfast is selling out shows and re-shaping indie rock



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Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast performs the opening song of the evening Sept. 13 at The Bishop Bar. The band Ought opened for Japanese Breakfast. Matt Begala Buy Photos

Every season, music “insiders” (journalists, reviewers, those in the industry) seem to collectively decide an exclusive set of blossoming artists to fixate on. Among them recently has been Japanese Breakfast, a moniker for Philadelphia/Oregon musician Michelle Zauner – who is actually Korean – making dark, spacy indie rock.

The Bloomington music scene has consistently proven to be ahead of the curve on knowing which artists to pay attention to. The Japanese Breakfast show at the Bishop, which fits about 200 people, sold out exactly a month ago, pushing resale tickets over $60 (originally $18) as of day of show, Sept. 13.

“Thank you so much for selling the Bishop out,” she said to the audience Thursday night. They were enthusiastic – they knew her words, reached out to her as she sang and swooned when she knelt down to sing into their faces.

As Japanese Breakfast, Zauner has given us two studio albums since 2016. “Psychopomp” was created in the wake of her mother’s death after cancer. Zauner’s lyrics explore deep human intricacies, centered on the loss of life and love. 

The album was meant to be the only Japanese Breakfast project and planned as the cap on Zauner’s music career. But the album found success, met with strong introductory reviews (a 7.9/10 from Pitchfork) leading to bigger and bigger gigs, like opening for Mitski and Slowdive.

She also signed to Bloomington-based label Dead Oceans. 

“It feels a little bit like a piano recital,” she said about performing in her label’s “hometown,” where many of the employees had come to see her.

Japanese Breakfast’s ascendancy in indie rock is part of a wave of women and non-binary artists who have burst the boy-club bubble the genre has been in for so long.

And as it always goes, that boys' club was dominated primarily by white men, but Asian-American artists like Zauner, alongside Mitski, Jay Som and Thao Nguyen, are very much in the driver’s seat of indie rock at the moment, marking a shift in indie rock’s classically problematic makeup. 

Last year Zauner came back with her second album, “Soft Sounds from Another Planet.” On the album, she transposes her grief with healing, zooming out on Earth-bound reality and escaping into outer space in both sound and lyrics.

“It addresses the fact that you’re not isolated in your pain; it’s a universal thing,” Zauner told DIY magazine shortly after the album’s release. “Hopefully, there’s some advice on there on how to move forwards. For myself, and for others.”

Zauner played a lengthy show that included songs from both albums, as well as her popular cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” with soaring vocals rivaling Dolores O’Riordan’s original. 

Zauner’s tour extends into mid-January. Many stops already sold out like her Bloomington show. 

“Thank you all for coming here and giving me a job,” she said to the crowd and was met with a chorus of “I love you-s.”

An hour after stepping off the Bishop’s stage, she tweeted, “Thank u thank u thank u for coming out and watching live music I love this job I love you.”

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