Lo-fi pop powerhouse Japanese Breakfast embraced joy at Denver’s Ogden Theatre in October in support of her new album Jubilee. Korean-American multi-instrumentalist Michelle Zauner is the musician and songwriter behind Japanese Breakfast. She dazzled the sold-out venue as she brought us into her world.
Zauner opened the show with my favorite track from the album, “Paprika,” a triumphant song about “reveling in the beauty of music,” she said in the album’s digital liner notes on Apple Music. Moody synths undulated as she sang about waking from a dream, then the audience joined in as horns and snare drums crescendoed into a celebratory chorus: “How’s it feel to be at the center of magic / To linger in tones and words?” the audience sang rhetorically along with Zauner. “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers / To captivate every heart? / Projecting your visions to strangers / Who feel it, who listen to linger on every word?” An apt way to start the concert, we spent the next two hours lingering on her every word.
Japanese Breakfast’s first two albums, Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet, revolve around the grief and trauma of her mother’s death in 2014. With Jubilee, Zauner channels hard-earned joy.
Although this album’s material has a happier tone than her previous work, her distinct sound remains. She continues to pull from a wide range of styles; this album incorporates disco, sax-heavy jazz riffs, guitar-shredding, and sincere odes backed by orchestral strings. Jubilee’s impressive production is difficult to re-create in a live setting, some of its songs have dozens of layers of instrumentation, but her pared-down band didn’t sacrifice any of the album’s sound. Four musicians supported Zauner’s guitar and vocals by rotating through violin, keyboard, synth, drums, saxophone, and bass.
One of the highlights of seeing Zauner’s live shows is getting to see her chemistry with her husband, Peter Bradley, on stage. He has played guitar and bass in support of her music since her debut album in 2016. Their chemistry is enchanting and brings an extra level of candor and passion to her stage presence. Zauner locked eyes with Bradley as she began a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again,” a sweet song about being helplessly in love. Bradley was blushing as he played twangy licks on slide guitar.
Other standout songs were “Savage Good Boy,” featuring an epic final guitar solo; the quiet and twangy small-town ode “Kokomo, IN;” and dark, sensual, and trancey hit “Posing in Bondage.” Although fans were eager to hear her new content, she sprinkled in some of her earlier hits: “Road Head,” full of guitar and voice loops; the dreamy and orchestral “Boyish;” and ended with Soft Sounds’ opener “Diving Woman,” a spiraling, pulsating, and epic grunge tune that lent itself to a few raucous solos from Zauner.
Not only is she an incredible guitarist, but a truly gifted writer. She garnered impressive acclaim this year for her memoir, Crying in H Mart, which reached #2 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list upon its release this past April. Long-time fans of her lyrics shouldn’t be surprised that more mainstream audiences were quick to embrace her prose. She has a unique ability to articulate poignant romantic arcs, the emptiness of loneliness and self-doubt, and how it feels to depend on someone else too much without slipping into clichés.
If you ever have the opportunity to see Japanese Breakfast, seize it. Her energy and enthusiasm will keep you smiling for an hour straight. Her talent, confidence, and exuberance create a palpable kind of magic, and I count myself lucky to have been spellbound for two blissful hours.