Few indie artists, even those at the height of their fame, can claim to have ever had a year quite as good as Japanese Breakfast’s 2021. Last year, it seemed as if the New York-based songwriter and musician, real name Michelle Zauner, had the Midas touch: first, she published, Crying in H Mart, which appeared on the New York Times bestseller chart; weeks later, she released Jubilee, a triumphant and critically acclaimed third record that sought to add some hard-won positivity to her thoughtful, cerebral indie rock. To cap it all, she put out a soundtrack for acclaimed indie video game Sable, and received a coveted best new artist nomination at the Grammys.
When Zauner takes the stage at London’s Hackney Church, then, she’s appropriately jubilant, clad in an ornate all-white outfit that splits the difference between lederhosen and the ribbony garb of Princess Serenity in Sailor Moon. Or, perhaps, she’s just thrilled to see the large turnout on a chilly Wednesday night. “We never did very well over here,” she tells the audience. “I guess we had to cancel three shows to get your attention, but we’re glad you’re here.”
Zauner is flanked by a five-piece band that includes saxophone and violin, and which features her husband Peter Bradley – endearingly jamming out like he’s the Slash in a weeknight Guns N’ Roses cover band – on keyboards and guitar. About half the setlist is drawn from Jubilee, and although most songs feel lush and resplendent as they do recorded, a few falter: set opener Paprika, about the grand thrill of performing to a crowd, feels muted without its rich brass section; Kokomo, IN, loses some of its mellifluous warmth.
Less ornate songs, like the sparkling 80s throwback Be Sweet and tracks from 2016’s Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet, fare better. Road Head, in particular, sounds spectacular performed by a full band, the song’s originally minimal arrangement built out into a spacious, spacey jam, while the icy, programmed beat of Jubilee track Posing in Bondage is booming and embodied.
Zauner is a charismatic, energetic host, and her onstage banter is sharp and funny; aside from joking about her band’s previous cancelled shows, she also introduces Savage Good Boy as “a song about the 1975” after saying it’s about the billionaire class. (Zauner collaborated with the band on their latest album.) Although the crowd is fairly sedate, perhaps appropriately for a weeknight in a church, she still demands at least some kind of interaction as the show ends: “I was wondering if you guys could do a quick jump with me?” she asks during Slide Tackle. The crowd obliges – Zauner still has some of that Midas touch.