By Lauren Foliart
Michelle Zauner is making an unforgettable name for herself under the alias Japanese Breakfast. Her sound ranges from lo-fi punk rock to experimental pop, situating her somewhere between the likes of Sleater Kinney and Metric. But ethereal soundscapes and inescapable lyrics give J.Brekkie (as fans fondly call her) an offbeat identity from the rest. As indie rock enters a renaissance era, Zauner is proof of what will come. She is as motivated as she is talented -- a female musician who continues to take “steps” despite an oppressive music industry (see: Neil Portnow’s outrageous post-GRAMMY comment towards women artists). And among other things, she turned her life story into a masterpiece of work; that alone is worth a listen.
Zauner’s career started most notably as the frontwoman of the Philadelphian emo group Little Big League. Misunderstood by critics as being nothing more than a “basement band,” they did garner attention locally, upholding the small remnants of a Philadelphia punk scene. In 2014, Zauner left the East Coast and her band behind, returning home to Eugene, Oregon upon news of her mom being diagnosed with cancer. These events, and the death of her mother shortly after, ultimately led to her solo career as Japanese Breakfast.
Her debut album, Psychopomp, she wrote only two months after her mom passed away. Over the course of nine short tracks, Zauner carries listeners across a spectrum of her emotions, touching on everything from unapologetic sex to the existential crisis of losing a loved one. The album is deeply personal -- a tribute to Zauner’s mother (who appears on the cover with her hand extended as if it could almost be touched) and a somber portrait of the daughter who lost her mother.
Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Zauner’s second studio album, continues the story that Psychopomp started. If nothing else, it upholds the honest character we have come to know lying beneath Japanese Breakfast. But the album delivers even more. Her arrangements bring a much bigger sound, emboldening Zauner’s lyrics as if she wants them heard from space. The first single, “Machinist,” is the largest step in this direction, beautifully showcasing her intention to push herself as an artist and solidify her career as a musician.
"This was the first song I wrote for the record. It's about a woman who falls in love with a robot. It started with the synth line, and I had this idea for the spoken word, and sort of like a hip-hop skit in the middle. I got really shy about it at first, but Craig Hendrix, who co-produced the album with me, really encouraged me to keep going... He had the brilliant idea to incorporate the vocoder harmonies. I forget who came up with the idea to do the auto-tune... I had done a cover of Cher's "Believe" around this time, so that may have been its beginning." - Michelle Zauner, NPR Interview
This year, Zauner will embark on a massive U.S. tour with Oakland-based artist Jay Som. Together, they help prove that women can break barriers in the music industry despite the biases of the people who run it. Both of Asian American descent (Zauner, by the way, is part Korean and Jewish; she just liked the name Japanese Breakfast), their talent also aids to close an even wider gap in an undeniably prejudicial profession.
1. "Mother"/How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
“Mother” is the final track on Florence’s most recent album and the one song that represents everything I love about her. It’s lyrically poetic using classic imageries of nature and religion to illustrate the desperations of survival--a gospel in its own right. Feminine and fierce, the song serves as a conclusion to the journey of self-discovery we take with her on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Most of all, this is Flo’s strongest homage to her influence Grace Slick. Her vocal sirens on the track speak so true to the late rock goddess it leaves you feeling like Flo has exercised Slick’s soul by the end of the song.
2. "Cosmic Love"/Lungs
Written during a “hangover to end them all,” “Cosmic Love” is a tale of galactic passion and unrequited love hums on a frequency so ubiquitous, I dare you not to think of your ex while listening. Fueled by harps and an uncharacteristically ghostly sounding Florence, "Cosmic Love" is a perfect snapshot of her early work; ethereal melodies backing up an almost mythological voice. Of course, we now know all about Flo’s gritty humanity and flaws as we’ve come to know her, but from her debut album, she very much flitted amongst the stars on this track.
3. "What The Water Gave Me"/Ceremonials
To be honest, I was not a fan of this song when it first came out. It dropped as the first single off Ceremonials over a month before “Shake It Out.” The recording felt abstract and avant-garde for Florence, and it terrified me that she might turn into an artist I didn’t want her to be. But it soon grew on me after Ceremonials’ full release. What felt disingenuine in fact became a point of integrity listed amongst the 11 other soulful tracks. Fun fact: The song’s theme tells of Virginia Woolf’s death and the title comes from a Frida Kahlo painting of the same name.
4. "Dog Days Are Over"/Lungs
The song that vaulted Florence into stardom and onto indie rock stations in the summer of 2009, “Dog Days” is as much a sweeping summer anthem as it is a coy cautionary tale. Warning listeners that “the dog days are over” and to leave their love behind “if they want to survive,” the track is truly all the best parts of Florence packed into a crisp 4:13’. Paired with a whimsical, colorful and frenetic art-house music video, the song highlights all the lighter elements of Flo, while alluding to the inner demons that will come to mark her later music.
5. "Delilah"/How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
This song, while lyrically desperate and damaging, empowers me out of a purgatory I often find myself in. Lost and only, Florence dances her way through one of her more uptempo singles off of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. The gospel refrains that so proudly define her previous album Ceremonials makes me love this track even more. We can all harmonize to waiting around for someone’s call.
6. "Shake It Out"/Ceremonials
Evoking the same desperate yet hopeful imagery as “Dog Days,” the second track off of Flo’s sophomore classic, “Shake It Out” is a daring depiction of triumph over one’s demons. Visualizing twisted and dark imagery of ghouls, monsters and one’s personal hell, Florence’s journey through the wrenching song is both universally familiar and hauntingly dark. For anyone (i.e., everyone) who’s ever felt crushed beneath the weight of their own devils, “Shake it Out” is the perfect exorcism.
7. "I'm Not Calling You A Liar"/Lungs
Recalling my first time seeing Flo perform live in 2009, the image of a towering six-foot harp that stood beside her on stage represent is first to note. The beautiful and unusual instrument symbolized her breakthrough into the music industry for many years. She used it frequently throughout Lungs, as is heard on this track, and it set her apart from all other artists at the time. With every strum of the harp, it's like I remember the night Flo and I formally met.
8. "Third Eye"/How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Epitomizing Flo’s evolution from staid vocalist to Stevie Nicks-esque nymph, “Third Eye” is a harmonized meditation on grief and pain, but from the unique perspective of the outside observer. Identifying the listener’s pain by claiming she can see the “hole where your heart lies with her third eye,” Florence is stepping outside of her usual role as an inner monologist and instead gifting us with her ability to see right through all of us, making “Third Eye” her most personal and intimate song to date.
9. "Hospital Beds"/A Lot of Love, a Lot of Blood EP
One of the first songs I ever heard of hers, "Hospital Beds" was included on A Lot of Love, a Lot of Blood, the EP she released months before her first album Lungs. It is a cover of a Cold War Kids recording by the same name and a complete departure from anything Florence was trying to be at the time. It remains one of my favorite tracks to this day because of how strangely it fits in her music portfolio. When I listen to it, I can see her walking into an open mic night at a grungy bar where no one knows her, taking the stage and rocking everyone’s world with this song.
10. "Stand By Me"/Songs From Final Fantasy XV
Flo has never been shy about her covers, bringing her unique theatricality and raw, powerful vocal emotion to Johnny Cash’s “Jackson,” a laconic edge to Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” and even venturing into pure pop waters with Drake’s “Take Care.” But nothing quite hits home like Flo’s grandiose version of Ben E. King’s soul classic, “Stand by Me.” Packing an emotional wallop amidst soaring strings and warbling notes, Flo finds the balance that so many covers fail to do; paying ample respect and homage to the spirit of the song, while going full boss herself and making it completely her own. Nobody can upstage the diva, and Florence reminds us beyond a doubt that she is indeed the queen of the stage.