As Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner writes sparkling, opulent dream pop about grief and love (and, occasionally, robots). After releasing its debut album, Psychopomp last year, the band returned with this year's stunning Soft Sounds From Another Planet. Where Psychopomp, written in the immediate aftermath of the death of Zauner's mother, zeroed in on the experience of Zauner's grief, Soft Sounds widens her aperture, featuring paeans to her coping mechanisms, ruminations on crooked relationship dynamics and said sci-fi robot fantasy.
At its Tiny Desk concert, the band swapped out Soft Sound's gauzy, astral synths for acoustic guitar and piano, and was joined by members of Washington, D.C. string section Rogue Collective. Zauner had wanted to do something special for the performance, and was tipped off by Landlady's Adam Schatz that the Rogue Collective make pretty great Tiny Desk partners. The Collective practiced with Japanese Breakfast the day before the Tiny Desk, and was a featured guest later that night at the band's D.C. show.
The adaptation highlighted Zauner's strength as a songwriter, providing an even more direct line into the raw emotion at the heart of her songs. The string swells during "Boyish" lent gravity to the song's bittersweet desperation. During "Till Death," her ode to marriage, Zauner sang — as she often does — in a way that strains her voice to the crackling, taut edge of heartbreak. It's arresting on any stage, but particularly powerful in the stark midday light of NPR Music's office.
For its final song at the Tiny Desk, Japanese Breakfast performed "This House." Gone was the Rogue Collective, and indeed much of the band — just Zauner and pianist Craig Hendrix remained. The song describes moments in love that are more fearful labor than bliss, the hazy space where commitment, confusion and longing intersect. Like much of Japanese Breakfast's music, the performance shows Zauner looking unblinkingly at fear and pain, daring us to do the same.
- "Till Death"
- "This House"
Michelle Zauner; Deven Craige, Craig Hendrix; Peter Bradley; Alexa Cantalupo; Kaitlin Moreno; Natalie Spehar
Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Producers: Bob Boilen, Morgan Noelle Smith; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Niki Walker, Bronson Arcuri, Colin Marshall; Photo: Christina Ascani/NPR
For more Tiny Desk concerts, subscribe to our podcast.