Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilation: From Coat Check Room To Grammy Noms & Global Touring

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Cover of Pollstar’s Jan. 17, 2022 issue: Japanese Breakfast performs at Brooklyn Steel in New York Oct. 14, 2021. Photo By Samantha Ostrowski / smoostrowski.com

Philadelphia’s Union Transfer has long served as a benchmark for where songwriter, musician and author Michelle Zauner is at in her career. Zauner, who heads up the indie rock/pop band Japanese Breakfast, recalled how promoter Sean Agnew of R5 Productions gave her a job working as the “coat check girl and concessions employee” when she was “down and out, going on DIY tours, coming back, getting fired from restaurant jobs.”   

In August, Zauner returned to reopen the venue for its first post-lockdown shows – a sold-out five-night stand at the 1,200-cap room that marked the longest run an artist has ever done at Union Transfer. 

“She started off as an intern, then a staff person and became an actual friend,” Agnew said. “So incredibly proud and excited for her. We wanted to do something special for these shows and bounced around a few ideas. At first it was all typical things that venues do – like big cakes or lots of champagne. But I wanted to do something really special and unique.”

After the crowd cleared out following the band’s last set, Agnew brought Zauner out to the lobby to show off the newly christened “The Michelle Zauner Coat Check.”

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Union Transfer’s Michelle Zauner Coat Check Photo by Macie Stewart

“I remember it was a huge deal when we first opened for a band at Union Transfer and then to be able to sell out one night at Union Transfer and then two nights … and then to go suddenly from two nights to five nights after a year and a half of not playing. … And seeing that they’ve renamed the coat check that you started working at when it first opened and there’s a plaque that says, ‘May everyone that works in this room go on to sell out five nights at Union Transfer’ – it was a career highlight moment,” Zauner said. 

The Union Transfer run (6,000 tickets sold; $146,720 grossed) was one of several stand-out moments on the tour supporting the band’s acclaimed and Grammy-nominated third studio album, Jubilee, including four nights at Chicago’s Thalia Hall Sept. 15-16 and Oct. 11-12 (3,896 tickets sold; $120,502 grossed) after previously just playing one gig at the venue in 2019. The July-November tour also boasted a sold-out four-night run at New York’s 1,800-capacity Brooklyn Steel Oct. 14-17. 

“Any tour at this point is miraculous, but that was one that we moved a bunch and we were pretty grateful that played through,” said Timmy Hefner of Ground Control Touring, who represents Japanese Breakfast along with Merrick Jarmulowicz. “The last time we did not have a backup plan. We all kind of got pretty stubborn towards the end that one was going to play out.” 

Just pulling off the tour in the midst of the pandemic, without a band member testing positive for COVID or being forced to cancel a single show, was a huge win in itself. Japanese Breakfast was one of the first artists to announce COVID protocols, with an Aug. 2 post noting that all upcoming shows would require attendees be fully vaccinated or show proof of a negative PCR test, along with wearing face masks. Staff interacting with the band or audience were required to be fully vaccinated. 

“There were no rules given to us, like by anyone, going into this. And so we really had to work together as a team and come up with them together,” Zauner said. “It was really uncharted territory. When we started in July it was kind of the honeymoon period where it felt like we were all vaccinated and it was over. Maybe a week into touring, we realized there were cases of Delta in the news and that we should start working on a plan. Anyone that tours knows that if we were out in the bus and had to cancel 10 dates, that’s a financial nightmare for everybody involved. And so we needed to do whatever we could to not get a breakthrough case.”

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Michelle Zauner who records under the moniker Japanese Breakfast. Photo by Tonje Thilesen

Fans were on board with the COVID protocols and happy to mask up to see the band live, while some promoters initially had some pushback. Hefner noted, “To their defense, nobody had ever done anything like this. Everyone was like, ‘Yo, our lawyers are going to be like, “We’re going to get the shit sued out of us,” we can’t do it.’ [laughs] … They all did [agree to the protocols] in the end. And that’s the important thing.” 

Zauner has toured in a number of bands since she was 16 as well as booking her own gigs and initially self-managing Japanese Breakfast, which she began in 2013 as a solo side project. An impressive live set at South by Southwest in 2016 landed her representation with Ground Control Touring as well as signing with the independent label Dead Oceans. In 2017 she began working with her manager, Ten Atoms president Ryan Matteson.

While COVID may have prevented Zauner from showing off her penchant for stage diving, the 2021 tour saw her – as always – all-in when it comes to her dynamic live show.

“Her stage presence speaks for itself,” Hefner says. “I think she’s always been a star and it’s only getting better and better. She came up from the mindset of ‘Treat every show like it’s the same [whether] I’m headlining or playing a festival or I’m playing a dinky show where I didn’t get a soundcheck.’ The first show I saw she played to like 50 people at South By. … Of course, it’s a next-level production since then, but I still was like, ‘This girl is a star.’” 

With Zauner on lead vocals, guitar and electric piano, Japanese Breakfast also features her husband, Peter Bradley, on guitar and keys; Deven Craige on bass; and Craig Hendrix on drums, vocals and pads (who also serves as Japanese Breakfast’s tour manager). The 2021 tour added Adam Schatz on sax/keys and multi-instrumentalists Macie Stewart, Molly Germer and Emily Wells on select dates playing violin, keys and providing background vocals. 

Japanese Breakfast’s lighting and sound crew features Harrison Fore (front of house), Starr McLaughlin (monitors), Kat Borderud (lighting director) and Rachel Dispenza (production/merch manager). 

Along with the augmented lineup and the addition of a lighting director, the 2021 tour boasted a giant gong.

“I can remember when Michelle finished the record and telling me, ‘We’re going to need a gong on stage,’ kind of laughing … [I said] ‘I don’t know that that’s actually going to be in the budget.’” Matteson said. “But it became such a triumphant part of the show. We knew that if we were going to take all these risks and ask our fans to be vaccinated and masked, we wanted to make sure everybody walked away saying, ‘Wow, that was worth it.’” 

Japanese Breakfast’s fanbase has steadily expanded thanks in part to the release of Zauner’s best-selling memoir, “Crying In H Mart” and the success of the infinitely catchy “Be Sweet,” the band’s first song to chart on radio (Top 10 on Triple A). 

 “I think the strategy was always supreme belief,” Matteson said. “We believe that everything that Michelle puts out, the audience will find it if we all do our jobs correctly. So that’s everything from the marketing that we put into album campaigns and tours or the marketing that we put into the sales of her book.”

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Japanese Breakfast performs at St Andrews Hall on Aug. 4, 2021, in Detroit. Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images

Jubilee was initially supposed to be released in 2020, but rather than putting it out in a vacuum, Matteson explained that the team came up with a three-pronged approach of having the release of the memoir lead in April 2021, followed by the album in June and the soundtrack Zauner created for the video game “Sable” in September. 

“Crying In H Mart” details Zauner’s complicated, yet fierce bond with her mother and the heartbreak of losing her to pancreatic cancer in 2014. Zauner also discusses wrestling with her identity as a Korean-American kid who grew up in a small town in Oregon and her journey as a musician, including the thrill of playing her first open mic night. The title is a reference to the power of food to represent culture, family and love.  

Japanese Breakfast is known for its dreamy, shoegaze-inspired and often melancholy tunes. After writing 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet and finishing the rough draft of “Crying In H Mart,” with much of the material devoted to loss and grief, Zauner was ready to take on the challenge of a new theme by focusing the tracks on embracing joy. 

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Michelle Zauner and her husband/bandmate Peter Bradley of Japanese Breakfast rock Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Wash., May 27, 2018. Photo by Jim Bennett/Getty Images 

Jubilee kicks off with “Paprika,” which celebrates the euphoria of being on stage, surrounded by an adoring crowd: “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, who linger on every word / Oh, it’s a rush / Oh, it’s a rush.”

As the strings in the song swell, there’s a moment in the song where the joy is palpable and it feels like you’re in the middle of an exuberant parade; fittingly, the song was inspired by a surreal parade in the Satoshi Kon anime film “Paprika.” The song demands to be played live. 

“I had chills when we played ‘Paprika’ for the first time because it was such a thesis statement for the record and it was just so fitting for the time of remembering what it’s like to share music with people,” Zauner said. “And it felt like such a joyous cacophony of sharing that with people for the first time and whacking a giant gong.”

Jubilee was included on a number of 2021 “Best Of” lists including Rolling Stone, NPR and Pitchfork, while “Crying In H Mart” was lauded as a Best Books of 2021 by Barnes and Noble and the winner of Goodreads’ Choice Awards for Best Memoir & Autobiography. Perhaps most gratifying, Japanese Breakfast is nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist while Jubilee is up for Best Alternative Music Album. 

“The Grammy nomination is something that every generation and every person around the world knows what it is – even my 60-something year old aunt in Korea,” Zauner said. “It’s incredible, like an undeniable summit of achievement. I cannot wrap my head around the fact that we’re a two-time Grammy nominee. … BTS read the nominations for Best Alternative Album. I found the video online and I sent it to [my aunt] because she obviously knows who BTS is, it’s like The Beatles over there. It was a really fun thing to get to share with her.” 

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Japanese Breakfast plays Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 8, 2018, in Manchester, Tenn. Photo by C Flanigan/WireImage

Japanese Breakfast is set to return to the road for a European tour scheduled March 13-31, followed by summer festival appearances.  

When plotting the European tour, agent William Church of ATC Live explains, “It was clear from the first listen that this was a record stacked with amazing songs. That impacted the thought process – let’s be ambitious with this tour and put statement headliners in place. I also took a look at the data – so stats on Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, Songkick – where is the band’s audience? I had discussions with Dead Oceans and with management – where are they seeing spikes in press coverage or radio play? Let’s hit those markets as well.”

He added, “Decisions on room sizes were made with detailed discussion with each promoter in every market, based on what tickets the band had sold previously, what the data told us and the strength of the record. Taking London, as an example, we sold around 1,000 tickets on the Soft Sounds From Another Planet tour. We wanted to make a clear statement on this [tour] and … we went with Kentish Town Forum with a second venue on hold.”

North American touring plans are in the works and confirmed U.S. fest appearances include Coachella, Bonnaroo, Shaky Knees in Atlanta and Waking Windows in Winooski, Vt.

A few days before Zauner spoke to Pollstar, former President Barack Obama released his highly anticipated “Favorite Books Of 2021” list, which included “Crying In H Mart.” 

In response, Zauner said, “It’s completely bonkers. It just feels like a very peak moment in my career is happening right now. And I guess this is just how this happens. But it’s surreal and incredible.”