At 16 years old, Michelle Zauner wore bootcut jeans and Forever 21 t-shirts while she played simple sets at WOW Hall with only an acoustic guitar.
A decade later, she joked with the crowd at another WOW Hall performance. During a homecoming show on Friday night, Zauner, who now plays under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, said, “You have these moments in your life where you think, ‘I was such hot shit.’”
Throughout the night’s set, Zauner reflected on her time growing up in Eugene between performances of glimmery pop. She displayed a distinct intimacy with the venue and the crowd. Shedding light on the various inspirations of her songs — many coming from her experiences in this city — her performance was charming and powerful.
The Canadian four-piece band Ought opened the show. The band performed artsy, post-punk songs like “Diseducation,” “Men For Miles” and “Disgraced in America.” While energetic, the performance also maintained a contemplative nature. The group was most stimulating during its breakdowns, when drummer Tim Keen kept a more complicated beat and guitarist/vocalist Tim Darcy’s distorted guitar peaked through gloomy layers of keys and bass.
Ought’s performance was more ominous than that of Japanese Breakfast, but it set the energy in the room to a mellow excitement. During the tasteful punk tracks, Darcy’s rounded vocals dripped, sometimes spilling over the music. Once they exited the stage, the crowd was in heavy anticipation for the headliner.
Zauner, wearing a green striped dress that playfully reflected the stage lights, arrived with the rest of her band on stage to great applause from the young audience. She began with “Diving Woman,” the first song from her latest album, “Soft Sounds from Another Planet.”
Her light-hearted demeanor allowed her to groove to her own compositions freely. Zauner’s wonderful cantations were the centerpiece of the performance; her voice fluctuated between whispers and shouts. During her performance of “Everybody Wants to Love You,” she exhibited the perfect amount of rasp — her shrieks were heartstopping. Zauner is even more captivating on stage than in her studio tracks. Despite the fact that her music is generally more saddening in nature, Zauner seemed happy to be back in a familiar place.
“This is such a crazy special show for me to play at the WOW Hall,” Zauner told the audience. “I’ve seen many a gig here and played many first shows here when I was 16 and 18. It’s really special.”
She played a white-and-black electric guitar, and sometimes put it down to focus on singing at the mic. Halfway through the show, she picked up an acoustic guitar and delivered beautiful renditions of “Till Death” and “Triple 7” with just one other band member on stage.
Throughout the show, Zauner shared a few anecdotes about her time in Eugene. She mentioned the dreaded Snowball Dances that she attended at Roosevelt Middle School (which informed her song “Boyish”), having her best friend cut her hair in her friend’s apartment on Willamette Street and junior prom, where she wore a suit and her date wore a dress. She wrote the album “Psychopomp” at her parents’ house beyond Spencer’s Butte shortly after her mom passed away from cancer.
“So many of these songs are written about my time in Eugene, so it feels really good to play them here,” she said. “But they have a sort of haunted quality. What was a really cool place to grow up turned out to be a really sad place to come back to.”
She exited the stage for the first time after a performance of “The Machinist.” “It’s about falling in love with a robot,” she said in a humorous tone. When the song ended, Zauner thanked the crowd and left the stage, leaving the audience at WOW Hall wanting more.
After a lasting applause and shouts of “encore,” Japanese Breakfast returned to the stage and performed a cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams.” Zauner and the rest of her band showed much appreciation for the crowd as they rocked out for the last time. After the cover, she thanked everyone again and left the stage, professing her love for the city that she was raised in.