Between the hazy pictures, low key early gigs and the intangible music, the mystery surrounding The Japanese House, aka 23-year-old Amber Bain, could seem contrived. It is however, borne of a shyness that speaks to her gossamer pop sound. As she prepares to release debut album ‘Good At Falling’ on March 1, and ahead of her performance at NME’s Girls To The Front on February 25, she opens up to El Hunt about how heartbreak, ambition and a love of The Lion King got her to where she is today. Pictures by Fiona Garden.
Late last year at a packed-to-the-rafters London Scala, something seemed markedly different about The Japanese House. Thrashing away with a live band, all clad in matching sea green suits, it wasn’t just the stage get-up which was sharply tailored in a new direction.
Once a mist-drenched figure tucked behind a bank of twisted wires and electronics, cutting a focused if detached presence amid the gloom, today’s Amber Bain is an extroverted figure. Her music – warped, dirt-flecked love songs that whack you across the chops with quavering auto-tune, and gigantic choruses – suits the freewheeling new presence. Throwing her head back and roaring with laughter as a pineapple-shaped lilo suddenly projects itself across the crowd, The Japanese House exudes pure confidence.
We meet a month later in a Hackney Wick studio complex, in the sort of preposterously large, slate-grey room that wouldn’t look out of place in The Apprentice; the ideal architectural setting for a task based around upselling oat milk.
Reflecting on that gig, Amber says: “I used to feel like I’d taken about a gram of coke before playing. I’d be jittering and shaking. You could see my hands shake as I played guitar. [Now] I feel more confident”
Back when The Japanese House released her debut EP ‘Pools To Bathe In’ in 2015, she bamboozled listeners searching for the person behind it all. The combination of zero press shots and anonymous visuals swifty saw her branded with the ‘mysterious musician’ stamp; some even speculated that her work was a stealth side-project from The 1975’s Matty Healy.
On top of that, there was an ambiguous and hard to pin down quality to her mangled spin on pop; androgynous vocal pitch-shifts rippling with watery, porous imagery .“I’m the scrapes allowing your skin to breathe,” she sung on ‘Teeth, ”I could be anything.“
“It just became picked up on as this thing, that I was mysterious,” Amber says, nursing a black coffee. “Ooo, you’re really mysterious! It’s easier to say that than,” she adopts a comedy stage-whisper “they just don’t like having their photo taken.”
“There’s nothing about me that’s mysterious!” declares Amber, exasperated. “I’m literally here talking about how I don’t have sex anymore in my relationship!” she adds, referring to debut album track ‘We Talk All The Time’, which features the blinding chorus lyric “we don’t fuck anymore”. “What more do you want from me?!” She raises a fair point.
Amber Bain grew up in the various ‘Shires fringing London – Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, mainly – and moved about a fair bit with her mum following her parents’ divorce. A very stubborn kid, and in her words a bit of an “attention seeker” she spent much of her childhood yearning after greener grasses the other side of the M25.
Amber wasn’t harbouring dreams of becoming a musician at that point, mind. Instead, her life’s ambition was to belt out heart-warming musical numbers by Elton John, while surrounded by a troupe of giant dancing puppets and actors dressed up as animals.
“I saw The Lion King musical over 10 times,” Amber announces. “Every birthday, and any special occasion, actually. I was obsessed with it, and I wanted to be in it. I wanted to go to stage school at one point because I wanted to be on the West End. I wanted to be in The Lion King.” How far did she get with that one, then?
“Didn’t happen,” she laughs.
Amber never did get that call-up for Simba, but several roles in other less high-profile productions followed. In a fairly left-field edition of her school’s Christmas play, she took the lead role of Barney the Mouse; a cantankerous rodent who chews through an organ wire and wrecks Christmas for everyone else. And during a week away in Cornwall as a kid – while staying at actor Kate Winslet’s old holiday house, as you do – Amber spent her time away pretending to be a boy called Danny.
During the course of the week, a girl next door developed a serious crush, and the pair exchanged mushy love letters before Amber revealed her true identity. The situation inspired her The Japanese House moniker (her family lent that same nickname to the wood-panelled property) and Amber soon changed her tune when it came trying on different masks, too.
“I liked boys clothes, and wanted to do ‘stereotypical boy’ things,” she reasons. “Now I just do that, rather than think I have to be called Danny. I don’t have to be a man to do that. I don’t think I like playing characters,” Amber says. “In all aspects of life, I would find it difficult to not be myself.”
The Japanese House’s long-awaited debut album ‘Good at Falling’ subscribes to similar ideals. You don’t exactly need to be Nancy Drew to figure out that a specific break-up took place during its creation; it’s plainly spelt out.
With a rough trajectory that begins with ‘Lilo’, the album tells the entire story in cinematic, and painfully honest, style. After being introduced to the individual through a mutual mate and crashing headlong into love, ‘Good at Falling’ documents the slightly-too-comfortable afterglow, the doubts that begin to manifest, and learning to be alone again.
The Japanese House also took the bold, and somewhat unusual, step of asking the real life ex in question – fellow musician Marika Hackman – to star in the music video for ‘Lilo’ six months after they split. In the visual, the pair reenact the end of their own long-term relationship. It should, frankly, be awarded an Oscar for services to LGBTQ cinema, alongside The Favourite.
According to Amber, the most awkward moment of filming wasn’t during the more intimate scenes, strange as they were to shoot. Instead, she laughs, she felt at her lowest when the time came to deflate the lilo in the middle of the freezing cold water. If ever there’s an aptly miserable metaphor for weathering a break-up, it’s surely lying alone on a slowly deflating air-bed, with nothing but the spluttering hiss of escaping air for company.
It can be hard, she admits, to be so honest about her relationship; especially given that Marika Hackman is also an artist. “Wait ‘til her next album!” Amber laughs. “It’s weird, I’ve written all these songs that are really obviously about my break-up. But does that suddenly give me the right to talk about that in detail, when the other person hasn’t necessarily agreed? Well, I am doing it. I spoke to Marika the other day about it, because she’d read or seen something that I’d done, and was like, ‘It’s quite intense hearing that’. I was like, ‘Yeah, it is intense, I’m sorry.”
Intensity is a fitting word to pin on ‘Good At Falling’. As well as detailing the breakdown of her relationship, it also tackles Amber rebuilding her relationship with herself; picking apart the scrabble to exist alone again. Many songs concern different states of consciousness, chiselling through half-awake doubts and dreamscapes to get to her own core.
The groggy, self-loathing stupor of ‘Everybody Hates Me’ – following three years of constant hangovers – is a brutal listen; “I’d wake up every morning like, I wonder who I fucked off this time?” Amber says. “There’s a lyric about Marika sleeping on the sofa. I remember looking at her. I think when someone’s asleep, and you’re awake and there’s no-one else there, it’s almost more lonely than being alone. You’re made so aware of how everyone is so separate, when it boils down to it. You might feel as though you have these partnerships with people, but actually you are inherently alone. I struggle with alcohol,” she adds, “but it’s less about that, and more about the effects.”
‘You Seemed So Happy’, meanwhile, chips away at the layers of smiling armour she put on to leave the house. “I had extremely bad health anxiety, and I was finding it hard to leave the house without a blood pressure monitor or testing my temperature five times,” she explains. “Somebody I know sadly passed away in quite a tragic way. You never think these things are going to happen to you. As soon as it does happen, you think everything’s going to happen to me now. I think I can appear as very positive and at ease. Maybe I do play a character in a sense, but underneath, I was really struggling.”
Sleeping, dreaming, waking and different states of consciousness all crop up regularly on ‘Good At Falling’. Are you a big dreamer?
“I hadn’t thought about that at all! Mmm. I have very violent nightmares most nights. The other day, before I went to bed, NME posted about the Girls to the Front show [The Japanese House plays the NME gig on February 25] and Julia Cumming from Sunflower Bean commented on it. Then I went to sleep. Anyway, I dreamt I was playing that NME show, and Julia was like, ‘oh, I haven’t really listened to your music, what’s the show going to be like’? Then she got ‘Saw You In A Dream’ up on her phone, and the dream version of this song was so boring. The worst shit. Julia loved it, though.”
This debut album’s no-holds-barred approach to writing stems from one song in particular, Amber reckons. There’s a reason why ‘Saw You in A Dream’ – albeit a stripped-back second version of it – is the only older song to make it onto a record of entirely new material. Written at a time when The Japanese House was having a creative wobble – one specific song from a previous EP, which she won’t name, “didn’t feel completely honest” – the song seemed to open brand new doors. And not just musically; Amber Bain’s presence in the vivid, dream-like video was a revelation. Skipping among swooning backing dancers, ducking under a night sky painted onto a sheet, The Japanese House stepped into the spotlight and never looked back.
“I wrote it just after someone I knew passed away,” she explains. “It was the first girl I ever fell in love with.”
Shedding all the intricate layers of vocal treatment, and painting a gentler, hazier melody, it’s not just The Japanese House’s most upfront work, it’s a raw gem of a song, too; capturing the strangely possible impossibility of seeing somebody who has left forever, chatting away and strolling down the pathways of your own grey matter like nothing ever changed. “She’s in this song,” Amber smiles. “It’s nice that I get to remember her, every day, in a dream.”
“I think it works really well as a stripped back recording,” she says of the newer version, which closes ‘Good At Falling’. “It’s basically just two live recordings panned left and right, no vocal editing. It sounds very raw, is that the word we should use? I was crying while recording those takes. There’s emotion captured in there forever.”
Besides finishing off her long-awaited debut, The Japanese House has been busy pursuing a wholesome lifestyle; after moving out of her old place to live alone, Amber got a dog. To be more specific, she became the owner of a gigantic German Shepherd named Calvin. He’s ambivalent towards her music, apparently, and regularly snoozes through studio sessions.
Amber’s current phone background features a photoshopped Call Me By Your Name film poster starring her and Calvin staring mistily into the horizon. She’s also swapped her West End ambitions for the tantalizing lights of Hollywood; Amber’s chief goal following the release of her album is to headline The Planet. For the uninitiated, The Planet is an iconic fictional venue from tragically bad, endlessly influential TV show The L Word. The likes of Sleater-Kinney and Peaches played the bar in the original series, and with rumours of a reboot flying around, The Japanese House is vying to become the show’s next queer icon.
Since you tweet about the show more or less every week – are you excited about The L Word returning?
“Imagine playing The Planet! That would be my dream. All we need is for one person who’s involved to read this interview. Get me out there, to The Planet. Every time I’m in LA, I can’t stop thinking I’m in The L Word. Not that my social life in LA in any way reflects the show. I’m definitely not going out there being a Shane [the show’s resident Lothario, best known for her womanising behaviour and leather waistcoats]. I’m more like, staying indoors watching Game of Thrones with MUNA. It’s ridiculous though, isn’t it, that there hasn’t been another L Word?”
How dare you slander Lip Service [a UK attempt at following The L Word’s success, set in Glasgow] in this way…
“Though Lip Service was awful, it was probably the reason I got with my first girlfriend. She was like, ‘I’ve been watching Lip Service and I think one of the characters is really hot. I think I might be gay!”. I was like, ‘What?’ [mimes snapping to attention]. I’d been in love with her for, like, two years. ’Oh cool!’ It made everyone talk about being gay, and it wasn’t something that was embarrassing or weird. And for a lot of my school life, people did talk about being gay in that way.”
Downing the last of her coffee, Amber heads home to cuddle up with Calvin. “It was a crazy move as a 22 year old to get a dog, probably quite stupid,” she ponders, noting that March marks her first anniversary as a dog owner. Taking a bit of time alone, it’s the only sort of relationship milestone she can get behind right now.
“I missed up him when I was on tour,” she adds. “He really helped. I don’t think I would’ve got out of bed for six months, if I didn’t have him. Having a responsibility is stressful, at times, but when I’m around him…” she concludes. “I’m not questioning my own existence.”
The Japanese House plays NME’s Girls To The Front at The Shacklewell Arms, London, on Monday. Support comes from label-mate Beabadoobee.
The album, ‘Good At Falling’, is out on March 1 on Dirty Hit