The Japanese House: the inside story of her stunning debut album, recorded at Bon Iver’s cabin

Sometimes you just have to face up to your fears. Hours before we meet, The Japanese House, aka Amber Bain, parked the fact that she’s petrified of birds to help an injured one found by her German Shepherd, Calvin, in the park. The pair got the bird home, gave it a bit of TLC and it’s now on the mend. Had Amber not stepped up? Well, it could have ended badly for that little chap.

Her debut album, ‘Good At Falling’, released next March, similarly sees her face up to fears in tracks that lay her personal life and heartbreak bare. And following up a set of stellar EPs, which included co-production by George Daniel from The 1975 probably wasn’t easy, too.

The album has already produced one of the year’s most heart-rending tracks in the shape of ‘Lilo’, including a devastating video featuring Marika Hackman, Amber’s ex. Honesty is key in Amber’s songs – they’ll hit you with a tidal wave of emotion.

This week, Amber hits the road for her first tour of the year, and her first after putting the album to bed. There’ll be songs from that album played live, but first, Amber talks to us about turning those emotional moments into an album, boiling in overalls in Death Valley and recording in Bon Iver’s cabin.

How are you feeling about ‘Good At Falling’?

“I have a lot of self-doubt, but I’m really happy with it. I usually have that ‘I’m an idiot, I’m a fraud’ moment with stuff, but I haven’t had it with this album. Maybe it’s to come…”

Are there any EP songs you’ve re-recorded for it?

“There’s a different version of ‘Saw You In A Dream’, which is an acoustic version, basically. I didn’t do it to fill a space, it was because I wanted it to be on the album and it fits. Y’know, there’s a reason it’s taken a long time because it’s all new material.”

I hear you’ve been somewhere pretty special for this album….

“For the first bit I was in Wisconsin, literally in the middle of nowhere, in a recording cabin that’s owned by Justin Vernon [Bon Iver].

Did you get to meet Bon Iver?

“No, I know so much about him but never met him.”

And it was a live-in place?

“Yeah, originally I was going to try and produce the album by myself because George [Daniel, The 1975‘s drummer] was too busy, and I didn’t know whether I wanted another producer because that relationship had been so special. I tried it and I went absolutely insane. It almost feels like I’m cheating if I ask people to do things for me.”

“Eventually I Googled all of these albums and found a common thread between them was this producer called BJ Burton [Bon Iver, James Blake, The Staves], who’s brilliant . We ended up doing two months in Wisconsin, a month in Brussels then the last bit in Oxford with The 1975. I rarely get to hang out with them, so having that couple of weeks was really nice again because we are close.”

Must be good to close the album with The 1975 seeing as you’d worked with them for a long time beforehand…

“I saw them out in LA too, and I’d just been through a break-up and I was a wreck and I just had these four lovely boys looking after me and mothering me basically. It makes me very emotional when I think about how sweet they were to me.”

Japanese House

Some of those studios were live-in environments. That must have been intense, right?

“We did lose our mind a little bit. We hadn’t spoken to any other people for like two months and the first interaction I had with someone after that, I went out in Minneapolis and wasn’t really able to speak properly, not understanding how conversations working.”

Why did you release the track ‘Lilo’ first?

“It wasn’t the song I felt most comfortable with but it’s the one that most emotive to me and still breaks my heart because it’s so fresh. ‘Lilo’ also hints at a new thing for me, which is me being more blatant, open and frank lyrically.”

“The Lilo video made me cry.”
– The Japanese House

The video for ‘Lilo’, featuring you and your ex-girlfriend Marika Hackman, really is something…

“I’m glad I did that video even though it was really weird, it make sense to do it. It’s fucked me up a bit. Marika [Hackman, musician and Amber’s previous partner] asked, ‘Will it make me sad?’ and then I said, ‘Yeah, it’s making me sad thinking about it’. All of our friends kept saying ‘oh you’re so brave’ and we didn’t think so as we hang out all the time now anyway. But it turned out to be quite a big deal. We hadn’t been a ‘team’ for a little while. We spend time together, but normally with other people around. It made me a lot sadder than I thought it would – it made me cry so much when I first watched it. Probably a stupid thing to do, but I don’t regret it because I love the video.”

What was the rest of the shoot like, then?

“I was freaking out about it because I was so invested. Originally we weren’t going to burn the car and I was like, ‘We have to burn the car. I always end up putting loads of pressure on myself, like taking the press shots in Death Valley in August at 50℃ . I feel a level of ownership over my stuff, but I think this album taught me about collaborating and letting people in.”

Did you have your guard up because of how people have talked about previous collaborations?

“Through no fault of their own, I’ve constantly been asked if The 1975 write my songs. It was frustrating when I was 19 and people assumed it wasn’t me writing them. George and Matty did loads, especially George, but if you listen to the demos I did a lot too, and it was definitely a co-production. So subconsciously I thought, ‘In that case, I’ll have to do absolutely everything so I can say that it’s all me’. When I got to the record, it was a chance to let people in a little bit more. It used to hit a nerve, but at the end I just thought ‘who cares?’ If you have talented people around, then that’s great.”

“I’m constantly asked if The 1975 write my songs – it’s frustrating”
– The Japanese House

A male musician usually won’t get those questions…

“I think a lot of it is to do with being a girl. This random manager, not mine now, said that, ‘Your USP is that you’re a girl and you can do production stuff’, at the time I didn’t question it – but now I’m like ‘what?! Why wouldn’t a girl be able to do production?’  I think a boy wouldn’t get those same assumptions. If Kevin Parker [Tame Impala] does it, it’s like ‘yeah sure’, but if a girl, they say ‘oh she’s very technically minded…'”

Now that the album is done, what is something you’d wish you’d known at the start?

“I usually write half the song and those lyrics come out really easily, and then I get distracted and it’s hard to tap back into that mindset. But I’m really glad that I waited a bit, because if I had written them when I needed to, they wouldn’t have been the same as what they are now.

When do you know something like this is finished, though?

“There’s a point when I detach from a song. If it’s a song I’ve played live loads or enough people have heard it, I’ll recognise it as the past. That’s when I know a song is finished.”

‘Good At Falling’ is out March 1 on Dirty Hit

See Japanese House live: 

Scala, London (Nov 21)
Thekla, Bristol (22)
Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (23)
02 Institute Birmingham (24)
Gorilla, Manchester (25)