It’s easy to picture Amber Bain as she describes her surroundings when she hops on the phone with me: a slight figure with a slew of dirty blonde hair passing her collar bone, setting in the garden of her mother’s home in a small British town, accompanied by two dogs (and later, a wandering cat), surrounded by “massive woods.” Were you to see the scene in passing, you very well may not recognize the 23-year-old, Dirty Hit Records’ supremely talented sleeper who performs under the moniker The Japanese House.
Releasing tracks since she was still in university, Bain’s music is instantly recognizable and seemingly impossible to imitate, both in production and its sincere delivery. A genre blend of alt. pop, Bain’s vocal essence is alluring yet haunting, evoking the devastating beauty of a Greek Siren’s voice. This aura transcends lyrically and visually into her recent single “Lilo,” a poignant break-up track whose music video features Bain and her ex — who inspired the song — offering an intimate glimpse into their relationship.
Now, following the tempting releases of four EPs, Bain is beckoning listeners to come in closer with the upcoming release of her first full-length, Good At Falling. With musical content spanning universal themes of love and heartbreak and more nuanced subjects, such as health anxiety, the young artist is laying it all bare.
Could you tell me a little bit about how you got involved with Dirty Hit?
I met Matty [Healy] from The 1975 ages ago. I don’t even know how many years ago now; like six years ago or something. This was before they got huge. He was seeing one of my friends and we had just become friends, and he had heard of my music and he was really positive about it. He introduced me to Jamie [Oborne] who runs Dirty Hit, and it was a really exciting time for me because I was in school getting these calls about a guy from a band I knew and Jamie, and to meet all these people who were really lovely…wow. And Jamie basically wanted to hear my music and wanted me to join his label and it’s been amazing because I haven’t been rushed in any way. I’ve been allowed to have the freedom of time to release records in a way that we both want to, which is like, quite a focused, specific kind of way of releasing EPs. I’m very particular about them and albums.
You’ve released four EPs and just announced your debut full-length. Do you have a preference in releasing EPs over LPs?
I think the reason that I released four EPs was not because I didn’t want to release an album, it was more like, I think that I liked the idea at the time of focusing specifically on four songs, having each be like a snapshot of that time. I’m really glad that I did that, because in a way, if I put those twelve songs together on album it probably would fit, but I do also think that if you compare the first few pieces of the music on the first EPs to the last, there is sort of a progression there musically in the sense of production and in the sense of songwriting.
So, I’m glad that I had the time to grow and expand, sort of find my ground before doing a full-length record. At the same time, I really enjoyed a full-length, it’s been a lot more expansive and it felt like more of a bigger project. It obviously took longer. It literally is bigger. I had a lot more time around it to focus on the nuances of the songs, the lyrics, and…I don’t know. It felt like a bigger deal and I guess it is.
Was it daunting at any time working on a more expensive piece compared to putting out, as you said, these snapshots? What differed in the process of making the EP and working on your album?
Well, first, it was a lot more immersive. I was a lot more heavily involved. That’s not really the word, but for example with the EPs, I would be in London and going for bits in the studio and then come home at the end of the day and be separated over periods of time. With the album, I stayed over for periods of time in Wisconsin for like six weeks and that was a really intense experience in a positive way. I’m in the middle of nowhere for six weeks with nothing to do or think about but my album and I’m not going home at the end of the day. I’m completely invested in one thing. And then I did that again in Brussels and Oxford, as well, for that album.
I guess that is the main difference, in how my life basically only involved around the album when I was doing the album. Whereas, when I was doing the EPs it was like I was doing other tours and finishing mixes. Me and George [Daniels] would be emailing notes and sending it back and forth. The process was different than going nowhere for six weeks to do an album, which I really enjoyed. I liked both ways. I don’t think I have a preference for either, but I think for an album, something that is supposed to be a bigger body of work, I want my album to have songs that link together and sort of work as one, so I think it is a good thing to do it in like one intense way rather than be going back and forth.
Absolutely. To completely immerse yourself in the process.
How did you guys decide where you were going to record? How did you end up in Wisconsin, of all places?
Well, I’ve always worked on the EPs with George and he was so busy that it didn’t really look that we would be able to work together, and so it started off with being like, “Well, ok. I’ll do it by myself.” And I did a lot of it on my laptop anyway, and maybe I’d do it myself and just do the last bit with George, which did happen in the end! I guess I went slightly mad on my own producing it and going in day after day. You don’t have a reference point and you don’t have someone’s opinions. Whether you agree with them or not, it is still always useful when you’re writing songs because it either entrenches your opinion or changes it. I think whether I think I need someone at the time or not, I definitely need some opinion there. It’s a positive thing to have someone there.
So, I really just Googled a few producers of a few albums that I like and the name that kept popping up was guy named BJ Burton who did the last Twin Shadow record. He is amazing. He wanted to work with me, actually. It was a weird thing, because he had asked his manager to get in touch with my manager because he had heard about me and wanted to work with me. It was a weird coincidence.
Like a fated thing.
Exactly! And then he was like, “Why don’t we just do the album in Wisconsin?”, and then I went over there and it was amazing. It was like a childhood dream to go in the middle of nowhere when it was snowing. I don’t know, it was nuts. It wasn’t a premeditated thing like, “I’m gonna do my album in the middle of nowhere!” It was kind of like the opportunity arose and I jumped at the chance to record there because it’s an amazing place.
Going forward, getting ready to release the album and tour with the new music, are there any nerves surrounding debuting this more expansive piece of work to fans compared to the releases in the past?
I’m not daunted at all, really. I’m sort of on the edge of my seat waiting to start touring. And I haven’t been touring in so long, so they haven’t saw these songs. I’m always proud of all my songs, but I’m particularly proud of these ones and I feel like in a live situation they are…I don’t know, I just think it’s going to be really excited.
I think I’m a bit older now, too. I started releasing music when I was 19, so I just want to put them out there. I always feel like I’m changing as a performer and songwriter and so it’s exciting each time you have new material because it really has changed because of your experiences and all. I’m just really excited because I haven’t released anything apart of “Lilo,” the first single of the album. I haven’t released anything in so long so it’s nice to be out of limbo in a sense and feel like I have a purpose.
Absolutely! Speaking of “Lilo,” you recently released the music video for the single, which featured your ex-girlfriend. The song itself is sort of beautiful but devastating in a way, having been inspired by that relationship. How did you approach her about being in the music video with you? I can’t imagine how that conversation went.
[Laughs] Well, I talk to her all the time, like I see her all the time. We’re still really good friends, so I didn’t really build it up. It all kind of just came out on the phone, like, “Do you think you’d want to be in it?” and she just said, “Sure, I’ll be in it.” Like a sort of amazing, kind of fun joke and I was like, “But… seriously? Do you want to be in it?” and then she was just like… I think she was scared it would make her mad or would make me sad and I was like, “Yeah, it’s going to make you sad. The song is really sad, but it would be really cool.” I also think it is really important to. I just don’t know what it would be like with someone else.
Looking back, I can’t imagine that being someone else because all of our shots are so real. It wasn’t like they were like, “Action!” and we sort of were like “Ok, let’s pretend that we love each other!” It felt natural and they just had the cameras rolling and then we were just being ourselves. Still, when I watch it, it moves me. It’s so intense emotionally for me, but I think people that have commented on it and watched it, and my friends who have seen it, have let me know how it made people feel and that is obviously a good feeling for me. I’m actually happy that we managed to portray something genuine and real.
I feel like that earnestness is a pretty large focal point for a lot of your music. There is definitely this kind sadness, almost melancholy, but still bright spots within it where you’re sad, but you’re content with that. Where do you kind of harness this kind of energy for this music?
I don’t know.
I know, it’s sort of a loaded question.
I don’t really try and sit down and think, “Now I am going to write something genuine,” because that obviously defeats the point. If you try and premeditate what kind of song or how you’re going to come across it just becomes contrived. It’s just the classic thing of writing as an outlet, and when I find it hard to talk about my feelings — sometimes I do, but sometimes I don’t — it usually just makes its way out in the lyrics or the mood of the song.
This album, lyrically, is very honest and blatant. It’s not really covered in metaphors or hiding under prettiness. It’s more direct. I think that probably came from being as a person, I’ve become a lot more open and confident about myself and my emotions and my ability to express them. I feel like I have nothing that I can say or feel like I have to hide and I guess that comes out in my music, because I have no desire to cover anything up. I don’t know, I feel very open and I want to share how I feel in a moment and that was definitely reflected on the album. In the video as well, it’s kind of a weird thing to display my last relationship on a screen.
For others to peak in at.
Right, but at the same time, I’m not sitting down like, “I want to write something that people can connect with,” but hopefully that’s what people do connect with: just honest words and feelings that aren’t necessarily that dramatic or over the top. But everyone has had a sad breakup and heartbreak and I end up always having that. I’ve either been in love or heartbroken my entire life. [Laughs]
So, I do write about those kinds of feelings, but on the album, there is a lot of… I don’t just write about fake love and heartbreak. I write about my mental health quite a lot and my health anxiety, which is a very horrible, real thing. It doesn’t sound like the most romantic thing to write a song about, but it’s a terrifying feeling to wake up every day thinking that you are going to die and that feeling being constant is a really intense thing. Stuff like that really gets me going.
Is that something that you’ve dealt with throughout your life, that health anxiety, or is that something that has come on as you’ve grown? As people get older you do get a bit more preoccupied with the idea of dying.
Yeah, I don’t think I’m old enough to think about or worry about me dying just yet, but just the thought of people who have died. Death just becomes a part of life and once I realized that it can actually happen, it completely switched my brain into sort of being shocked that nobody else was scared of dying like all the time. I was like, “Wait, how can everyone just walk around like everything is normal? Doesn’t anyone ever realize that we are all going to die?” I was like, “Why is everyone feeling like everything is fine?” I felt like that for ages and it would be really funny to just carry around a blood pressure monitor with me…
That’s funny to hear you say that, though, because like a year and a half ago I ended up having sepsis and it was from something completely innocuous, and when I got out of the hospital I made my mom, who I was staying with for a bit, buy me a blood pressure monitor because after that I was convinced that I was always going to be like on the brink of death.
Yeah, it’s like the same thing! It’s horrible, like it’s a pressure on your body and as soon as you realize weakness in yourself or realize your mortality, it’s almost like getting over the fact that you have to die, and that takes so long and it’s really horrible and hard.
Well, I’m morbidly excited to see how you approach that on the album. You’ve spoken a bit in the past about a kind of separation of yourself as Amber and your moniker The Japanese House, but you obviously do put a lot of yourself into your music. Do you feel that separation has gotten a bit smaller since you’ve been recording?
Well, I think that maybe at the start, or maybe since my confidence has grown and I’ve become more accepting of myself and my flaws, I don’t feel ashamed of myself. I think maybe I have to separate myself from my moniker because if I ever don’t like my identity then I can just run to my other one, or if I suddenly realize that everything that I’ve got is wrong. Now, I’m so open and blatant and direct. I’ve really put myself out there since my confidence has grown and I don’t know, it’s hard to do the classic thing as to love yourself, which is really just a cool thing. I’m feeling less and less of the need to hide behind anything.
The Japanese House, I don’t regret having that name, it’s quite an evocative name with all sorts of kinds of imagery, so I liked the name, but I don’t feel the need to separate myself with it at all anymore. I think that comes across in the songs I’m writing because I’m so crude. Not crude! Just really honest about stuff.
Yes, exactly! So yeah, you’re right. I also think the whole mysterious thing of nobody knowing who the hell I was behind the name had a lot to do with being terrified of having my photo taken. I wanted to avoid being photographed as much as possible. I still find it hard and I still feel really, really self-conscious and am afraid, of like, my image.
And now you’re in a music video with your ex-girlfriend talking about your own breakup, which is kind of huge step from that I feel like.
Yeah, exactly. I wouldn’t have been able to do that when I first started releasing music. In the video I’m like topless, throwing up, naked in the shower. I’ve obviously gotten over it. Once you’re honest about things and they are out there on the table, there is nothing left to worry about, because once you’ve laid yourself bare, you’ve already done it.
What are you most excited about on this upcoming tour and the album release?
Oh, I think the next song I am releasing, I’m not really sure if I’m allowed to say the name, so I won’t just in case. Anyway, the next song I am releasing is close to being my favorite on the next album. I’m really looking forward to both releasing that and playing that song live, because I just am really excited about playing it. My band, my bassist and my keyboard player both sing now, so three-part harmonies are going to be on every live [performance], because there are so many harmonies and I think it is going to just be so powerful with all three voices that gel really well together all at once and all the time in harmony. It’ll be like ABBA.
That’s really exciting.
Yeah, it’s going to be challenging musically to play all of this stuff and sing in harmony at the same time, so I think that is what is going to be really fun about it.
Catch The Japanese House performing live Dec. 12 at The Foundry in Philadelphia, and Dec. 15 at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn.