Interview: The Japanese House

Photo credit: press photo as seen on NME

By Emma Murphy and Mike O’Brien

Coming up to the release of her new album Good at Falling, we got a chance to talk to Amber Bain (or as you may know her, The Japanese House). Her eclectic dream-pop style had made her a fast favourite of ours. We watched her play back in November on the Thekla in Bristol, and as singles began to roll out in preparation for the album, we were overjoyed to find that they were just as emotionally charged as her live performance.

Unlike other artists of her genre and age, Bain’s work carries a unique sense of weight. The melancholy that seeps out of many of her songs is touching, yet also refreshing. One moment, her songs will have you reaching back in your mind to memories you thought long forgotten, bogged down by the overwhelming heaviness of existence. The next, you seem to have consigned to oblivion, dancing haphazardly to intense bass and her light drawl. The Japanese House as a project is seductive in its intentional androgyny, and as a queer female artist, Bain’s voice is especially important to both her fans and the developing genre niche. The solo-project’s title is a call back to her childhood holidays in Devon, where she visited a Japanese style cottage. For some time she posed as a boy, starting a summer romance with a local girl, who upon finding out her true identity, was heartbroken.

We spoke to Bain on a sunny Wednesday morning (as sunny as can be expected in Cardiff), and her openness about discussing the topics of her work created an increasingly fascinating conversation.

Hi Amber, How are you doing?

Not bad, not bad, tired mostly. And you guys?

Well we were both up until about 4am last night so we can definitely relate.

Me too, actually.

I assume that your 4am is vastly more interesting than ours.

It was absolutely not; I can assure you. I’m just here alone, I haven’t left this sort of 100 metre premises in 2 weeks. It’s been pretty tame.

Sounds like a well needed break.

Well it’s actually– I’m in the studio, so, it’s actually not a break.

We saw you in November, in Bristol. We absolutely adored it.

Oh thank you, where was it in Bristol?

On the Thekla, on the boat.

Oh yeah. I like that place, it’s fun.

Do you often play smaller venues like that?

Well, I guess so, yeah.

Yeah, we were a little bit curious, because your Spotify numbers are massive, you’re going on huge tours, it seems to me like you could have all of these big venues, and you’ve played at big venues, but the Thekla was very very intimate. I was just wondering whether or not that had any personal significance to you.

Well I think– it was the first tour back in a long time, we just did some smaller shows because it was the first time coming back. You sort of have to build your way back up again, rather than being like “lets just see if we can sell out a massive arena.” to me, it’s like, I guess I’ve played a very wide range of different venues, but to be honest it’s not really my… I don’t make any decisions when it comes to where I play. It’s not really, I just kind of write the music and all the other stuff is not up to me, Because if it was up to me, I wouldn’t get anything done.

You have quite a wide array of songs thematically speaking, songs that are quite low, quite mellow, about insecurity and vulnerability. But you also have songs that are quite jaunty and quite happy.

I do? *laughs*

I’m wondering whether or not you have a particular preference for playing one or the other live, or whether they’re both just similarly fun for you?

I feel like, the only song that still affects me every time I sing it, because most songs don’t, they lose meaning to you after you’ve sung them a thousand times, they’re sort of muscle memory by that point. It’s just the type of thing you just don’t think about. The one song that I have to try and not cry most of the time is Saw You in a Dream. That’s why I put it on the album as well, because I think, obviously while it’s a different version of it, it’s my song that’s the most intense. You guys saw it in Bristol, it starts off as the new acoustic version, and moves into the original version. The lyrics always kind of fuck me up. But then, at the same time, I love playing the fast ones. Probably my least favourite song of mine is Face Like Thunder, I didn’t really like that song a lot of the time, but I do like it now because I played it live. It’s kind of equal, it depends on the night, on how depressed I’m feeling.

Emma and I were waiting hard for that song on the Thekla, and we were a few drinks in when you started playing. We’ve never been happier. I wanted to ask as well, there’s obviously quite a significant 80s influence in your work. You did a cover of Landslide by Fleetwood Mac a while back, and I remember listening to it and sending it to Emma, who immediately went: “Oh! This is Fleetwood Mac!” I hadn’t even recognized that it wasn’t your own. How much of an influence has that kind of era of music had on you?

I don’t really know if the era has had a specific influence on me at all. Fleetwood Mac is a band that has definitely influenced me. I think Landslide might have been released a bit earlier. It’s hard to tell what I’m influenced by, because I’m not moved to make music that is inspired by a specific thing. I will obviously be influenced by anything that I’ve heard and loved, because by default it just happens. Your taste is built up of music that you’ve listened to, so that kind of starts your planet I guess. I don’t feel very influenced by the 80s at all. I’ve never considered it before, but maybe I am, subconsciously.

It’s a you make what you want to hear kind of thing. Your songs are all obviously very emotionally charged usually, there is this sense of thematic consistency to me. Are these songs always written about direct experience, or sometimes are they more broadly about feelings?

They’re always direct I think. I’m too much of an ego maniac to write about anybody else but myself I think. I physically cannot detach from myself, I always talk about this– because I really respect my friends who can write about the world, whereas I am always drawn to writing about myself and my reflection on the world. If I do write about the world in any way it’s like, a mirror that’s reflecting it. It’s something that I’m aware of, the world is definitely affecting me more as I’m getting older. I find myself thinking more about the world, so it is probably something that will seep into my songwriting in some way. I feel like the songs on the album are all very personal, I think I’m being very frank, maybe to others it won’t be as obvious what I’m talking about. I’m basically talking about my relationships with other people, like the lack of sex in a relationship, my mental health problems, my pretty bad drinking, and having an existential crisis and wanting to kill myself. That’s all the stuff that the album touches on, and it’s all stuff that a lot of people experience, so it’s not really new in that sense. Maybe I’m just very openly speaking about it and sharing my own personal perspective. I’ve kind of lost my desire for any privacy, I just don’t really care about that anymore. I kind of just wanted to write some frank songs about my emotions and not to cover them up in metaphor. They’re still lyrics, I’m not just saying sentences, I wanted to write them in a beautiful way. To answer your question: yeah, all very personal stuff.

Would you say that writing music about such personally sensitive issues, being able to perform it, gives you a sense of empowerment in some way? Or is it more just a mode of expression?

I guess, I don’t know if it gives me a sense of empowerment, obviously I feel powerful in some way, you can’t help it. There is just something weird that happens to your body when a room of people are looking at you, there for you. I feel very detached a lot of the time from what I’m performing and what the song is actually about. It’s a different thing performing a song than it is writing one. I feel like I’m a different person. I feel like I’m singing about somebody else when I’m performing, but when I’m writing it’s so about me that it’s hard to deal with a lot of the time.

When we saw you live, to me you seemed like a very natural performer. Which is a strange thing, not only because performing in front of a crowd of people is an inherently something that nobody should be comfortable with, but also the sensitive subject matter of the songs is quite fragile. How long, especially as a solo artist, did it take you to really reach a level of comfort? Have you?

I don’t know; I feel like it’s a constant process for me. I think about everyone very deeply and too much. It was something that fucked me up for a while. I was always thinking “Is this me? Is this somebody who wants to get attention? Am I someone who wants to meet people after shows who don’t know me but love me?” Now, I’ve realized like “Yeah, that is me! That’s what I want!” So that’s freeing in a way, to succumb to the feeling that I can stop lying to myself and stop being this saint. I have these tendencies otherwise I wouldn’t be writing songs; I wouldn’t be on the stage. I think if you’re gonna be on stage, you have to have an ego. You have to believe it’s good. Believe that people want to hear what you have to say. The sooner I started accepting that about myself, which was kind of a weird and horrible pill to swallow in a way. I started giving less of a shit really. I think one of my biggest fears was coming off as arrogant or an asshole or whatever. I’ve realized that most good performers, if you saw them in anything other than what they were doing you’d be like: “you’re an idiot” but because they’re on stage acting like an idiot, it’s almost freeing. People want to see someone who’s not caring what people think about them, because that’s what they want to feel in that moment too.

You speak about your performances on a very personal level. I feel like there’s not much of a space between the Japanese House and Amber. Would you say that’s true?

Yeah, I don’t think there’s really any divide. I do become different. There are different sides of me that become more prominent when I’m performing or touring, but I guess they have to to enjoy it. The ego, your ego has to bloom for a moment. Otherwise, you’re just not going to enjoy it. Confidence is about self-love in some way, if you hate yourself then you’re not going to be, you can’t perform. I definitely do become different; I adapt to being on tour. It does take me a long time to get out of that. I’m very aware that when I’m on tour or when I do lots of interviews, when I’m talking to my friends or my family, I talk about myself a lot. I’m so used to talking about myself, and it used to be like “Oh god, I hope I didn’t talk about myself too much for too long.” Which is obviously stupid because that’s the point of this phone call. In personal life, it’s hard to get out of that habit sometimes, and I worry that I’ve become an asshole. But if I was an asshole I wouldn’t be worried about becoming one.