How The Japanese House’s Walls Came Tumbling Down
With her beloved dog Calvin in tow, the atmospheric UK artist talks us through how heartbreak and subsequent clarity informed her debut LP.
Photo credit: provided by PR.
There are countless moments in The Japanese House’s “Lilo” video where, were the song stripped away, you’d swear you could hear a pin drop. A silent, shared shower between two lovers; a turn away from a sleeping partner in the dead of night; a wordless early-morning embrace. It’s a clip which captures the silent misery of dissolving love in all its agonising intimacies. By the time the video’s more dramatic metaphors for loss take hold – a burning car; a slowly deflating airbed sinking into a lake – you’re drawn into the heartbreak yourself. The situation is made all the more gut-wrenching by the inclusion of Japanese House one-woman-band Amber Bain’s real-life ex-girlfriend, musician Marika Hackman, in the joint central role. It remains one of last year’s very best pieces of short-form storytelling.
The headline-grabbing inclusion of Marika in the video (watch below) was a way of wrestling back control over her own story, Amber explains. Aware that she’d be forced to replay the dissolution of her relationship time and time again during the press cycle for her upcoming debut album, Good At Falling, she instead decided to play it front-and-centre, and get there before the probing questions did. “Everyone knows everything about my relationship with Marika now, which is weird – but it’s kinda nice,” she considers, sat on the grass in an east London park, as the first hints of spring lift the chill from the air.
The two met several years back, then label-mates of The 1975’s self-made outlet Dirty Hit, striking up a romantic relationship which – as is the way in our social media saturated world – didn’t stay secret for long. “Obviously when you’re in a relationship with someone, at some point you’re gonna put a picture of them on Instagram or something,” Amber says, with a verbal shrug. She was nervous about how her sexuality might be perceived, a feeling emblematic of how recently pop's seeming acceptance of queerness has developed. “I don’t know if the world feels different now, or I just feel different, but at that time it felt like way more of a big deal. But now everyone’s fucking gay!” she smiles, “So I don’t feel like I’m making a statement. Whereas, in 2015, it felt like a statement.”
In those early days, Amber seemed reluctant to make any kind of personal statement. At odds with the swell of hype that surrounded The Japanese House’s arrival (her debut single “Still” was Zane Lowe’s last ever Hottest Record on Radio 1, while the touted production involvement of 1975’s Matty Healy and George Daniel drummed up the inevitable buzz), Amber herself was a reticent presence. When she and I met for the first time in 2015, she was still a bedroom producer, wracked with stage fright and burying her vocal under so much pitch-shifted vocoder that most thought she was a man; some even thought The Japanese House was a secret Matty Healy solo project. Even then, there was an element of discomfort to everything she put her moniker to: “There’s a sadness about being with someone and loving them,” she told Noisey's Ryan Bassil back in 2015, “Because you’re very vulnerable”. It seems almost prophetic, now.
As the years went on, helped along by that public-eye relationship and several stints in arenas with her label-mates, Amber began to lower her defences. Live shows became peppered with awkward jokes, and her third and fourth EPs, Swim Against The Tide and Saw You In A Dream, saw the vocal effects and smoky atmospherics slowly melt away, replaced instead with a crystalline evolution of that signature sound.
Today, Amber couldn’t be further from the nervous presence of her past. Laughing, joking, and smoking cigarette after cigarette in a park a stone’s throw from her new flat, she’s brought her beloved German Shepherd, Calvin, along for the day. As he digs up weeds and bounds on top of anyone who’ll dare play with him, he’s nothing if not a conversation starter; Amber strikes up chats with every fellow dog owner who passes.
Good At Falling, out this Friday, is the public-facing showcase of this new, more outgoing Amber Bain. On the album, the likes of “You Seemed So Happy” and “Maybe You’re The Reason” pitch her un-affected vocal right atop the mix, while “We Talk All The Time” and “Marika Is Sleeping” find her presenting that break-up with disarming honesty – “we don’t fuck anymore” goes an unlikely hook in the former. “I’m a lot better at producing than I was when I did the first EP,” she shrugs, adding, “I thought I was great then, but I was not!” with a laugh. “I was really bad!
“I feel much more confident now, which actually gives me more confidence in collaborating, because I know that I could do it on my own if I wanted to,” she says. “But I’m like, ‘Oh, actually, if people are amazing at playing saxophone, or drums, then I should probably get them on the record. Rather than be like, ‘I have to do everything myself!’ It’s freeing.”
For Good At Falling, she enlisted BJ Burton on co-production duties, a man most recently famed for his work on Low’s 2018-claiming Double Negative, and Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. He and Amber quickly struck up a fast friendship. Decamping to the Wisconsin studio of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, they set to work in the fabled, semi-mythical ‘cabin’. Amber found the whole experience vindicating and mind-boggling, as a longtime Bon Iver stan. “I didn’t ever meet him, but I was just nervous to even be there,” she says now. “It felt like I was a 16-year-old fan again, like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to be in Bon Iver’s studio!’” At one point, she recalls, she ran a bath to write lyrics in: “I was like, ‘This is fuckin’ weeeird – I’m bathing where Justin Vernon’s bathed…’ she quips, in an only semi-convincing mocking tone.
Obsessed with self-improvement and on something of a “health kick”, she took up exercise with the in-studio personal trainer (“everyone thinks it’s this like, cabin – I don’t want to burst the bubble, but it’s a very nice studio”), and ditched her longtime artistic crutches of cigarettes and alcohol – another element that lends Good At Falling its bare-faced honesty. “I’ve always associated making music with smoking and drinking loads, and I was actually really healthy, and in a really good mindset for it… which meant it was really hard to write lyrics,” she admits. “I had to go into that weird mindset sober – you’re really confronting a lot of emotion. A lot of those lyrics were written completely sober – maybe that’s why they’re so blunt, at times.”
When she returned from the mythical birthplace of some of her favourite teenage records, the core of her own debut in hand, she holed up once more with her old friends George and Matty. The former added production flourishes and recorded the record’s vocals, and drummed on “You Seemed So Happy”, while the 1975 frontman can be heard in the background of “Faraway”, his harmonies bedded beneath Bain’s own voice. “It would’ve been such a shame if they weren’t on it, because we’ve done all the EPs together,” she says of them both. “It’s just nice to be in that energy. It still feels like that special thing of when I first did my first EP, and I was so excited. That still feels magical, when I’m working with them.”
That charmed essence lends Good At Falling, and the Japanese House of 2019, a special, refreshed aura. Free of the shackles of shyness and years in the making, it’s a testament to the sense of slowing things down. Quipping that a major label would’ve “told me to fuck off by now”, Amber’s thankful for the glacial pace; one which has allowed her to build a palpable and productive creative confidence. Ideas have already begun forming for a follow-up. In the meantime, Calvin’s keeping her loved up – though it’s a relationship that looks set to keep her grounded. “Sometimes when I look at his teeth,” she smiles, “I’m like, ‘You could kill me, if you wanted to…’ But he wouldn’t. I think.”
The Japanese House’s debut album Good At Falling is released 1 March via Dirty Hit.
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