The Japanese House: “I’ve de-pigeonholed myself as that sad, sad indie-pop girl”

THE JAPANESE HOUSE‘s Amber Bain ventures into a bold journey of self-discovery and healing with her second album ‘In The End It Always Does’. Blending melancholy and joy, it’s a heart-rending experience that resonates on a profound, human level.

Words: Ali Shutler.
Photos: Megan McIsaac.

“I’ve de-pigeonholed myself as that sad, sad indie-pop girl,” says The Japanese House’s Amber Bain. While 2019 debut album ‘Good At Falling’ was just upbeat enough to stop the lyrics from feeling completely devastating, there are moments of actual joy on upcoming second album ‘In The End It Always Does’.

“It’s a fun record to listen to,” she adds before revealing that it deals with the end of a relationship. However, Amber didn’t actually realise she was writing a break-up record when she started it. Recent single ‘Sunshine Baby’ began during the honeymoon period and was finished when the relationship was basically over. “I was listening back to the chorus, and it sounds like we’d been breaking up for a while,” says Amber, who sings lines like “I don’t wanna fight anymore” and “Surely someone’s gonna save me” over shimmering, escapist pop. “Love was never the issue. I never wasn’t in love,” she said in an accompanying press release. “But I realised I wasn’t in love with myself.” They broke up shortly after the album was finished. 

Inspired by folk, country and Fleetwood Mac, there’s a warmth to ‘In The End It Always Does’ alongside an undeniable pop majesty. “There have been times where I felt like I had to prove myself as a clever musician by going through 1000 different key changes, but with this record, I just wanted to write songs that are really pleasing to listen to,” she says, with the record also featuring contributions from MUNA’s Katie Gavin. 

“A lot of the time I was making this album, I was really sad, but I was also ecstatically happy,” explains Amber, who had moved back to London after originally leaving the city for Margate and struggled with getting much done during COVID-enforced lockdowns. “It finally felt like things were moving and grooving again,” she says, with the recording coming together over a buzzy six-month period.

“Being in the studio, I felt alive. I felt fulfilled, but my relationship was falling apart. That’s two quite dramatic things to be feeling simultaneously,” she offers, pouring that euphoria and heartbreak into the record. “In a weird way, it’s exciting to be scared and to not know what’s going to happen. You can hear that in the music, which has this freedom to it.”

Even the title walks that line between optimism and surrender. “It’s funny, but it’s comforting to hear that ‘In The End It Always Does’,” says Amber. “Yes, it’s sad because it’s talking about things always ending, but there’s something comforting in knowing that just because something ends, it doesn’t have to be the most tragic thing in the world. Sometimes, it’s a really positive thing.” As she sings on ‘Sunshine Baby’, “hold onto this feeling because you won’t feel it for long”.

“I just wanted to write songs that are really pleasing to listen to”

Amber Bain

That positivity wasn’t always easy to find, though. The Japanese House released their debut EP in 2015 and was painted as a mysterious artist, with some people convinced it was a Matty Healy side project. The reality is that Amber just didn’t like having her photo taken. Any notions of mystery were quickly broken down with a string of deeply personal, highly emotional songs that didn’t hold anything back. Amber released four more EPs over the next five years alongside a full-length album and toured heavily. When the pandemic forced her to stop at the start of 2020, the well was empty. “I honestly felt like I needed to sleep for a year,” says Amber.

“I convinced myself I was this lazy person with no drive because all I wanted to do was lie down and watch TV all day, but I think I was a bit depressed,” Amber explains, adding that any routine makes her feel bleak. “Everyone thought I was going to write 7000 albums at the beginning of lockdown,” but without anything surprising or interesting going on in her life as a “domestic slump”, nothing came out. “Why can’t I write songs?” she’d ask herself, convinced she’d forgotten how. “That is a really scary feeling, and it only makes things worse,” she explains.

Instead of banging her head against the desk or worrying about what to have for dinner the next night (“a harrowing sentence”), Amber started working with a nearby kids charity and opened her home to a Ukrainian family. “I figured I needed to do some things that are a bit more useful to the world,” she reasons. “I love doing that stuff, but I always found myself coming back to writing songs.”

She wrote a string of tracks that felt like clearing her throat, but the catalyst for ‘In The End It Always Does’ came when she started working with The 1975’s George Daniel and Chloe Kraemer simultaneously. “I was in a rut, but Chloe made me feel really excited about music again, and when George came in, it was just this explosion of ideas,” with the pair co-producing the album. Getting into the studio together, “it felt like something was really happening,” says Amber.

The Japanese House admits it’s hard to tell just how different this record is to what’s come before, but it does feel like a different beast. “I’m a lot more confident about it,” Amber says. She knows she can write undeniably great songs even if they’re not what she’d want to listen to personally. ‘In The End It Always Does’ though, is full of songs that are “really my thing,” says Amber. “It’s up there with my favourite records ever.”

‘In The End It Always Does’ comes at a time when the sort of deeply personal, highly emotional quiet indie-rock that The Japanese House has always pulled from is more popular than ever. Taylor Swift teamed up with The National’s Aaron Dessner for the critically acclaimed ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’ double act; Boygenius topped the charts with their long-awaited debut ‘The Record’ earlier this year ahead of a string of massive shows, while the likes of Ethel Cain and Gracie Abrams couldn’t feel more exciting.

“Anyone can make a really good-sounding electronic record now,” explains Amber, with a variety of computer programs able to replicate any number of interesting sounds at the push of a button. “The only thing you can’t replicate is the human fallibility and intensity that comes through being close and upfront, which is why people are so drawn to it,” she offers. “It’s about offering interesting perspectives on things that people can connect with.”

At the same time, there’s more to ‘In The End It Always Does’ than a delicate outpouring of deep, dark secrets. “I’m really interested in trying to write good songs and not put limits on myself,” says Amber. Every decision in the studio is made based on what sounds better, and she’s got no interest in crafting a perfectly cohesive album. “I guess I’m just bored of the whole ultra-harmonised vocal thing I’ve been doing since I was 17,” she continues. “I don’t know if this album is ground-breaking, but it definitely sounds fresh to me.”

As well as the music sounding more colourful, ‘In The End It Always Does’ allows Amber to put her vocals at the forefront of the record with intense, vulnerable tracks like ‘One For Sorrow, Two For Joni Jones’. “There’s really no hiding,” she starts, with the blatantly raw lyrics alluding to the end of something. “It almost felt dangerous to write that song,” continues Amber, who was still with her partner at the time. “I showed her, and she completely understood, which is very sad.”

“All songwriting feels like a cathartic thing because it’s often just admittance,” continues Amber, who gets a real sense of satisfaction from going with the first thing that comes into her head. Her music is “usually the first time I’ve actually said any of these thoughts.”

“Over this whole thing, I’ve realised that when things are brilliant, they’re usually on the cusp of being embarrassing or cringey,” she continues. “I did worry that there were moments where the songs felt like I was being a bit too much, but I know that that’s the beauty of it.”

“I did worry that there were moments where the songs felt like I was being a bit too much, but I know that that’s the beauty of it”

Amber Bain

When she’s making music, Amber purposely tries not to think about how it’s going to be perceived in a bid to keep things honest. Even after it’s finished, it’s not something she really considers, explaining that it’s “not my circus, not my monkey”.

“I’m really proud of this record. I’m genuinely reading all the comments, and any positive reception is amazing, but it’s not the reason I write music,” she explains. However, across ‘In The End It Always Does’, Amber uses female pronouns when talking about her partner. “I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have that. It’s nice that there’s an album talking very explicitly about queer relationships. I hope people can hear that and feel like it’s someway normalised for them.”

Over the years, Amber has had a steady stream of fans approach her and explain how her music helped them come out to their parents or realise they were gay. “That makes me feel at ease with the job I’m doing,” she says. “Sometimes I ask myself what the fuck am I doing with my silly little life, but that makes it worth it.”

She goes on to say how being in any gay space makes her feel emotional because it gives her a sense of belonging she doesn’t feel elsewhere. “Over the years, I guess I’ve created a situation where my shows can offer that,” she adds. “There really aren’t that many explicitly gay bands around,” she continues, listing off MUNA, Boygenius and Marika Hackman as exceptions.

‘Boyhood’ started as a song about trauma but grew into something reflecting on the complexities of gender and sexuality. “I still don’t really know what I identify as. I just know that being called a lady makes me want to kill myself,” she says today, which is apparently a very Amber turn of phrases. “I don’t like being perceived as any one thing really, and I feel very fluid in my gender, which I guess makes me… I don’t know. And that’s ok. What really matters is that I’ve acknowledged it, and I feel at ease with whatever I am,” she says today.

“In the beginning, people would always comment on how androgynous I seemed, and I always felt a bit defensive about that,” she continues before quoting something her friend, MUNA’s Naomi McPherson, said recently. “A lot of being genderqueer is trying so hard to hide from something that is so plainly obvious to everyone else.”

She’s started talking openly about it because “someone has to”, and she hopes others struggling to define how they feel can relate to her journey. She remembers as a young queer kid not hearing any of her favourite artists talk about their sexuality, and even when she started releasing her own music, she felt a pressure to hide her own. “I just didn’t feel comfortable talking about it, which seems crazy to me. It’s basically all I can talk about now.”

It gives ‘In The End It Always Does’ a feeling of celebration, with tracks like ‘Friends’ and ‘Touching Yourself’ comfortably talking about sexualised queer relationships. “Some people might feel like those tracks are dirty, but it’s really the same as any straight pop song that talks about sex,” reasons Amber, with a lot of the time in the studio spent discussing gender expression and queerness. “That’s why it was so important that I had Chloe, a queer woman, working on the record with me because it really opened up that conversation.”

Amber goes on to say that writing songs is therapeutic because “it’s a really good way of figuring out what the fuck I’m actually thinking about stuff. I feel happier in my life now than I ever have, and this record punctuates the times in my life that have got me to this place of happiness. I’ve learnt a lot about myself, I’ve improved a lot, and I’ve also got a better gauge of what I want out of life. The last few months of making this record made me realise what makes me feel fulfilled.”

That sense of comfort can be felt across ‘In The End It Always Does’. In the early days, Amber felt like she had to prove she did everything herself. “If you’re a woman, everyone assumes that you can’t use a laptop which made me really defensive, so I locked myself in a room and did everything myself,” she explains, but still, everyone just wanted to talk about the involvement of The 1975’s Matty Healy and George Daniel. “I felt like tearing my hair out,” says Amber. “Now, I’m done fighting that fight. I don’t really care if people assume that Matty writes all my songs because, at this point, they’re going to think that no matter what I do. I’m less precious about it now and more interested in just making the best songs,” with Amber embracing collaboration. 

Since finishing ‘In The End It Always Does’, Amber has kept working. She was meant to go on holiday but ended up working on a friend’s record and was recently spotted in the studio with Matty Healy doing what she describes as “session” work. She’s also started writing new The Japanese House music, which is driven by a sense of undeniable happiness. “There’s nothing melancholic about it, which is a nice thing to experiment with. I just felt so inspired to make ‘In The End’ that I didn’t want that feeling to end just yet. I don’t want to fall back asleep like I did last time.”

She goes on to say that the songs on ‘In The End, It Always Does’ have allowed her to open up about what she thinks is possible with The Japanese House. “I used to feel silly when I’d write happy music, but now, I do feel silly because my life is silly in a great way” – so why wouldn’t she take inspiration from that? “I always call it my silly little life, so maybe that’ll be my next album title. I’m just able to explore so many different things now.”

Before that, though, there’s the little matter of her first live shows in over three years, including a slot supporting The 1975 at Finsbury Park ahead of her own UK and US headline runs.

“It’s hard to keep a crowd alive singing songs that are kind of upbeat but also extremely depressing, but this album is so much more freeing because the songs are actually quite fun,” she explains, excited to get back on the road. “I used to worry about putting on a persona or having an act to perform on stage,” she admits. “I feel so comfortable with myself now that I don’t really feel like I need to do any of that. I’m just really excited, and I don’t really have any fear about anything, apparently,” she adds with a grin.

Amber Bain is still ambitious about the future of The Japanese House, even if she’s trying hard to focus on being content with what she’s got. “I don’t know how content you can be if you’re always chasing the next goalpost,” she offers. “I want to be grateful, but ultimately, I do see it growing, and I’m very open for that to happen.” She takes a pause. “I feel like it will as well because, in the end, it always does.” ■

Taken from the July 2023 edition of Dork. The Japanese House’s album ‘In The End It Always Does’ is out 30th June.


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