It’s October 2016, and Amber Bain is at the offices of her London based label Dirty Hit. As The Japanese House, she’s just weeks away from the release of her third EP, ‘Swim Against The Tide’ – an evolution of a story that began with a spellbinding opening salvo of releases that left us speculating who The Japanese House even was.
Months after ‘Swim Against The Tide’, ‘Saw You In A Dream’ would land as her fourth extended player – a more open and direct collection of tracks that signalled an artist continuing to build. With critical acclaim, sold-out shows and unforgettable experiences, The Japanese House had arrived, but there was always that landmark on the horizon.
“I still don’t know what my album is going to sound like,” she notes, “I’m sure I’ll get a big kick out of doing it!” With that, she heads off for rehearsals, with the end of 2016 bringing huge arena shows with The 1975 and the promise of more to come.
Two and a bit years later, and Amber is just back from America. A thrilling run of shows across the country to round out 2018, the trip marked her first live dates in over a year.
She arrives back with tales of escape rooms and rock climbing, which filled the gaps between gigs (“If I had it my way I’d do shows every single day”). Her dog, Calvin, is ecstatic to see her, bounding across the room and refusing to leave her side. There’s an unspoken bond between them as Amber shows off Calvin’s latest tricks.
“I’m so glad I have him, even though he stinks right now,” she says later, as he lays at her feet. “I honestly don’t think I would have moved for about three months without him. He’s someone to love, because I didn’t really have anyone to love. I was completely on my own.”
A lot can happen in the space of a year: people change, the world changes. What happens when your world is turned upside down? It’s a question Amber found herself coming to terms with; a life-changing twelve months of highs, lows and what happens next.
It’s all fed into an album Amber would never have been able to predict coming; one that strips away the mystery and shines a spotlight on the person behind it. From mental health and drinking, to heartbreak and the breakdown of a relationship, ‘Good At Falling’ is more than just one of the most anticipated debuts of recent years – it’s a raw snapshot that’s both personal and universal, finding solace and hope from a transformative time soundtracked by an artist soaring for the very top.
“You always think that if the worst thing you could ever imagine happening to you happens, then you’ll just die,” explains Amber. “You don’t. A lot worse things can happen to you than a breakup, but it was one of my worst fears because… you’re my person.
“It’s weird because you don’t just die, you move on. Like socially and musically, I’m a different person to who I was a year ago. I wouldn’t recognise myself.
“A lot of life changes have happened while making the album. Had I written the album earlier, it would have been completely different.”
Since the very beginning, Bain has found a home in music. There was picking up the guitar when she was six years old, appearing in school plays and performing at assemblies where she gained that first confidence to really delve into music, writing her first songs when she was eleven at the computer in her bedroom.
In that solitude, she found a voice – one that has reached far and wide since. It’s taken her out of the leafy Buckinghamshire hills, into a new life chronicled with four mesmerising EPs, with each release unravelling a new part of The Japanese House. Yet, what would come next was always something that could change Amber’s approach to songwriting and music.
“Even when I was writing the EPs and throughout touring those, I still knew I was doing this album, so I had half my brain on that,” she says. “It was constantly in the back of my mind, no matter what I was doing, I’d just think, ‘Ahh, I’ve got to do an album!’”
When the time came to wind down the touring around the last EP, that thought came front and centre.
“We’d been touring for ages and then suddenly it was like, okay now the album. So the touring stopped, and that felt…” Amber pauses. “It did feel like I’d stopped moving for a bit. That’s quite an intense feeling anyway, especially when you’ve been on tour for basically two years, going to then focus on one thing.
“I did feel pressure from myself mainly, but at the same time, I was free to take as long as I wanted which is kinda why I was pressuring myself. If I’m free to take as long as I want, it’d take ten years!”
With pieces of songs continually being worked on, Amber set about getting started with some solo time in the studio towards the end of summer 2017, almost a throwback to those initial days of carving out the emotional songs and sounds in her childhood bedroom.
With long-standing collaborator George Daniel of The 1975 occupied with his own band’s next bold step, Amber found the solitude a less than productive environment – working every single day and making “100 different versions of the same thing, just going a bit mad and not feeling very inspired.”
Flicking through some of her favourite albums, one name kept popping up – producer BJ Burton, who’s worked with the likes of Bon Iver, James Blake and Francis And The Lights. Amber reached out.
“It turned out that he had just asked his manager to get in contact with me because the band he was working on at the time had shown him my stuff. It was this weird coincidence. When we were chatting, he was like, ‘Oh no, I asked to get in contact with you’, and I was like, ‘No, I asked to get in contact with you’.”
It fell together perfectly, and after flying out to Wisconsin to test things out, it was clear that this was where The Japanese House would form her debut album – in Bon Iver’s studio, no less.
“Honestly I think I would have dropped dead as a 16-year-old had you told me I would be in Bon Iver’s studio,” she cracks. That excitement still brimming from the time spent there and how her journey had brought her to that very space. “I would have dropped dead! There were loads of moments where I was kinda in some sort of dream world.”
Nestled in the woods with no phone signal, it found Amber focussed on music, away from the world and perfect for her terrible attention span – “The only way I’m going to focus on something is if you put me in the middle of nowhere where I can’t leave,” she laughs – and with only BJ for company.
“There were so many moments where it was like, this is what my album is going to sound like,” she recalls. “I’ve never really worked like that before, well not for that amount of time. Also, I reflected so much on myself in that period because it was just me and BJ, so I had this free time too. I had some anger issues and would freak out quite a lot, and I remember I was like, I’m going to change that about myself! I meditated every day, and I did yoga every day, and I worked out every day. I had the cleanest diet of all time.
“It’s very easy to not think about the rest of your life when you’re there,” Amber admits, gazing out of the window as if to transport her right back to that moment. “I think in a lot of ways I did do that. Sort of deflected…”
Spending large amounts of time writing lyrics, Amber realised that what was coming out was undeniably personal – a close-to-home expression that before may have been clouded in metaphor and description, was now laid out in black and white.
“I didn’t purposefully do that,” she notes. “I just started writing, and it would come out like that. There were moments where I was like, I don’t know if I should use this, and then I kinda just let go of that.”
It was the first step in delving into what was going on in her own life, and what was to come.
Amber Bain and Marika Hackman are embracing in front of a burning car. One of the first shots you see in the video for ‘Lilo’ – an ode to that feeling of falling deeply in love – it’s not often that an artist shares a screen with the person who inspired the very song they’re filming for.
Honesty is a defining trait of The Japanese House and ‘Good At Falling’. Caught at a moment where reflection was at the forefront of Amber Bain’s mind, life as she knew it began to unravel. A relationship that had been there for the whole of Amber’s adult life was starting to crack.
“My relationship ended, I got a dog, started living alone. All sorts of family stuff happened, and I sort of…” Amber takes a moment. “It suddenly, after a couple of months, it all fell on me. I was completely crushed and didn’t know what to do with myself and was really struggling mentally and quite severely depressed and manic, it was just horrible.”
It was out in Wisconsin that the feeling of something not being right began. “I knew that it was over at that time, I don’t know if she did,” Amber admits.
The closed and distraction-free environment that she found herself in fed into those frank and open lyrics poured across ‘Good At Falling’ in a manner not seen before, a therapeutic outlet for what was going on and that constant questioning of what was happening.
“Before, I didn’t feel as comfortable talking about certain things or didn’t have the tools to talk about those things. I think, yeah, on the earlier songs, I didn’t want anyone else to know what was going on in my life. There was a form of expression in metaphor that helped me release certain things without being completely open.”
Returning from Wisconsin at Christmas with a vast array of lyrics and songs together, Amber reunited with BJ Burton in Brussels on New Year’s Day, with that uncertainty of the unknown growing more vivid in her mind, and her personal life blurred on what was going to happen.
After a few weeks spent focused on the final elements that would make up ‘Good At Falling’, Amber returned home before heading out to Oxford to work on the final vocal parts, reunited with George Daniel and The 1975. It was then that her uncertainty reached a definitive end.
“Going out to Oxford to finish up the album with George, that was simultaneous to when we broke up,” Amber details, “so I was a wreck in the studio, being looked after by The 1975 mothering me. I had four boys to baby me for a few weeks, and I’m so grateful they were there at that time. I was not in a good state.”
When things fell apart, Amber was suddenly adrift, tackling a range of issues that had been steadily building for a while.
“After being in a relationship and living with someone for three years, it’s a big shock” lays out Amber. “I was not doing well with drinking and stuff. I’ve always been a heavy drinker without realising it because our culture is just so normalised to drinking heavily. Especially with my job, it’s very normal to drink every day. I took a step back from that.
“Another thing which was fucking me up was that I broke out badly. I’ve always had bad acne.” Amber pauses. “Which is quite a weird thing to talk about in a music interview, but it’s a huge thing for me having terrible skin growing up and then when I was depressed my skin just got terrible.”
Spending months in bed, only rising to take Calvin out for his walk three times a day, Amber knew something had to change.
“There was a moment where I was like, okay, my whole life has completely turned upside down, but now I’m going to deal with it rather than laying in bed.”
Amber cut drinking out completely, and “after a couple of months of not drinking I suddenly realised – oh, I’m going to change myself and start learning to not hate myself.”
“Learning to love yourself is harder than learning to not hate yourself,” explains Amber, digging into an important few months that have truly changed her life. “It’s two very different things, and I’m trying to do the latter, but I’ve learned to not despise myself, and that’s a big step.”
There’s an openness to even the darkest of moments Amber has experienced over the past year. When such a crucial foundation falls away and a succession of challenges raise their heads, it can be daunting, but it’s laid out for all to see across ‘Good At Falling’.
Moving from devastating heartbreak, loss and anxiety to almost joyous and swooning snapshots of love in full flight, the album is a breathtaking confirmation of the importance of The Japanese House. Brought together through the prism of everything Amber was going through, it’s nothing short of stunning and revels in its unmistakable sincerity.
“It’s weird,” admits Amber, acknowledging how some songs and lyrics were almost prophetic, coming together during time spent in Wisconsin before actual real-world events caught up.
“A lot of lyrics and stuff I was finishing in Oxford – like the last filter for the album was me at that moment, and it made a huge difference. There are loads of songs I was finishing as I became single, and I can hear it in ‘Lilo’ – the decision to keep everything so direct was aided by my sudden realisation that I was on my own. I didn’t have anyone to hide things from, which is depressing.”
With ‘Good At Falling’, there’s a bold confidence not just lyrically but musically, an amplified range of influences and styles. There’s the string-led emotion on the re-worked ‘I saw you in a dream’, the almost hip-hop styled ‘Wild’, and the rolling grooves of ‘Follow My Girl’. Warm Tom Petty sunshine envelops ‘You Seemed So Happy’, contrasting the heavy engulfing darkness of ‘Everybody Hates Me’ and the orchestrated aura of ‘Marika Is Sleeping’ – a song which came to Amber while she slept one night and cuts devastatingly to the bone.
It’s a record full of different bows, each revealing something different as a rich guide to an artist tapped into what they want to say and do. There’s a light that shines throughout, reaching for the future with the bopping-freedom of ‘Worms’, and the long-distance heartache of wanting to be near the one you love on ‘f a r a w a y’. The sheer scope of emotions and moments in time perfectly wrap together romance in the smiles and tears it all too often signifies. By allowing those direct emotions to lead, she’s created one of the most exciting debut albums of recent years.
“I’ve become a lot more open and frank and honest about my opinions and feelings because it’s just easier,” explains Amber. “Because I’ve written these songs, I’m now much more open in conversation about all those topics because I’ve written quite a direct song about it.”
Take ‘We Talk All The Time’, a track built on galloping beats and swirling electronic flourishes, that goes straight to the core with lines like: ‘We don’t fuck anymore, but we talk all the time, so it’s fine / somebody tell me what I want because I keep changing my mind’.
“I talk quite directly about the lack of sex in a relationship or drinking problems or depression. It’s a huge relief when you finally let go, because I realised that I have zero desire for privacy. There’s no point in me trying to be private about certain stuff because I’m spelling it out in songs.
“Anyone who’s listening to my music knows that I am a gay person who’s recently split up with someone and has struggled with drinking and all these things, I’m very open; it’s freeing.”
It’s a fearless quality; one Amber has found empowering, bolstered by an age where being open about previously tucked-away subjects is at the forefront of people’s minds.
“There’s politeness in privacy,” she reflects. “You don’t want to make anyone else feel uncomfortable, so you step back and go, ‘Oh okay, I won’t be that person, I’ll just skirt around things’. I stopped giving a shit about that kind of thing.
“When other people are being frank and open, it makes me feel more relaxed. In the last few years there’s been such a rise and push for people to be more open and talk about these things. Talking about things like mental health, being gay, drinking, or wanting to kill yourself – it’s important, and it’s important to talk about that in music.”
It all comes together on a debut that ignores expectations, the sort of deeply personal record that resonates far wider than its original scope. The best of albums provoke thought and reflection. ‘Good At Falling’ captures that perfectly – like a collection of polaroids laid out one after the other.
Thinking back to those first EPs and now with an album set and ready for the world to hear, Amber can see the path that’s brought her to this moment.
“Growing older you become more confident, and that’s what it is,” she notes. “I’m far more confident in terms of being open of course, and also musically with my abilities in production and writing. Just a far more confident person than I was when I was writing ‘Swim Against The Tide’, for example. There’s still a fragility and vulnerability in the lyrics, but it’s just not as much naivety I think, and that’s just a reflection of me and who I am.”
That next chapter of presenting ‘Good At Falling’ to the world has been a welcome one.
“I’m not good at having moments,” Amber details. “I hate days off on tour,” she laughs. “I hate them. I hate sitting in a hotel or just not doing anything. I don’t want a break or time to reflect, or I’ll be rock climbing or making teacups. Doing freaky stuff!”
Being back on the road has been an enriching time for Amber. With an album mixed and set, and coming after months of life-altering crossroads, it’s been a time where she’s discovered her ambition. “When I started touring I struggled with it. I think because I was fighting against this…” she pauses. “I wanted in my head to have this idea that I was this introverted, modest character who didn’t like the showing off part of being on stage. Whenever I was talking to fans and touring I would have this conflict of, ‘but this isn’t me’.
“I started accepting that I am extroverted and have a desire to show off, and I want to be loved by a crowd of people. Before I’d want to stand on stage and hide. If you look at the first shows I did where I was cowering in the corner, if I’d had my way I’d have been put behind a curtain in the corner.
“Now I’m just like nope, I just want to connect with audiences and talk to them all afterwards and be that person and as soon as I admitted that, touring became so much easier. Honestly, I love it.”
“Like,” continues Amber, Calvin raising his head on the floor below, “you know that Bohemian Rhapsody film? There’s a moment where he’s talking about the in-between moments, and I was like I completely get that! I’m sure everyone relates to Freddie Mercury – or wants to relate to Freddie Mercury – but I genuinely do relate to that!”
Amber begins to crack with laughter. “I’m basically Freddie Mercury,” she erupts. “In fact, when I came out of that film I had a bit of a crisis because I was like, I don’t dance like that or perform like that… does that mean I’m a bad performer? Is that what is meant to be special? Maybe I’m not special? And then I think I even said aloud; I’m my own kind of Freddie Mercury!”
The laughs ring out once again.
“But I want the same kind of things,” Amber picks up. “I want to engage that much, and I want to be loved as much, and I’m not afraid of admitting that I have goals now. Before I’d be like, ‘no, I have no goals’. No, I want to be successful, and I want to keep doing this.”
The idea that everything happens for a reason couldn’t be bigger than with The Japanese House following a year that shook up the world she knew. Now on the other side, ‘Good At Falling’ stands as the moment where she firmly takes her place, with an instant classic that pushes the boundaries for her peers.
“It’s important to look back and imagine how you would react to things that are happening to you now,” chats Amber. “It’s important to remind yourself that okay, you’re doing this now and had you known this before you started making music or right at the beginning you would have lost your shit. This would be like you’ve made it. I remember being like, oh my god if I ever supported anyone at Scala or KOKO – that’s all I want! And now after that, I want the next thing.”
Calvin continues to jump around. He’ll be with Amber when she heads to the studio in January, meeting up with BJ in Oxford to work away at new material (“I’m procrastinating from my rest by doing another album immediately afterwards,” she cracks).
“I want it to sound fucking insane, like nothing else that has ever existed. That’s usually my goal,” details Amber. “The main difference is going to be musically, there’s going to be more flashes of like the initial stuff like the first EP, but then it’s going to be a lot more mature than that.”
“I’m probably the worst judge as to what it’s starting to sound like, but I think it sounds weird. There are bits that are more classic sounding…” she trails off.
“To be honest, I have no idea what it sounds like. It sounds like me, to me.”
There’s no rest now, as Amber and Calvin head off into the chilly day. Later, she’ll be over at Marika’s for dinner – still good mates after sharing such a huge part of their lives. Then after returning to the studio, her moment well and truly begins.
Sometimes life needs to let you fall in order to fly, and Amber Bain is well and truly taking off.
The Japanese House’s debut album ‘Good At Falling’ is out now. Taken from the February edition of Dork. order a copy below.
Words: Jamie Muir