It’s been nearly half a decade since Amber Bain, better known as The Japanese House, released her debut EP Pools To Bathe In, home to her breakthrough track ‘Still’. An androgynous voice embedded in ethereal, post-indie pop synths with hints at gentle acoustic guitars, the four track project introduced us to a brand new sound, a brand new interpretation of against-the-grain, dreamy and easily digestible electronica. A London-native, the now 23-year-old musician writes and produces everything in her catalogue from scratch, which is probably why we’ve had to wait this long to finally be blessed with a full-length feat. Attributing adjectives like “sad”, “eclectic” and “emotive” to her distinctive sonic pattern, Bain abstains from the idea that she actively channels other artists’ characteristics into her songs: “What’s the point? If all you’re after is to create something based on what’s already here, what are you really contributing?“, she asks as we sit and talk backstage of Berlin’s Berghain Kantine, an hour before she’s set to hit the stage. “To me, it’s a subconscious thing,” she says of her inspirations. “Very naturally, in a way, things just spill into what I’m writing.”
Aquatic themes, like metaphors of devouring tides, rinsing off darkness or drowning in uncertainty at the centre of most of her work, Bain found herself in the midst of what some might call a quarter-life-crisis, or at least in the debris of what this emotional monsoon left behind. Exhaustion, relationship calamity and self-deprecation have silently—or not so silently—shadowed the young artist’s career and personal life—two entities she separates from one another, purposefully and unpurposefully, as they act as oil and vinegar; in harmony, complementary, but somehow incapable of actual symbiosis. In the wake of her soon-to-be-dropped debut record, Bain speaks to us, very openly, about how happiness endangered her ability to work, using pain as fuel for creativity and cascading into queer adulthood.
You’ve been in the game for quite some time now—what greater things have happened to you? Looking back, what are some lessons you’ve learned?
I guess the biggest thing that’s happened to me—that’s changed me the most—was my relationship ending. Those were 3 or 4 years of my life, and then, suddenly, I was alone. And moving out, living in a house on my own… I don’t recommend it, it really sucks [laughs]. A lot of crap has happened, that hasn’t really been dealt with easily, in emotional terms. But I’ve also met loads of amazing people and I’ve been able to travel just about everywhere, I’ve played tons of shows. I’ve become a lot more confident with myself, I’d say. I’ve never really been shy, but just less insecure I think. At least that’s something I’m still working on and have noticed a shift in since beginning to work on it. I’ve realised that I had an issue here, and I realised that I had to address it. So I’ve begun the addressing period. It’s weird, though, my life is really divided into two parts. It’s like the music side of things here, and everything else over there.
Do you intentionally divide the two?
I don’t know, I just think of them as two separate instances. It feels stable that way. In the same way that it hasn’t blown up, you know? I’ve not become this super star, but I also haven’t stagnated or stayed in one place. There’s been a steady growth, and I feel stable in the fact that, whatever happens, I still have a talent, something that will always remain, hopefully, whereas everything else in life just feels a bit all-over-the-place.
But wouldn’t you say they overlap, too? Listening to it, your music does seem to be very personal, stamped by the experiences you’ve made outside of your job as a musician.
For sure, I write a lot about the things that happen to me. I’m finding it a lot easier to write on this second album because of it.
Oh, wow, so you’re already working on a successor to an album that hasn’t even been released yet?
Yeah, so much shit has happened in between finishing one and beginning the next. It’s a nice by-product I suppose, when shitty things happen to you, you can turn them into something nicer. I guess being in a relationship even hindered my writing in a way. As in, I’d rather hang out with her than sit somewhere by myself, in a studio.
They say it’s a common side affect to happiness: writer’s block. And even if it’s not writer’s block, just the sheer lack of motivation to be productive when you could instead be spending time with someone you love.
Oh, I’m certain that’s true. I still cared about music and wanted to write music. But so much space and energy, too, is taken up by this other person you want to be around, so it’s like there’s not enough room to breathe creatively. Especially, as was the case with me, when writing is more a process of healing than anything else. And also when your significant other is a songwriter and signed to the same label as you. [laughs]. That was pretty close, pretty intense, and not always in good way.
That being said, have there ever been moments in which you thought “I don’t wanna do this anymore”?
There were times, for sure, when I’d be on tour for a really long time, that I’d get sick of it and just wanted to go home and turn off. But then again, I don’t know what else I’d do. Probably something with dogs [laughs]. I’ve never really entertained the thought of quitting. I don’t think I could do it, no matter the circumstance.
Tell us more about your upcoming album? What are its core
themes, what was the creative process like?
It’s basically about the relationships with myself. My relationship with alcohol, my relationship with relationships themselves [laughs]. And the actual relationship I was in at the time coming to a close. It’s about anxiety. It’s not necessarily groundbreaking, but very personal stuff, thoughts I’ve had and things that everyone feels, I suppose, and going quite in depth on those from my very own perspective. Within the last year I’ve really grown up, I’d say. I’d always been so confused when people told me like “God, I’ve changed so much since I was 18,” and I’d be like “I literally feel the same since I was 5” [laughs]. But now I do feel slightly different. Or, I don’t know, do I? [laughs]. What’s really changed has been my attitude towards bettering myself, I’ve become more open to self-improvement, whereas before I’d just think everything was fine the way it was. But I realised that I actually used to be quite insecure. I had to work on myself, confidence and such. I think my second album will be far more about the actual breakup and its aftermath, whereas this upcoming one is more of, like, the things that’d been leading up to it, on everyone’s part.
Your video for ‘Lilo’ apparently featured said ex-girlfriend. One can assume that must’ve been kind of uncomfortable, no?
Oh my gosh, it was horrible [laughs]. But, like, horrible in a good way, as in it was horrible because it was so nice to be around her again. At the time, we were about 6 months into our breakup and I had just started to get a more enjoyable taste of freedom, of independence, if you will. Not feeling heartbroken, like you wanna die every day, you know? And so it was like, “I’m gonna be okay” and then boom! there we were. I know it was my decision, but I didn’t expect it to be as intense as it turned out to be. Cause there I was, having to kiss the person I had spent so much time trying to get over. Afterwards it just felt like my heart broke all over again. But we still talk, every day, which is probably also not the best idea [laughs].
I think we’ve all been there, for better or worse. Why did you want her to be a part of it?
I wanted to make something really real, intensify the emotions on set. I don’t like acting, and I didn’t want to for the video. So it made sense to pursue authenticity. I’m not an actress and, so, to have to lay down with a complete stranger, pretending to be tangled in this complicated romance would’ve looked and felt really lame [laughs]. The reactions were great though, I think people could tell it hit close to home for me. I didn’t expect it to be as piercing as it was. I cried the first time I saw it, and people have been telling me they got teary eyed watching it. I guess it does have a type of weird energy to it, it seems to have evoked emotions. Originally it was gonna be someone else, not an ex per se, but someone I used to sleep with. But she pulled out and that’s when I thought she had to do it. And everyone was like “No don’t do that, you’ll have to talk about her in every interview” [laughs]. But I was expecting to talk about her in every interview anyway, as she’s been a key figure in the making of my music, all the fucking songs are about her [laughs]. There’s a song on the album that literally has her name in the title [laughs].
Going through comments on YouTube, your fans salute you for openly depicting a same sex romance in aforementioned video—do you identify as an LGBTQ-artist, or better, do you see yourself as a type of torch bearer for the community? I’m asking this because there are a lot of artists that—for a multitude of reasons—prefer to keep their private, especially their love life, rather confidential and thus shy away from political solidarity of any form. Especially since you’ve been an artist cloaked in mystery, someone who didn’t really show face all that often.
Honestly, no. I do have very strong political views, like a lot young people do. In a way now, I wish I’d been like “yeah, let’s make this an LGBTQ-video,” you know? But to be honest, I didn’t even think of that aspect. I was fixated on the fact that I was gonna have to shoot a video with my ex, more so than anything else. It didn’t even come to my mind that she’s a woman. I’ve never been someone to flaunt their sexuality, I didn’t want this video to look as such, I didn’t want to expose myself for the sake of more views. I’m a very private person. There’s this battle within, I’d say. On one side, of course, I want to talk about my sexuality if it helps other people come to terms with themselves and who they are. But at the same time I don’t want to have to use it as means to better my career. It’s this weird conflict. I mean, if I don’t talk about it at all, something is obviously wrong, but if I talk about it too much I feel like I’m doing something wrong, too. It’s a weird walk-on-a-tightrope type of situation. But there’s nothing about that video intended to be a political statement. As a matter of fact, it shouldn’t be a political statement that two girls are kissing, you know?
No, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately though, not everyone shares this opinion.
True. I mean, looking at other countries, other cultures, even our own, there are still many things to be done. I guess, in that sense, it would make sense to keep doing this, help normalise it elsewhere. The more we do, the better it might end up working out for others. For me, though, the fact that I didn’t even think about it is because I’m surrounded by gays all the time [laughs], which, I guess, is a privilege, even though it’s so normal to me. But it’s not that way for everyone. I remember when I was younger, there was this artist I Blame Coco. And I thought, “wow, finally someone like me.” Before I felt kind of isolated, like there was no one else like me, queer, I guess a bit tomboy-ish. [laughs]. The idea that she, too, was like me, suddenly made everything ok for me, everything suddenly made sense and felt right. At that age, my image of what a lesbian was, was so different from how I looked. I had been pop culturally manipulated into thinking lesbians were large, stocky women with shaved heads and other stereotypical traits, none of which I possessed. But when I finally had someone to identify with, someone I could relate to from afar, things changed.
Funny you mention her. We had I Blame Coco aka Eliot Sumner on our cover a couple of years ago.
Seriously? I was such an insane fan [laughs]. I had such a crush. I’ve never been a fangirl for anyone or anything, apart from her. It’s really embarrassing.
Have you met her?
No, not officially, but I don’t think I ever should. [laughs]. It’d be weird for me. She’d might even recognise me. I’d be that girl in the first row, coming up to her after shows as close as I could get. She’s inspiring, makes great music and I just looked up to her. So, yeah, on that note, if I can be that person for someone else, absolutely, I want to be. That’d make me happy.
So, other than the album, what can you look out for in your future? What’s next?
Hard to say. I guess what I’m most excited about as of now is being featured on the cover of NME. It was the magazine I read as a kid. Had I known that then, I would’ve collapsed. That was the first moment I really felt great. You know, I think there are some things that you wait for to happen, and by the time they do, it doesn’t feel as special anymore. But that was definitely a special moment for me. The first thing that I got really ecstatic about in a while, something I just envision myself telling a younger me and totally flipping out over it [laughs].
The Japanese House’s debut album, Good At Falling, is out March 1st.
Photography MARIA HERMANN