Amber Bain is the queer, 23-year-old British musician and producer known as The Japanese House, who transforms her obsessions into velvety, aquatic, melancholy synth-pop. Exploring painfully intimate subjects, her music feels as heavy as it sounds light. Four stunning EPs have led her to release her full-length debut Good At Falling in March on her friends' The 1975's label Dirty Hit (drummer George Daniel produced the album), an increasingly international fanbase (her headlining US kicked off Monday), and mounting acclaim.
Her musical obsessions include luxurious vocal harmonies, love, solitude, suffering, depression, and on Good At Falling, the demise of her relationship with ex-girlfriend, labelmate Marika Hackman.
Her music's lightness comes from the first item on the list. Bain's method of layering her rich, androgynous voice on top of itself, often five or six layers deep, creates a kind of thick, organic Auto-tune that has become her calling card. Complimented by foggy synths, muted piano, drums and guitar Good At Falling is almost narcotically gentle.
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The music's contrasting emotional weight comes from Bain's willingness to reveal herself without obfuscation. She's painfully direct across Good At Falling: exploring her darkest, most intrusive thoughts, as well as the contradictory emotional vectors of heartbreak. It's a remarkable quality, given Bain's journey. When she started releasing music in her late teens. Bain wanted to disappear into The Japanese House. She avoided pictures, refused interviews, kept her gender unknown, an option for her, given her anamorphic vocal techniques.
The gimmick was a way of protecting herself from invasive expectations, stereotypes and assumptions. She was so good at the tactic, that some theorized The Japanese House was a secret project of The 1975's Matt Healy. The intriguing mystery helped her stand out in a crowded pool of newcomers. But as Bain's interest in concealment has fallen away — and she's grown into making music as diaristically vulnerable as Good At Falling — the attention has remained. Now, Bain is in plain sight, hiding absolutely nothing.
On the eve of her US tour, Bain chatted with PAPER about her anxieties and ambivalences as a young artist, challenging norms and being mislabeled a "protégé of The 1975."
Tell me where you're from and how music first came into your life.
I'm from just outside of London, but I don't remember a specific point where music came into my life because it was always kind of there. I've been obsessed with music since I was a baby: my dad played guitar and was singing all of the time. I'd sing with him and we'd write songs together, he taught me guitar. It's always been quite prevalent in my life.
When did The Japanese House begin?
I don't really think of it as a specific project, it's just the name that I'm using to put my songs under. But it's just me writing songs, like I've been writing songs since I was six. I write a lot better songs than when I was six [Laughs]. But I probably felt like that when I was seven, and I thought "God, these songs I was writing when I was 6 are so lame." Even now, I feel like that quite a lot. I'll look back at what I wrote at 17 or 20 and I'm like, "Embarrassing!" Not always though, like the song "Wild," which is on the new album, I wrote when I was 16. So it depends.
So you started when you were a kid, when was the first time you recorded a song?
It would've been when I was eight, because I went to the studio for my birthday. It was crap [Laughs]. It was a really bad little studio. I was with my friends with some songs I had written. And then my dad got Cuebase, so I guess I started recording my own stuff and learning how to produce in a way, obviously really badly, at like 10 or 11 — learning how to arrange songs and layer stuff on my dad's big computer in his study. I remember getting an iMac or whatever for the first time, with Garageband on it and getting obsessed with that. And then finally getting Logic... it all blends into one. But I've always been recording, basically. It was my favorite thing to do, I'd go to my dad's house on the weekend and just record loads of songs.
Were you a part of a scene around London?
I don't feel like I was in any kind of scene. There were a few bands around where lived, but I kind of drifted in and out of it. I didn't really like the indie music boy scene that much. Well, I did at the time, I guess, but it wasn't really my thing. There wasn't really space for me, as a girl, to be in these older boy's bands. I remember being in a band at one point and I had to leave, because me and the drummer really didn't get along. He was a prick [Laughs].
Of course you had to leave the band, not him.
Yeah, I joined late to the band, and I was just too young and a girl. Just not on the same wavelength. It didn't really feel like a scene at all, it felt like me making music and then I'd go out to London and play little acoustic sets here and there. It felt like I created my own sort of path, really.
Was there a moment when you realized you'd be able to make music your career?
I mean, I'm still questioning that. However far you have to get before its real? If I told myself when I was 16, that I would be sitting on a tour bus doing an interview for an American magazine, and about to play a stop on my tour... I would've passed out from excitement. But obviously now that I'm in it I'm thinking, "How am I going to be able to keep this up?" I'm sure that when you're huge, it's still an anxiety. If you'll be able to sell your next record, if people will care. I'm not huge, I'm just trodding along trying to make it. I don't know, am I trying to make it? I'm just trying to make good music I guess. I was going to go to university but I didn't. My dad was like, "What're you doing? Go and get your record deal. Go to university anytime that you want."
"I don't know, am I trying to make it? I'm just trying to make good music I guess."
Your family's really supportive?Yeah. A lot of parents are eager for their kids to go to college right away: do that and get a solid base before you follow your dreams. For my parents, my dad was like, "This isn't a dream. People are really good at certain things, and if you were really good at math I'd tell you to go on and do math in university. But you're really good at music so it's dumb not to do that and to pursue something that you've got a clear opportunity with."
It's not knocking education to say "the way that the idea of college is manipulated to set people on a certain course."
It's a weird concept that we're all... It's like the Matrix where everything seems so normal. You go to college, get a job, then you get a mortgage, then you pay off the mortgage and then life's complete. When you step out of the bubble it's like, "Hello? Is anybody in there?" As I get older, that's kind of how I feel about all kinds of constructs. Like prison, for example. One day I just realized that prison is actually fucking insane. When someone says there's no other options, it's like, "no there are, and this is crazy." Or like eating meat. When I stopped eating meat I was like "What have we been doing?" Obviously it's not the actually eating I have a problem with but the farming, and deciding what animals do with their lives. Sometimes even having a dog is fucking weird. It's probably wrong to have a dog and I have one. He's adopted, but it still feels fucked up. Like, "Why do I get to choose when and what you eat?" Sorry I've gone off on a tangent...
I feel like adulthood is a series of those realizations, and then having to forget them, a bit, in order to survive.
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Tell me about where your sound comes from. Why do you sound the way that you sound?I've always been obsessed with harmonies. I think that comes from harmonizing in the car my dad. When I started recording, my favorite part was just layering harmonies because it was fun to sing on top of myself. I used to just get such pleasure out of it, just creating chords with my voice. Everyone always thinks it's vocoder shit, but it's just my voice [laughs]. I get comparisons, or people saying that I ripped off Imogen Heap or The 1975, and I'm like "I've been doing this since I was 10, everyone can piss off." I didn't know who Imogen Heap was when I was 10.
You've been compared to so many different, incredibly random people. Like from The Beatles to Lana Del Rey. Who would you say is an influence?
I never have consciously tried to imitate anyone, because I think it's kind of a waste of time… It's just like "put on their CD then." But I did listen to a lot of The Beatles growing up. I didn't care about anything else except The Beatles till I was about eight. Then I started listening to Blondie and ABBA, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, then I got into more current stuff. I was really into Bon Iver, The National, Fleetwood Mac, Kate Bush, Talking Heads. The older music has stayed constant, whereas when I'm into new fads it fades away. Like I used to be so into finding new music, I knew every new band on the face of the earth, but now I don't really like any of that emo indie shit.
Were you into all indie dude rock gods when you were young?
I loved indie music. But I don't know if I loved it because I liked the scene and I wanted to be cool, or if I actually liked the music. Now it's hard now to tell if I love it. There's that nostalgic part of me that loves it. The Artic Monkeys for example, I was obsessed with that first album and I fucking hate it now. I listen to it and I fucking hate it. I think I actually hated it then but just pretended to like it.
It's so easy to become alienated from your own tastes when you're young, and trying to impress and be cool.
Totally. But then again, like The Kooks, I loved them and I think they're amazing [laughs]. There's so many pre-2010 indie pop bands that I love. Now I listen to a way larger range, and probably less stuff, just a bigger range. I listen to a lot of Frank Ocean and Ari Lennox. My friends, MUNA. I listen to a lot more women than I used to. Which is nice [laughs]. Okay Kaya.
All your projects are really different. How do you think your songwriting has evolved?
I just got better. The subject isn't if it's better or worse, but I think maybe there's a fuller sound. I don't think I was hiding behind harmonies before, I think I was really just loving that thickness, and I still love that but I'm learning it can be more effective when I'm singing something with a clearer sound.
Do you ever use auto-tune?
Yeah, there are obvious times when I'm using auto-tune, and sometimes I use formants to change the tone of my voice. But most of the time it's just 6 layered harmonies. Usually none of them are parallel, so it sounds really odd, like Harmony Engine (a vocal harmonizer). It would be way easier if I just used Harmony Engine cause everyone would think it's the same thing anyways and it takes so long to record six harmonies, and I take so many takes to get it perfect.
What challenged you while making Good At Falling?
Finishing it. I hate finishing things. I hate committing to anything. I hate making decisions. I hate lack of control. So as soon as I sign something over, it makes me stress out. I'm getting better with that. The hardest thing is just when I feel uninspired. You know... sometimes I feel really depressed! And all I want to do is sit in a hole and order out takeaway and watch Friends till I die. God, that actually really made me want to do that.... [laughs]. Yeah, it's those moments that I find so difficult, because it's like "How do I inspire myself again?" I feel completely useless.
When you started making music, you wanted to be anonymous. By now, you've gained a fairly public profile. What changed?
I definitely don't feel like I'm famous, apart from at my shows. But I've gotten over that old attitude and I think my album reflects that. I'm being so honest and open about my personal life, it's pretty clear that I have no desire for privacy in any way. The more famous I get, the more I like it, to be honest. It's kind of addictive isn't it? Once you get some, you want more and more. I also know so many famous people because of my label, not to sound like anass hole. Like Matty, George, and all of The 1975 are so famous in comparison to me. I'll never be like that.
I mean yeah, I highly doubt that I'll be more famous than them and I also don't want to be. I think I'll pass. Maybe I wouldn't pass. It's hard for me to imagine being like that.
You're frequently tied to The 1975. WHow do you feel when people call you their protégé?
I don't even really know what that means. How can you be a protégé of someone if you're two bands? It's not like they sat me down and taught me anything. I worked with George, but he was just my producer. I don't think they would like it put that way. We're just friends, and they like my music, and they're more experienced than me so they help me with production. But what does that mean that I'm their protégé? If they weren't a band then I wouldn't be their protégé, they'd just be my producers. They're really talented. George is amazing at production, Matty's amazing at ideas and production and writing. But he hasn't written any of my songs, which is something a lot of people assume. At 17, when I was green and didn't know what was going on, I'd accept that more. But I've released an album now and four EP's, so I think that's really patronizing. I'm my own artist and I think they would want the world to think the same as well. That's a classic thing, isn't it?
Yeah, the older "male mentor." It's an easy narrative to make you legible. It's a good headline.
Exactly and it's like "Oh how can we fit Japanese House into the public eye, let's name drop The 1975 into it." I mean, I'm not complaining. I've gotten so many opportunities through them. I've gone on so many tours with them and like so many of my fans are through them. Maybe it's unfair of me to want all of the good stuff about knowing them, but none of the bad. I don't know, I'm interested to see what happens with No Rome. Because he's a guy, I'm not even going to assume it's because I'm a girl but people say that they write my songs and do everything. I'm just interested, it's kind of a funny, twisted experiment, to see what happens.
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Do you ever write from a character on Good At Falling, or is it completely personal?I'm my purest self when I write about myself. You know how Ted Bundy can't say what he's done, so he talks as if it was someone else? It's the same when I write songs. Obviously I'm not talking about murdering women, but I'm talking to myself when I write. With the song "You Seem So Happy" when I say "you seem so happy to everybody," I'm talking to myself. That song is about seeming happy to a majority of people when a lot of the time... I just want to kill myself [laughs]. So you see, it's harder to say that then write a song about it.
The album was really self-aware about our perceptions of love. You sing about the pressure not to be alone. Were you sorting through which ideas about love and happiness were societies, versus your own?
I was in a relationship for a majority of this record. I was in a relationship when I wrote "Worm"... she didn't like that one. I was like "Oh my god, I'm living with someone, I'm 22, I've been with them for 3 years." I still feel like that now, to be honest, I feel incomplete because I'm alone. I don't feel like my life is moving anymore because I'm alone. I don't know if that's because society has made me feel like I need to be in a relationship to be happy, or if I'm really not happy because I'm not in a relationship. It's a chicken or the egg, situation. That's what "Worm" is about, the weird nature of relationships because we're told what love is. When you're a baby do you actually love your parents, or do you just get told that you do? It's just such a weird concept for me, everything to do with love. But I'm obsessed with it, literally obsessed with love.
Do you ever write songs that aren't about love?
It's all got something to do with love. I mean "You Seem So Happy" is more about my mental health problems, "Wild" isn't about love, and the first track definitely not about love. "Maybe You're The Reason" is kind of an existential crisis where I want to die, so I guess it sort of is a love song. But that's what I think of most of the time, who I'm going to love next or if I'm in still love with someone. I don't know if I'm obsessed with love because it's amazing and interesting or because the world revolves around it. It's this weird drug, that we're all smoking.
There's been a lot of fascination with your gender and sexuality. I read that you once deliberately cast yourself across from a male actor in a music video, so it didn't to seem like you were "jumping on the lesbian bandwagon." As a queer woman, do you resent having to be so conscious and aware, in a way you wouldn't have to be if you were straight or a man?
I actually don't resent it, it's interesting. Women have to check themselves constantly, and maybe that's why men are the ones being so dumb all the time. Maybe it's a good thing that I have to think about it, maybe it's a really good thing, because I'm not doing stupid shit. I mean, I regret that entire music video because I was so embarrassed and so young. That's probably not great to say… the director did a really great job, but me in that music video was not right.
Sometimes it's annoying, the self-consciousness. But I think the cure is that everyone should just be more conscious all the time. My friend posted a thing for International Women's Day, then posted a picture of a vagina shaped object. People were so nasty, telling her that having a vagina doesn't mean you're a woman. She's supportive of the trans community and doesn't believe that, but she slipped up. We need to have the space to slip up. If I slipped up and said something homophobic and someone went "by the way, that comes across as this," that doesn't make me be defensive, that makes me go "I didn't even think about that and now I've learned something." Being cruel to people who slip up is dangerous, it causes people to be defensive. Like old people don't realize that the stuff they say is offensive. The way to deal with it is to be like "This makes me feel like this," rather than going "YOU CAN'T SAY THAT."
So instead of wishing you could be as thoughtless as a straight man, it would be better if everyone was as self-conscious as women and queer people are forced to be?
Exactly. I appreciate having an environment in which I'm conscious. I want to be conscious, I want to learn and to be forced to think about how the things I do affect other people. When I was younger, I didn't. But now we live in a time where if a kid says something online or on social media, they learn from it now, whereas if I said something homophobic on the playground, no one would pick up on it and I wouldn't learn from it. Having social media is a very positive thing in that respect.
What you're saying reminds me of how women are now told not to apologize, to confident. But what if everyone apologized a bit more and doubted what they had to say a bit more? Everyone would be better and more thoughtful.
Yeah, it's so tricky. It's such a weird time where everyone is recalibrating. I'm just desperate to stay on the side that's learning. You know how some parents might have been activists when they were young, but there comes a time when they stop keeping up and start to feel like "It's all so silly now, we have to say this word and this word." As soon as you do that you get left behind. I want to stay on the side that keeps thinking.
Photo courtesy of Press Here