“How do all these people know?” — In Conversation with The Japanese House
Amid the release of The Japanese House’s debut album, Good at Falling, I was lucky enough to have a chat with Amber Bain about opening up on her latest record.
“I was like, maybe we’ll go down in gay history,” laughs Bain, explaining how she persuaded ex-girlfriend Marika Hackman to star in the video for ‘Lilo’, her second single from the new album.
It’s an intensely personal song, and in the video Bain re-enacts her relationship on camera in a blurred state between the real and a choreographed daydream. “It was kind of a hard experience [that] opened up some boxes, but it was also the easiest video shoot I’ve ever done because I didn’t feel self-conscious or weird, because I wasn’t — because it was just the truth.”
The age old saying about suffering for your art springs to mind here, but it never feels gratuitous. Bain is as brave as she is talented. There’s something bold about her honesty. Her storytelling is upfront but her music is never simple.
Bain attributes part of this frankness to growing older. “I have more specific things to talk about and as you get older your problems become more specific, in a way, and more cemented into the ground, so it’s easier to talk about them because they’re obvious. Whereas I feel like when you’re younger you’re sort of grasping at clouds, trying to understand what your problems are.”
Beneath the jaunty guitars on ‘Maybe You’re the Reason’ there is a melancholy that permeates the album without ever being right in your face. You could be fooled into thinking it was a simple love song if you didn’t pay attention to what Bain is singing. I ask her about a line that crept up on me after a few listens, when she sings, ‘I think I’m dying because this can’t be living’.
“It’s basically just about having really severe health anxiety. I was in a place where I would think I was dying constantly all the time, and as a result it was kind of destroying my life. I was just like, this isn’t anything, if I’m just constantly worrying about dying. There’s a lot of darkness in the record.”
I suggest that the writing process might be cathartic for Bain, and she muses on that, concluding that, “Sometimes it opens up a whole can of worms. Writing music and listening to my own music after writing is like taking a drug, but you don’t really come down off it.”
Good at Falling continues exploring and delving deep into the intimate feelings of love, loss and everything in between with nuance and a refreshing candidness. Bain’s music has always felt like a direct channel into her stream of consciousness and that continues on her album with strikingly direct lines like, ‘Gemma told me that she met someone’. Listen a few times and you’ll notice more and more of these conversational gems.
Many of the new songs follow breakthrough single ‘Saw You in a Dream’ by focusing on the poppier side of indie pop. Bain has crafted bittersweet bops for indies in songs like ‘Follow My Girl’ and ‘You Seemed So Happy’. She hasn’t neglected the harmonies, though. The dreamlike opening of ‘Marika Is Sleeping’ and ballad ‘f a r a w a y’ are Bain at her mellifluous best. Both are complex and carefully layered with lavish harps and multi vocals thanks to Bain’s underrated production and her aversion to being “just a singer with guitar vibes.”
Bain is charmingly modest, claiming she should be “a lot better at guitar” than she is considering the early age she started playing, and is as open and engaged in our conversation as she is on the record. She says touring has become easier now she has stopped drinking. She’s been listening to a lot of classical music, in addition to a lot of her musical friends’ ventures.
She’s one of few voices in the music industry speaking out against misogyny and homophobia in the charts. On Twitter she called out The Weeknd’s newest single ‘Lost in the Fire’ for derogatory and violent lyrics that have largely overlooked by the media. Bain is clearly annoyed by the lack of accountability. “He’s completely deriding lesbian or bisexual culture and women at the same time. I believe that everyone should be able to write what they want, but people should be able to criticise it because that’s how they move forward. But that’s just not happened — no one is criticising it apart from that very small group of people [on Twitter].”
Bain writes openly about her relationships with women, using female pronouns. “I didn’t really realise I was doing it,” she says. “The first time I did it was in ‘Still’ and people were coming up to me after shows asking me if I was gay and stuff. I was like, ‘How do all these people know?’, and they were like, ‘You do realise that you sing about girls in your song?’’
While acknowledging its importance, Bain points out this was never a purposeful decision. “I’m obviously very open to talking about that, but at the same time I never want to be someone who consciously makes decisions to insert certain things into their creations, because it just feels wrong.”
The long wait for The Japanese House’s first album has been worthwhile. It’s as if Bain has etched her own heart onto it and there’s something graceful and powerful about that. Good at Falling is Bain at her most vulnerable and most engrossing, maybe because she is simply telling her truth, and she completely owns it.
Images courtesy of The Japanese House// Ian Cheek Press