The Japanese House: “even the sad parts of relationships are kind of beautiful”

 (Jay Seba)
(Jay Seba)

“We have the same handwriting!” Amber Bain announces after taking one look at my illegible scrawl. We share the same, deliberate tactic of writing as erratically as possible so that no one else could decipher our notetaking (should they get a glance at it). A sense of secrecy has followed Bain since the start of her career, when at first, her androgynous indie vocals left a question mark over her gender. At one point, industry conspiracy theorists even believed her music was a side project of The 1975’s Matty Healy.

The mystery of her identity was fuelled by her ambiguous moniker, “The Japanese House”, referencing the Cornish holiday home she would visit with her family as a child. Almost a decade later, I wonder if the now 27-year-old ever wishes she could go back to being faceless? “No. I didn’t want it to become a gimmick. I never want to be walking around with a wig on my face or a motorcycle helmet, it’s nice to put your person into it”, she explains, her blonde bob falling in her face.

We meet on a blindingly bright afternoon in April. It’s one of those spring days that tricks you into wearing summer clothes before you step outside, only to realise it’s 4 degrees. Bain has chosen to meet in a cave-like cafe on the corner of Hackney Downs. She’s cloaked in a long black trench, which she takes off and puts back on again several times throughout our interview.

Following a four year break since the release of her debut album, The Japanese House returns with her sophomore record In The End It Always Does at the end of June. Her life between albums has been an intense blip of serious relationships. She moved from London to Margate for an ex-girlfriend, bought a house, found herself in a throuple, ended her romantic relationships, got a sausage dog named Joni and moved back to London again. She spent a long time “just wanting to lie on the sofa”, unmotivated by songwriting, before a shockwave of energy meant that she completed her entire second album within the space of six months. “It was the fear of being sad that comes with the end of a relationship. It gives you this weird energy. I had been disillusioned with my ability to make music, but then life kind of started again when I moved back to London. The city and interactions with its people gave me a rush of life again.”

I used to shy away from it because I didn’t want to make it my ‘thing’ to be gay. Now I’m gonna make it my thing

Bain moved to London from her hometown of Buckinghamshire as soon as she was old enough, aged 18. In 2012 she fell into the right crowd, befriending Matty Healy and George Daniel of The 1975, before going on tour with them and signing to the same record label. Having worked closely with the band throughout her career, Bain can’t picture herself ever making an album without them. “It’s kind of crazy that we’ve stayed working together for so long” she says, “I would never make an album without George. He has ‘The Japanese House’ tattooed on his arm and I’m going to get one that just says ‘George’. I don’t think I’ll get a 1975 tattoo - sorry guys.”

She’s learnt a lot from the band too, “particularly from George in terms of production” she says, “and I’ve learnt a lot from Matty just about how important it is to stay excited about the song. It’s a fantasy and delusion that you’re buying in to and you have to keep it alive otherwise you’re not going to make exciting music”. Recent topics of conversation for the friendship group have revolved around AI and its knock-on effect on the music industry - are they worried? “No, not at all. I’d be worried if I was a mastering engineer or something like that. I worry for the jobs that will be lost, but in terms of being an artist, no. Ultimately people are interested in the artist and what the artist has to say. It’s like cheating. It’s like doing a shortcut on a Sims game, it just ruins the game. People will still want to know what the f*ck Matty Healy is gonna say in his next song. No one cares about what an AI has to say. People want the fallibility of a human being.”

As well as featuring The 1975, The Japanese House’s latest album also features MUNA’s Kate Gavin and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon too. Her second single from the album ‘Sad to Breathe’ is about “the cyclical nature of someone leaving you and thinking your life’s over, but then it just repeats itself and repeats itself”, she explains. The whole album, in fact, is about cycles. “The title of the album comes from a lyric in a song called Sunshine Baby. ‘In the end it always does’ can mean a positive or a negative ending, the circle always repeats itself and life is just repetitive cycles that keep going. Life is about the new things that you’ve learnt within each cycle. You just keep going round and round.”

The bleak lyrics of Sad to Breathe (‘it’s sad to breathe the air when you’re not there’) leave you confused by a peppy, upbeat tempo. It’s the kind of song you’d click your heels to on a summer’s day if the lyrics weren’t so starkly depressing. “It’s almost pleasing to look back on yourself then in a place of ‘help me, I want to die’, and then realise it’s fine now. You know when it happens again that there’s a future version of yourself looking back and thinking it’s fine now.”

People will still want to know what the f*ck Matty Healy is gonna say in his next song. No one cares about what an AI has to say

Allowing us inside her past romantic relationships on such an intimate level, I wonder if she finds it hard revisiting old songs: “I don’t relisten to my songs” she answers quickly, “as soon as I release it I remove it from the context of my own life, it would be too emotionally exhausting if I did that. I’m also friends with most of my exes so it doesn’t have so much of a painful attachment to it”. Does she worry about what her exes will think of the songs? “Yes and no. I know what my ex thinks about this album because she’s the first person that heard it, she heard it through all of its phases. It’s nice to have documentation of something. Even the sad parts of relationships are kind of beautiful. I couldn’t be with someone who was going to police my writing, or police what I can and can’t say in a song. Luckily I’ve never been with someone who’s like that.”

Today, Bain is vocal about her queer identity, but for a long time was hesitant to discuss it for fear of being pigeonholed. “I don’t just put female pronouns in my songs for the sake of it. That on its own will make a difference because I didn’t hear that growing up and if I had it would’ve changed my entire life. That’s the main thing that people want to talk to me about after shows, they’ll come up and tell me I helped them. I used to shy away from it because I didn’t want to make it my ‘thing’ to be gay. Now I’m gonna make it my thing, and I like that it’s my thing. It’s my god-given right and I’m going to use it, it’s something that’s cool and should be celebrated.”

She recalls her own experience of growing up with very few queer icons to look up to: “I knew older lesbians here and there, but they were a different type of queer person to me. I stumbled across Eliot Sumner” - child of Sting and actress Trudie Styler - “and was like ‘oh my God, they wear the same things as me, I love their music, everyone at school thinks they’re really cool’, they had greasy hair, looked a bit scrappy and so did I. They were the only person I can think of, but I didn’t really have anyone to look up to. Or there were Emily and Naomi’s characters in Skins, but that was it. That’s why it makes me so angry that The L Word: Generation Q hasn’t been picked up for another season. I know it’s not the best script ever and I know it’s a bit silly, but it’s the only thing we have. Ammonite was the most boring thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life but because it’s a lesbian film, I watched it twice! I felt like I needed the gay content.”

As our conversation draws to a close she tells me she’s off to spend her afternoon with George of The 1975. She rolls a cigarette, throws her cloak back over her shoulders and disappears under the Hackney Downs railway arches.

‘In The End It Always Does’ by The Japanese House will be available on June 30th 2023.