Amber Bain aka The Japanese House, has just released her debut album, Good At Falling, on The 1975’s label, Dirty Hit. It sees her face up to fears in tracks that lay her personal life and heartbreak bare, especially her relationship with fellow songwriter and label mate Marika Hackman. Co-produced by Bon Iver producer BJ Burton, it follows up a set of stellar EPs, co-produced by George Daniel from The 1975. She talks to Jeff Hemmings about the emotional turbulence involved in the making of the album, her inspirations, The 1975, and why name The Japanese House.
Where are you today?
I’m at Oxford at the moment, in a studio, working on music I’ve ben writing since I finished the last one. I don’t know if it will constitute another album yet, or an EP, or what.
I guess it’s your natural habitat, being in a studio?
Yes, I guess so, although my natural habitat is being in my bedroom, where I have a studio, or anywhere with my laptop.
Tell us about the album.
It’s a long collection of songs! They are basically about relationships, my relationships with people, and my relationship with myself. Sonically, I think it’s a step up for me. There’s a lot more of a blend between organic and synthetic sounds, especially in the drum side of things. I’m really proud of it. The EP’s were fun. I think they are a quite romantic way of consuming music, little snapshots of people’s lives. The album feels more important to me. It references a lot of shit that has gone down in the my life, the last year or so. I emptied it, I guess!
How does a typical song come about?
Every song is different. It’s very rare that I will write an entire song in one go. I have this terrible attention span. Usually, I’ll write an idea and then leave it for one year, and then come back to it, and work on the production side a bit more, and then finish off the lyrics later on down the line. At some point I will introduce it to BJ or George. I don’t have a direct process. If I did I would probably be a bit more prolific, and it wouldn’t take me so long!
How did you hook up with BJ Burton?
It was a weird coincidence. I was working on the album because George was really busy, and I was like ‘I don’t want to work with another producer’. I’m not that kind of artist, I don’t want to sit in with a producer. I’m too much of a control freak, it needs to be a collaboration with someone who has the exact same tastes as me. But when you are doing stuff on your own, especially when you don’t have band members, I had no sense of perspective whatsoever, sitting in a room, doing the same song a thousand different ways. So, I started discussing working with another producer, and Googled albums I liked, and BJ kept cropping up. At the same time he was trying to get in contact with me. It was kinda weird.
So, you ended up going to Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) studio, out in Wisconsin?
For the first bit I was in Wisconsin, literally in the middle of nowhere. It was a really good experience, like some kind of child’s dream. When you’re in the same space for six weeks, and you don’t ever leave, there are negatives. But, overall, it was something that I need to focus on something.
How are you feeling about Good At Falling?
I have a lot of self-doubt, but I’m really happy with it. I usually have that ‘I’m an idiot, I’m a fraud’ moment’ with stuff, but I haven’t had it with this album. Maybe it’s to come!
You close the album with ‘I Saw You In A Dream’, which features The 1975. And Matt Healy songs on another track, ‘Faraway’!
I saw them out in LA, and I’d just been through a break-up, and I was a wreck and I just had these four lovely boys looking after me and mothering me basically. It makes me very emotional when I think about how sweet they were to me.
I read that a friend showed you a video game about a square having an existential crisis, and you started to cry.
Yeah, basically. There’s this game Thomas Was Alone, and as this square is going through the levels of the game, there is this narrator explaining Thomas’s feelings, and at one point Thomas says, ‘Is there any point to this?’ I feel it’s a commentary on how people feel about life. And there’s a bit where he’s describing one of the levels, and the narrator says, ‘Thomas was really good at falling’. I found that really sad, and sweet. It was the only thing this square could do. It hadn’t learnt to jump yet. Just fall. I thought about that a lot. In a way, it’s one of the best things to be good at, to be good at falling. It’s also one of the hardest things to be good at, one of the most painful things to do. So, the album is about all kinds of failures, and falling, and dealing with that.
So what will the live set up be?
I’ll have three other band members, and we all sing. Laptop, keyboards, microphones, guitars.
What is your main instrument?
Guitar. I’m a lot of worse at playing it considering how many years I’ve been doing it! I’ve never had the ability to just practice, my brain does not compute. I can really only do things when I want to do them. Although I am pretty good at the guitar, I do love playing it. But, I could be a lot better. I’m not the best singer in the word, and I’m not the best guitar player in the world, but I think what makes me good at writing songs is that there is no direct skill in writing songs. It’s not fluke, but something weird happens, something weird is telling you what chords to go to.
Famously, John Lennon wasn’t a particularly good guitarist, but he did alright!
I didn’t know that! I just don’t have that discipline, or attention span. I’m never going to be the best at anything! But, I’m good at having something to say. I guess. I don’t know!
But you taught yourself to make your own music?
Yeah, I was writing songs on the guitar, but I quickly outgrew that. One of the most important things about music, and what affects me, is the harmonies – vocals or instrumentation. So, I started overlaying my voice with a thousand different harmonies, not realising it was becoming a thing. And I was writing music for a band, which I didn’t have. I learnt how to make it sound like I had a band.
What were your musical inspirations?
I didn’t listen to anything but The Beatles until I was 10 or 11. I was obsessed. I used to make my friends sing the harmonies to Beatles songs, and walk around the playground. I was weirdly obsessed. I then I got into The Beach Boys. All my Dad’s music, basically. The Jam, Blondie, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons! And then I got into was Avril Lavigne. Really changed my life. And then I became a trendy little indie kid, like I knew every singe band that existed in the indie genre. Now, I don’t really listen to much at all! I find it hard. If it’s really good, I get kinda jealous, which is a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. Or I get really inspired by it. There’s a nice jealousy to it. And sometimes when I listen to crap pop music, I’m like, ‘Oh my god! ‘Is this what actually works!?’
Where does the name The Japanese House come from?
I didn’t want to use my own name. I was always of the fact that if someone hears a girl’s name, I feel people will assume it will be sad music with a guitar. That’s how I felt when I chose the name (named after a house she used to stay at as a child, on holidays). I guess I’ve always wanted to be in a band, and wanted a band name, especially when I was performing. But I’m actually too much of a control freak! I keep getting people angry at me for calling myself The Japanese House, because I’m not Japanese.
Why is that?
I try and understand that! It’s like the Arctic Monkeys aren’t monkeys, or from the Arctic! Or Kings of Leon, aren’t from Leon. I’m literally talking about a real place. The name drew me because of a weird experience that happened to me there, about how when I was there I would dress as a boy, and how this girl who lived next door, believed I was a boy, and when I finally told here at the end of the week, I wasn’t a boy, she burst into tears, because she thought she was in love me. I think that’s a cute, heartbreaking story. I wonder if she would burst into tears if she saw me now!