Amber Bain, also known as The Japanese House, has forgotten about our scheduled interview until she picks up my call and I introduce myself. It’s lucky I caught her: she’s just got off the phone from a two hour chat with her mum. I give her a minute to light a cigarette, and then we’re off . Bain talks slowly, carefully, as matches the ebb and flow of her moody electronica. She seems relaxed yet thoughtful, often taking considerable gaps in her speech as she takes a drag on a cigarette or re-lights another.
As a musical project, The Japanese House is wonderfully unfussy. You may well know ‘Face Like Thunder’, though you may not place The Japanese House’s name to it. Taking its place as the lead single on 2016’s Swim Against the Tide EP, it’s an 80s-era pop tune hidden under swerving synths. It’s a tune much like Amber Bain herself, our conversation, and her whole musical output: inconspicuous and not at all showy, yet absorbing once you give time to its details.
Now, Buckinghamshire-born Bain is gearing up for the release of her fourth EP. She tells me the forthcoming single is her “favourite song [she’s] written to date”, with warmth, pondering, “I guess that’s how it’s meant to be.”
Bain talks about this upcoming track with tenderness. For a long while she hesitates, before ultimately confiding: “I had someone who I used to be really close with die a couple of years ago, and it’s about them. It’s about confronting those kind of issues.” For every song she writes, the way in which each element comes together is very different. But “this time I started the lyrics and melody at exactly the same time. My favourite songs are always the ones where everything comes at exactly the same time—the melody and the lyrics and chords or whatever.”
For such an understated musician, it’s interesting that Bain is so closely tied-up with outrageous pop successes The 1975. Drummer George Daniel co-produces The Japanese House with Bain, who first met the band in 2012 when they were playing The Barfly, Camden—a venue of just 200 capacity. Last December the Manchester quartet played London’s O2 Arena, capacity 20,000, which they sold out in just three hours. While Bain is every bit in awe of her friends, saying “it doesn’t even really shock me how successful they are because they work so hard. I don’t know anyone else that works that hard”, she is very aware that the band’s fame has a lot to do with their aesthetic identity.
I ask Bain what she thinks of this kind of 1975-level fame. Would she take it or leave it? “I’ve never wanted fame at all. It’s not something that I even think about or am interested in. There’s a difference between being famous and being a successful musician. Like The National, for example. If they walked down the street, I wouldn’t know what they looked like. They’re not really famous. Whereas The 1975—their identity is a thing.”
For the moment, the identity of The Japanese House is withdrawn and subdued. Bain’s Instagram account is all bleached colours, her blonde hair usually obscuring part of her face. I doubt she gets many people coming up to her on the street, though she’s playing impressive O2 Academy venues and London’s KOKO this May, and high critical acclaim is likely to follow once a full album arrives, even though she’d be far too modest to make that National comparison to herself.
After three EPs and a fourth on the way, a full debut album is on the cards, and she hopes she’ll have finished it by the end of the year. For now, she’s happier dissecting Ed Sheeran’s current chart success rather than being up there with him: “When I came back from America on Friday, the first song I heard in the UK was that ‘Galway Girl’ song. I just didn’t understand what was going on. I thought I was in some alternate universe. It’s a ridiculous song. It’s ridiculous.”
Once we start talking about chart music, Bain is suddenly animated. She “loves” Justin Bieber, thinks Lady Gaga is “amazing”, doesn’t “really get” the new Harry Styles, but wishes she could get James Blake on her album, like Beyonce did on Lemonade. “I obviously love Beyonce”, she tells me, “I’m not a fucking psycho.”