The Japanese House: bittersweet electronica and queer love songs

Douglas Greenwood

Douglas Greenwood on the 23-year-old artist who is shaking off her underdog status

03 December 2018 08:30

Just outside of Cornwall, there’s a village called Angarrack. Every day, trains hurtle over the viaduct that casts a shadow over it, and on its fringes, nestled in the woodland, lies a house. Clad in wood and raised from the ground as if on stilts, it’s architecturally inspired by a traditional Japanese family home. In the late nineties, Kate Winslet lived there. Amber Bain spent a summer holiday there once too.

That house, the memories it carries and the tranquility of the woods around it have stuck with Bain throughout the years. Now, as one of Britain’s most modest, yet profoundly talented young singer-songwriters, she’s bottled those halcyon summer days and transformed it into her musical moniker: The Japanese House.

The music she makes – a mystifying blend of sombre electronica, dream pop and folk – touches a strange place inside of you. We’re used to finding emotion in more organic sounds, but in the same vein as artists like Imogen Heap, Amber has adopted a style that turns the quiet murmur of a machine manipulating her voice into a wild and effective mode of expression.

The music she makes touches a strange place inside of you.

Born in Buckinghamshire, that jaunt to the Japanese house – alongside her mature knack as a songwriter (she’s just turned 23) – played a huge part in the formative years of her career, when her work landed in the laps of the decision makers at Dirty Hit. Known best as the indie label that catapulted The 1975 from a swaggering guitar band into a bunch of arena-filling, game changing rock stars, alongside other acts like Mercury winners Wolf Alice and Pale Waves, she might seem like a quiet anomaly amongst Dirty Hit’s line-up. But in reality, what Amber is great at also carries a certain gravitas. While it might not hit the heady heights of a gigantic single from that Matty Healy-fronted group (though she did support them on their last arena tour), there are layers and layers, both sonic and emotional, to what The Japanese House creates. Some of them are just stacked up, like china plates waiting to break, or buried beneath the ground.

There’s a tendency to label queerness a trend in music, as if it’s some kind if personality trait that can strengthen someone’s success rate in ‘woke’ 2018. The reality of that though is somewhat different: LGBTQ+ artists are at a serious disadvantage over their heteronormative counterparts when it comes to solid album sales, radio play and streaming numbers.

But what Amber creates as a queer woman isn’t straight-down-the-line pop anyway; it’s far more spectral, ruminative and emotionally dense than anything that could ever magically transform into a traditional top 40 single. And that, perhaps is why she’s so great at what she does. Dirty Hit clearly haven’t applied any serious pressure upon this young woman to fit into a colourful, flashy jelly mould – if anything, her dreamy sound slots nicely into the label’s huge roster anyway.

The Japanese House - ‘Lilo’

It’s also wildly refreshing to see the complexities of human relationships – queer or not – broken down with such a potent style of lyrical frankness that you seldom see in pop music. ‘Lilo’, the bittersweet first lick of Amber’s forthcoming debut LP ‘Good at Falling’, is a plaintive record that aches with each note.

She started to write the song during the time her relationship with fellow musician Marika Hackmann was fizzling out, and picked it up again after the two had parted ways. It’s a remarkably well formed record; a song about a break-up, not driven by sorrow or anger, but by a rare sense of understanding instead. She sings about it on the song’s pre-chorus; the way couples with mutual friends learn about each other’s lives through the people still left in between. ‘Gemma told me that she met someone, it was the person I’d been counting on,’ Amber admits on the pre-chorus. ‘It felt good, it felt transitional, a feeling I’d been waiting on.’

What’s even more beautiful is that the video that goes with it. Amber asked Marika, at this point her ex-girlfriend, to play herself in it. What ensued was a video of the pair drifting in and out of embraces and moments of tenderness; the ebb and flow of their love life recreated in the name of art, like Marina Abramovic and Ulay – the two legendary performance artists – together again.

It’s been a long time coming, but the slow burn of The Japanese House, a project that Amber and Dirty Hit have been nursing for almost four years now, will finally have it’s breakout moment in the Spring of 2019, as her debut album Good at Falling finally gets released. It’ll feel like a sigh of relief for the swathes of fans Amber has been collecting for that time period, either online or while sat in front of a stage, soaking in her quiet brilliance. But it’ll be an even greater moment for Amber: after four years of being the modest underdog, here comes a record that will finally force people to rise to their feet and take note of her stunning work.