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The Myth of Anonymity

14 April 2019, 17:00
Words by Pip Williams
Original Photography by Burak Cingi

Amber Bain of The Japanese House speaks candidly to Pip Williams about anonymity and identity following the release of debut album Good At Falling.

Whether or not you’re knowingly familiar with The Japanese House, you’ve almost definitely heard Amber Bain’s music at one point or another. She became a Radio 1’s Hottest Record alumna with debut single “Still”, and has received consistent radio play ever since. She’s also signed to independent label Dirty Hit, home of household names such as Wolf Alice and The 1975.

She became a Radio 1’s Hottest Record alumna with debut single “Still”, and has received consistent radio play ever since. She’s also signed to independent label Dirty Hit, home of household names such as Wolf Alice and The 1975.

Despite all this, you probably wouldn’t recognise Amber Bain if you passed her in the street – that said, there’s nothing calculated about her relative invisibility. She remains as unassuming as ever, despite the packed-out headline show she will deliver following our interview.

I first met Bain back in 2015. We sat on leather sofas in an East London bar and Bain answered a string of questions she’d go on to address incessantly in the years that followed. We discussed the androgyny of her voice, the influence of her famous co-producers, and the anonymity of her aesthetic – at the time defined by the sweeping landscape photography she used in place of more traditional portrait press shots. She talked about her plans for a debut album: though that took over three years to materialise, Bain was always surrounded by the fog of expectation.

The main difference between this conversation and our previous meeting is the enormous German Shepherd sleeping between us as we talk. His name is Calvin, and when I listen back, I find the recording of our interview is punctuated by his gentle snores. Bain is thoughtful when asked what else has changed since we last met, as measured and self-deprecating in her answer as she is cautiously optimistic.

“I feel a lot more confident,” she admits. “I didn’t have any confidence when I first started. I was just a goofy teenager, running around not knowing what I was doing. I didn’t have that arrogance that a lot of teenagers have when they get record deals! It was good in some ways, ‘cause it meant I didn’t turn into a total arsehole, but it also meant that I really struggled with going onstage. I didn’t have that cockiness, which I kind of envy – I’ve had to grow that. I’m probably marginally cocky now, whatever that means. Not arrogant!” She pauses, thoughtful for a moment. “Or maybe I am a bit arrogant… I don’t know. It’s a fine line between having confidence and arrogance. I don’t really know where the line is!”

Arrogance certainly doesn’t noticeably taint Bain’s aura – not that she wouldn’t be entitled to a little bit. Her debut album Good at Falling has been broadly well-received by critics. This is unsurprising, given that it rides off the back of her four preceding EPs, all released to similar acclaim. What is perhaps more surprising, however, is how Bain views the effect of her career thus far on her intellect. Despite her somewhat cerebral sound, laden with rich texture, unselfconsciously poetic lyricism, and a musicality that’s both intuitive and learned, she feels as though she’s become “a lot less intelligent” in the years that have passed.

“I’m not really learning, or studying now,” Bain explains. “I go through random phases of learning crap and then forgetting it within a month. I tried to learn ancient Greek. Why? I don’t know. I’m learning Spanish. I can learn it really quickly, but my brain’s like, ‘if you don’t need this, I’m gonna delete [it]. Delete, delete, delete, delete.’”

I point out this might have something to do with aging; the loss of plasticity in adult neurons, as opposed to those of the teenager Bain was when she first set out on her recording career. She had other, less academic ideas.

“I was drinking quite a lot in the first few years of touring, so I don’t really remember anything at all.”

“When I’m like ‘we don’t fuck anymore', I was like, ‘she’s gonna fucking kill me.’”

As she continues to ring the changes since our last meeting, it becomes clear just how naturally Bain tends towards self-deprecation.

“I’m alone now – apart from my boyfriend Calvin, obviously,” she laughs, ruffling the dog’s thick coat as he naps between us. “I was in a relationship back then, and now I’m not. That was a long relationship. Probably at the beginning when I first met you.”

She’s referring to her split from fellow musician Marika Hackman, following a relationship that spanned much of the past three years. Hackman’s presence looms large throughout Bain’s recent LP, but there’s no bitterness or acrimony. In fact, Bain named a track on her album – “Marika Is Sleeping” – after her, as well as asking Hackman to appear in the music video for single “Lilo”.

“I made a conscious decision to put [Hackman] in my video,” Bain says, decisively. “It just felt really honest, and like the right thing to do. It was the way we were going to make the most meaning out of the music video.”

The video in question is pairs the characteristically yearning undercurrents of The Japanese House’s music with beautiful, piercingly tender shots of Bain and Hackman drifting on inky blue water, embracing in front of rolling flames, and simply passing time. With the context of the pair’s relationship trajectory it feels difficult to watch in places: as though you, the viewer, are encroaching on something painful and private. Bain, however, is candid about the experience, insisting neither she nor Hackman were uncomfortable about sharing this intimacy with fans and critics.

“It doesn’t feel to me like we’re in the public eye,” she explains, “‘cause I just don’t feel very famous at all.”

Despite this, Bain admits that in the process of creating Good At Falling there were moments where she was concerned she might be crossing boundaries. She describes how one particular song – single “We Talk All The Time” – teetered on the brink of violating the privacy of her then-relationship:

“That’s probably one of the most blatantly open songs on the album. It’s a really sexual song, even though it’s literally about not having sex. It was the only time on the album when I was like, ‘ugh, shall I change the lyrics?’ When I’m like ‘we don’t fuck anymore’… I was in a relationship at the time, and I was like, ‘she’s gonna fucking kill me.’”

Thankfully for Bain, things fell into a more comfortable place following the breakup. “Now it’s weird,” she adds. “That song makes so much sense to our relationship, ‘cause we’re just friends.”

Holding back doesn’t come naturally to Bain anymore – a pleasant change for the artist who filmed a 2016 music video with a male love interest in order to avoid accusations of milking her sexuality. The response to “We Talk All The Time”’s particular brand of transparency had a clear pay-off, with fans and critics alike taken aback by her relatable clarity, but Bain also reveals a more privately rewarding aspect of the experience.

"It’s just fun to talk about! It’s fun for me to talk about my life, and it’s like therapy in a way. It’s also… not fun, but ­helpful, to know that people have the same shit. It works both ways: when someone listens to ‘You Seemed So Happy’ – talking about my mental health and feeling so depressed – they’ll go, ‘I get that, that’s how I feel!’ and then I’ll be like, ‘oh my god! You get that!’ It’s a nice connection.”

Given that the openness of much of Good At Falling exceeds that of any previous Japanese House release, it’s bizarre that many commentators still insist on cultivating a myth of anonymity that clouds the project’s public image. Bain and I touched on the subject in 2015, with the singer insisting that she “definitely doesn’t think [she’s] mysterious.” The Japanese House’s Wikipedia page refers to the project as having “an anonymous label […] as opposed to the use of [Bain’s] own name” – a bizarre comment, given the vast history of solo artists doing the very same.

“People latch onto the whole ‘I’m anonymous’ [thing]… first of all: I never actually wanted to be anonymous!” Bain laughs, caught between what seems like frustration and simple confusion. “I just didn’t want to have a press shot. That’s it. Everyone knew my name – my Instagram always said Amber Bain. It’s crazy what a lack of photo can do to people.

“Now I’m definitely not trying to be in any way anonymous or mysterious,” she continues. “I’ve probably fucked so many people off by talking about my relationship, or people’s trauma. The anonymity thing does make me laugh.”

A common thread amongst commentators’ insistence on Bain’s anonymity is a reference to androgyny. Admittedly, her vocal range sits in an ambiguously gendered area, but she’s not the first woman to blur the lines between contralto and tenor. Indeed, Bain referenced Beach House’s Victoria Legrand’s low voice as a particular inspiration in a recent Nine Songs interview: “everyone said she sounded like a guy and she made it a really cool thing, rather than an embarrassing thing.”

Legrand’s career, however, has not been constantly dogged by listeners’ confusion over her gender, nor by assertions that her work is the side project of a more famous male vocalist ­– in Bain’s case, Matty Healy of The 1975. Why, I ask, is this still happening, after four Japanese House EPs, and now a full-length LP?

“If you’re a girl and you don’t go on about it, people assume you don’t wanna be one!” Bain says, shrugging. “It’s weird. I think it’s because of the way I dress that people assume I’m gender-neutral. I dress like a 12-year-old child!” she laughs, before adding: “I’m not gender-neutral, guys! I’m a girl!”

“I don’t feel like a girl in the sense of society’s view of what a woman is. I feel very feminine and masculine.”

Bain pauses, seemingly reluctant to continue with the train of thought that’s occurred to her. It’s understandable: she’s a young, gay woman whose gender has always been subject to baffling debate. To explore that any further might seem like inviting controversy, particular with the lack of respect the current media climate shows to marginalised sexual and gender identities.

“I’ve actually been thinking about [gender] loads recently,” she admits, after a moment of silence stretches between us. “I really don’t know what I feel like. I don’t feel like a girl in the sense of society’s view of what a woman is. I don’t feel like that. Does that mean I’m non-binary? Or does that just mean that I don’t wanna wear heels? I don’t know. It’s one of those weird things. I don’t really associate with being a girl. I don’t really associate with being a boy. No – it’s actually the opposite: I associate with both a lot. I feel very feminine and masculine.”

One of the most commonly cited stories about Bain’s past references a family holiday where she, then a young child, pretended to be a boy named Danny for a week. She won the affection of a young girl staying in the cottage next-door, who was distraught to discover the truth of Bain’s gender.

“When I was a kid I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to have a penis,” Bain confirms, when I ask if the story ran deeper than simple role-play. “Is that because I wanted to be a boy, or is that because girls weren’t allowed to play football at school?” she muses. “I loved playing football! Had all those things been different, would I…? I don’t know. I cannot imagine having the courage to [transition]. I always felt a bit like that as a kid, but actually doing it… I would be terrified.

“It was definitely more than, ‘oh, I’m just gonna dress up as a boy for a day’,” she continues. “I made someone believe that I was [a boy]. I was lying to her and her family, and literally all it would have taken for me to get found out was her parents coming over to our cottage next-door.”

"Everyone is just obsessed with sex, including me.”

Did Bain’s parents know?

“They knew I was wearing a backwards cap!” she laughs. “They knew that I often pretended to be a boy, or wanted to be a boy. They definitely knew.”

Bain admits that this particular occasion – whether practical joke, or a deeper-running question of gender identity – was not the only strange brush she had early on in her experiences of her own gender and sexuality.

“I did a lot of weird shit as a kid,” she admits. “I used to make out with my friend – with all my friends! – behind the trees in the garden. My parents could definitely see me. I was like six or something! I remember being quite a sexual child, and everyone around me being very sexual. I think it’s one of those things that adults just ignore! Everyone is just obsessed with sex, including me.”

With a slew of unusual experiences in Bain’s armoury, and the openness with which she approaches them – both musically and in conversation – it’s no wonder The Japanese House has always had a glut of songwriting material. Indeed, Bain has released “more than an album”’s-worth of material before delivering a debut LP – an unusual choice in today’s stream-driven release calendar.

“I didn’t want to put any old songs on the album,” she states decisively. It sucks [to say] ‘I’ve been releasing EPs for four years, now here’s an album with all the songs from them on.’”

Fans will definitely agree – it’s a rare state of affairs for an artist to release an album in 2019 comprising any more than three or four previously unheard tracks. The Spotify machine decrees that artists should give each track its day; releasing them individually to ensure maximum streamability. Bain’s more traditional approach, however, received thankfully little opposition from the powers that be at her label.

“I’ve only released one song that I don’t like, and it fucking destroyed me. I was so unhappy.”

“My label pretty much lets me do whatever I want, which is really good!” she laughs. “They guide me with what I wnant, ‘cause sometimes I don’t know what I want. I’ve actually never had to do anything that I don’t want to do. Usually what they want is what I want, and usually it’s the best thing for the music, rather than money. It’s always more about producing something good than something that makes money. I don’t think I’m going to be one of those artists that makes loads of money, and that’s fine. I’m not going to be like The 1975, for example. I’m doing well, but I’m not going to be like Justin Bieber, and make millions.”

Would she want to be like Justin Bieber, though?

“Sometimes I do want that,” Bain admits. “But you always have – to a degree – to sacrifice something in terms of music. You’re very lucky if you don’t have to do that.”

She continues, reflecting on the less-trodden path that her release schedule has taken:

“It’s impossible to tell if [putting out EPs for four years] has made my career worse or better. Maybe I was riding a wave, and then I came off it ‘cause I took too long, or maybe I didn’t, and it’s gonna be fine. That’s all irrelevant, really, because what matters to me is if the music sounds good. I would much rather be unsuccessful with an album that I love, than successful with an album that I hate – which is a classic thing to say, I guess, but it’s so true.”

It’s refreshing, and surprisingly rare, to hear an artist discuss the relative costs and benefits of their career choices. Many will ride or die by the hollow maxim of ‘no regrets’, but of course there’s little truth to that. Bain’s relentless honesty and authenticity has served her well for the most part, but she admits she has lost her footing in the past.

“I’ve only released one song that I don’t like, and it fucking destroyed me. I was so unhappy,” Bain admits. When tentatively prompted, she continues: “Fuck it, it was ‘Face Like Thunder’. I don’t mind it now – I’m so distanced from it that I can’t even hear it – but it’s fun to play it live, so it’s fine.”

With over 13 million stream on Spotify alone, it’s hard to imagine why Bain would dislike the track so much. What is it about “Face Like Thunder” that she doesn’t connect with?

“That song is one big lie,” she says, decisively. “I wrote it as a joke; I was like, ‘I’m gonna write a crappy pop song for a joke,’ and then I did it. It doesn’t really make any sense, and it’s just dumb. I can see so clearly the classic, formulaic writing that I was doing on purpose, as a joke. It’s depressing if you write something that you think is kind of shit, and was really easy… maybe it’s ‘cause it was so easy to write, I’m like, ‘people shouldn’t like that!’

“It’s weird – put a fucking four-on-the-floor beat on something and people just fucking love it. I don’t know why – and I probably do too! I really don’t like that song, but it was still my choice to put it out – I wasn’t forced to. I didn’t have anything else, so I was like, ‘okay, let’s see how this does.’

“I don’t think it’s the worst song in the world,” she concedes, eventually. “It’s definitely better than a lot of shit that I’ve heard, and definitely a lot better than some of the shit I have written when I was younger, but it just didn’t really feel very honest. I think that’s why I didn’t like it. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again, where I release something that I hate! In a way, I’m so glad. I almost love that song for doing that. Now I’m never gonna do that again – and I don’t have to. Everything else is so much more rewarding. To be embarrassed of something that you’ve released is the worst. I actually really like playing it live ­– it’d feel weird not putting it on the fucking setlist – and I do like it. I needed a song like that, I think. It taught me that I needed songs like that – ones that I actually like!”

“I feel the same as when I was five. I feel so similar to all of my selves.”

Bain’s attempt to fill that space with a track on which she’s much more keen comes in the form of album favourite “Maybe You’re The Reason”, which she describes as “the song that everyone likes the most” these days, noting the inclusion of another four-on-the-floor beat.

“It’s probably the same amount poppy as ‘Face Like Thunder’, or more,” she continues, “but it’s got far superior lyrics that actually mean something – a slightly sarcastic and cheesy chorus, but purposeful, rather than ‘babe, you’ve got a face like thunder.’ Even though the chords are really simple. There’s some little nuances in there that are complex in a small way. I think it’s a better song, so it makes me happy that people like it more. It’s worrying when people like something that you hate!”

The lessons Bain learnt – about herself and her music – prior to initiating her album campaign stood her in good stead for the long-awaited release. The majority of the LP came together in a the same Wisconsin cabin/studio where Bon Iver recorded his eponymous sophomore album.

“It’s a really nice place,” Bain says of the experience. “It was very snowy, and slightly remote, which was nice. I finally had some time to actually sit down and do [the album], whereas before I was just constantly on the road for two years, which was intense. I guess it’s about to happen again – it’s happening right now!

“I was always planning on doing the album,” she continues. “It was always there. I was just doing EPs to bide time, in a way, and to gain a bit more confidence and know what kind of music I wanted to make. I was touring so much, and then I had a big block of time, ‘cause we cancelled a tour so I could do the album.”

It’s almost funny to consider that, at only 23 years old, Bain would feel she had been keeping people waiting for her full-length debut. In her opinion, though, it’s more than worth the wait, even if for her own maturity and growth alone.

“I was obviously a bit more green,” she says of herself at the time she first began to release music. “I was a bit more dramatic. I’m probably a lot more calm now. I feel the same as when I was like, five. I still have the same thoughts about stuff, and the same logic. I feel so similar to all of my selves, but then I can see that they are really different.”

What is Amber Bain’s self like at 23 years old, I ask.

“Probably [at] 23, people are like, ‘she’s old!’ People keep saying that to me recently, like, ‘now you’re 23,’ and I’m like, ‘what? I’m just a baby!’” she feigns panic, laughing a little before continuing. “It’s not old, it’s young – really young!

“When I get to Friends age, that’s when I’m out!” she adds, laughing again. “They’re like, 26, 27 at the beginning. Fuck! I probably don’t [have my life as together as them] in a way. My life is not sorted!”

You do have a dog though, I point out as we get up to leave.

“I do have a dog,” she agrees. No matter what the outlook, Calvin’s in it for the long haul.

Good At Falling is out now via Dirty Hit.
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