Following the release of debut album Good at Falling, Amber Bain – aka The Japanese House – reveals to Pip Williams the nine songs that have inspired her above all others.
Amber Bain's musical education leans as much as her own intuition as it does the influence of her father's tastes.
As we talk about the songs that have inspired her, the songwriter namechecks everyone from Blondie to The Beach Boys, Don MacLean to Fleetwood Mac. Although many of these artists' heydays were more than a lifetime ago for Bain, she deftly identifies the elements she has collected from each of them, magpie-like, to infuse into her own songwriting, performance, and production.
Accordingly, her full length debut Good at Falling is an album that's informed by the listening habits of Bain's entire life, though its sound is indisputably, almost compulsively current. From the unflinching honesty of recent single "We Talk All the Time" to the self-described "weird chords" of "Follow My Girl", the record is a patchwork tour of a sprawling and diverse record collection, as viewed through the lens of one of 2019's most distinctive producers.
Bain's picks of more modern artists may at first glance make for incongruous bedfellows, with reclusive Wisconsinite Bon Iver sitting alongside the global pop royalty of Beyoncé. However, Bain suggests that these artists share more in common than one might first assume, their innovation and mastery of their respective crafts allow both to feed into the melting pot from which The Japanese House pours its foundations.
“Beach House are obviously electronic-y and guitar-y, and they inspired me a lot to delve more into electronics. That entire album Teen Dream was quite a huge influence on me and for a long time I was definitely trying to replicate Victoria Legrand’s voice. I could relate to the fact she had a low voice, and that everyone said she sounded like a guy and she made it a really cool thing, rather than an embarrassing thing.
“Teen Dream is one of my favourite albums of all time and ‘Take Care’ in particular is the most emotive song for me. The chord progression is probably one of my favourite kinds of chord progression - I don’t know the actual terminology for it, but if the key of the song is G, it’s the shift between D-minor and C.”
“I was on a plane once, and you know when your phone does that thing where it deletes all of the songs in your iTunes apart from a few? So when you have no internet, you can’t play them? ‘Over The Ocean’ was one of the only songs on my phone for an entire flight from America to the UK. I was playing that song over and over again, so I know it very well, but there are very few songs that I’d be able to listen to for the entire duration of an eight-hour flight.
“I find the sound of ‘Over The Ocean’ very inspiring, especially the drum sounds. There’s a synth - maybe a reversed vocal sample - that Here We Go Magic use that’s really up my street. I’ve always been into chopping up vocals and trying to make instruments and notes out of vocal sounds.
"It’s kind of annoying to me that since Skrillex did that with Justin Bieber’s voice every song on the radio has a pre-chorus and then the chorus is like some reversed vocal. It’s really frustrating, because it’s one of my favourite things to do in production, to work with chopping up vocals, but obviously I don’t usually use it as a cop-out in the same way.
“There’s a song on Good at Falling called ‘Follow My Girl’, which is actually my flatmate, bandmate and friend who’s in his own project called Fake Laugh and the entire chords of the song are made up of his vocals. He asked me to do a remix of one of his songs, one of my favourite songs called ‘Kinda Girl’. I was just fiddling around with his vocals and made these really weird chords out of them, and then - probably quite wrongly - stole them!”
“Bon Iver is probably one of my favourite albums of all time. I really love the third album, but I can’t really fault the second album in any way. ‘Beth/Rest’ was the first song that I heard from it and I just fell completely in love.
“I went to Bon Iver’s studio in Wisconsin when I was making Good at Falling and I was playing the exact synth sound that was in that song and freaking out, because I’m such a fan. I was so tempted to sneak it into one of my songs, but I didn’t in the end - out of respect! It was amazing to work in his studio, I’ve never met him, though!”
“I don’t think ‘Landslide’ is my favourite Fleetwood Mac song, because I don’t think I can choose one; it’s just a song that I really love. I also did a cover of it a while back for Spotify and it’s probably one of the covers that I’ve played the most because I haven’t really learnt that many. As a kid I wasn’t really interested in covers, I just wanted to write my own stuff!
“Stevie Nicks… the effect that her voice has on me is just crazy. I didn’t really get into Fleetwood Mac until I was eighteen. Their name sounds like they’re going to sound so different to how they do - I thought it was going to be some old man’s band! I only really like Fleetwood Mac when Christine McVie or Stevie Nicks is singing. I’m not really a big fan of Lindsey Buckingham, I just find it much more moving when a woman is singing.
“I saw ‘Landslide’ played live in Paris with my ex-girlfriend at the time, I think we might have planned it when we were together and then we broke up, but we went to the gig anyway! I remember seeing that song and just absolutely weeping. I have a video of it still somewhere that I’ve watched several times.”
“Today I remembered that I was so close to calling my band “I Need My Girl”. If anyone reads this interview, don’t steal it! I love that song so much and I think that ‘I Need My Girl’ sounds like such a cool band name. I think I didn’t use it because I didn’t want my entire career to be “So, why did you name your whole project after one National song?”
“It’s hard to make a song stand out when you’re using the same chords that have been used by everyone else and that’s exactly what ‘I Need My Girl’ does for me. It’s one of those songs you can’t really believe hasn’t been written already, it feels really classic.
“Simplicity is definitely something that I enjoy. I always think that my music tastes are quite complex or have weird chord progressions, but what all these songs have in common is that they’re quite simple major key songs, with a very clear emotional message or a feeling that’s being portrayed. I rarely listen to music when I feel sad because I find it too hard, but I remember listening to ‘I Need My Girl’ quite a lot after being heartbroken and letting myself feel it.”
“When I was a kid I was obsessed with Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, which I think is really funny: a six-year-old, being really obsessed with this 60s’ band. We were driving to Cornwall, me, my Dad, my brother, and my Mum, and I remember my Dad buying the CD in a service station. The only thing we’d listened to before in the car was Blondie, so I was very apprehensive, like “I dunno, am I going like it as much as Blondie?” And then it came on, and I absolutely loved it.
“I really associate ‘Dawn (Go Away)’ with driving back from that trip. We were getting a puppy and I remember being so excited and listening to Best of Frankie Valli on repeat on the way home. I must have been five or six, but it’s a very vivid memory, probably much clearer than my memories of the last year!
“We had a CD player in the cottage were staying in - it sounds like all I did with my family was go to cottages! - and I remember listening to that song over and over and over. I think I was obsessed with it at first because my Mum’s called Dawn. I was like, “Oh my God, my Mum’s name is in a song!” I wasn’t really thinking about the meaning of it.
“The reason that I like Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons so much is the same reason that I like The Beach Boys, it’s the harmony that goes on. The use of several voices at all times really appeals to me and obviously has inspired me, because all of my songs are filled with harmony. I’ve always been drawn to that.”
“All of these songs are songs that I’ve listened to growing up, because I felt like that’s what inspired me the most in terms of the music that I make. You can obviously tell that my music taste was very influenced by my Dad, because it’s all the bands that Dads like! I had all these weird phases, I had a Don MacLean phase as an eight-year-old, and I had a Joe Jackson phase.
“My Dad was the one who loved music. My Mum loved music too, but not in the same way I don’t think. My Dad was the one that taught me how to play guitar and encouraged that side of me. I remember him showing me ‘Different for Girls’ and me being obsessed with it for ages.
“The production is so ahead of its time and it’s some of my favourite production on a song. I don’t really understand what the song is about, but the melody and the structure are really cool and original.”
“‘Cloudbusting’ and ‘Running Up That Hill’ are, in my opinion, two of the best songs ever written, and Kate Bush has written them both.
“I think ‘Cloudbusting’ is just the perfect song and I’m so jealous of it, in every way. It almost makes me angry to listen to it because I just wish it could be mine. The production and the songwriting is the coolest in the world, she’s just really nailed it. She’s such an inspiration - and she’s so aloof!
“I really, really love the strings in the verses and pre-chorus of ‘Cloudbusting’. It paints such a specific picture in my head lyrically, but it’s probably completely wrong!”
“Obviously I’m not trying to compare my music to Beyoncé’s in any way because it’s so different, but the production of Lemonade and the two before that were definitely massive inspirations to me. Although it sounds really amazing and polished it’s actually quite alternative. It’s so ahead of everything else. Lemonade, and the whole film that she did for it is incredible. I remember watching it for the first time and being like “That just topped everything.”
“The production of everything Beyoncé does is mind-blowing, it’s completely influential to pop culture and just really original. Obviously my music is so different but I aspire for my production to sound as good as that, or to be as different.
“I haven’t included much pop in this list, but I love pop music. When I was growing up it was really lame and it’s not something that I really let myself do. I wanted to be an emo and listen to My Chemical Romance, Silverstein, or whatever - some random metal band! My friend Georgina started listening to Beyoncé and I was like, “Oh wait, what am I doing? I actually really love pop music!” She’s so easy to respect as an artist.
“One of my favourite memories of being on tour with The 1975 and Wolf Alice. Me and Wolf Alice were sharing a bus and we all went to the beach, we had speakers and we had a barbecue on the beach. The sun was setting and we were somewhere random in Florida. ‘All Night’ was playing and I just remember being actually euphoric. “Oh my god, my job is to be doing this: I’m literally sitting on a beach with people I love, having a veggie burger, and listening to Beyoncé while the sun is setting.” It’s just crazy.”