Twenty-year-old Amber Bain cuts an unassuming figure as she enters the East London café our interview is situated in. You'd be hard-pushed to imagine many people recognising her, despite being the brains and voice behind fast-rising musical project, The Japanese House. With a pair of stellar EPs already released, it's easy to see how Amber's tracks - dripping with richly layered vocals and sparse guitar lines - have placed The Japanese House on list after list of 'Ones To Watch' for 2016. You wouldn't know it speaking to her though, and as she chats freely to us about what's both in the works and already on the table, there's not a hint of affectation, only the obvious pride she takes in the fruits of her hard work.
Whilst The Japanese House has had a swift rise already - her debut single 'Still' premiered as Radio 1's Hottest Record - it's not been the cookie cutter management-led affair that many assume. Eyebrows have been raised in the knowledge that production duties were shared with Matty Healy and George Daniel (of The 1975) - but it's worth noting that the job was just that; shared. Amber has had hands on the wheel throughout the process of crafting every song, something that is all too often overlooked. Even her partnership with Matty and George came about through unusual circumstances, and was in fact what led to her signing to British label Dirty Hit in the first place. A friend of hers caught Matty's eye after a gig and they ended up dating, at which point they played Matty some tracks from The Japanese House. Matty took it to his label, and as they say, the rest is history.
What's to come in the future though? Amber tells us there's plans for an EP in the works, and (if she can blag it) a trip to Japan to shoot more artwork. From the looks of things, the only way is up.
"...that's the direction where things should be going, where gender doesn't really matter."
COUP DE MAIN: Quite a big deal has been made out of you being relatively sparse with interviews and the like, with reviews and articles regularly calling you mysterious - like it's a deliberate choice. Do you feel it's slightly bizarre that you're accused of not being open, when your lyrics tackle some very personal subjects and circumstances?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE - AMBER BAIN: Yeah, because I don't really control the interview side of things. I don't really go, "Yes, I'll do this," so I definitely don't think I'm mysterious. I think-- just because, things like I don't have my own name - I have The Japanese House as my name. At the beginning, I didn't really like having photos taken of me, there was some queries as to whether I was a girl or a boy. There still are though, I look in the comments and it's like, "That's a boy," and there's arguments over it. I think some people find it fun to say, "It's mysterious," but I don't see that.
CDM: The name 'The Japanese House' comes from a place you stayed on childhood holidays?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I always say a different age - it's from five to nine - I went on holiday with my parents. I was dressed up as a boy for a week, because I was going through a phase - actually, I'm still in it. There was a girl next door who had a crush on me, and thought I was called Danny. At the end of the week, I told her I was actually a girl, and she cried. The house we were staying in was Kate Winslet's house, called 'The Japanese House'.
CDM: Your music is often labeled as “androgynous", and I'll be the first to admit that I thought some of the songs had a male vocal to begin with - 'Still' being one of them. Does this bother you? Do you think it affects how people react to your music?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I don't know. I think it definitely doesn't bother me, I kind of like it - I don't know why. Maybe I'm destined to want to be a boy, seeing as it all started when I was eight and dressing up as a boy, and now I'm pretending to sing like a boy. I like it - 'cuz it's annoying, so many female artists that I know, get called in an interview or online or whatever, 'the female folk-star / the female pop-singer' or whatever. I just think it's really weird, because if you're a boy, you don't get called 'a male'... I haven't had that at all, I don't know if that's a result of people actually not knowing. I think that's the direction where things should be going, where gender doesn't really matter. I didn't really think about that at the time - I don't wanna say that as I try to make a political stance with the name.
CDM: 'Still' is about still being emotionally attached to a partner who's moved on. You were only sixteen/seventeen when you wrote it, an age where a lot of people probably refused to take your feelings/relationships seriously. By contrast, your music has been taken seriously by a lot of important people - namely Radio 1, where 'Still' debuted as a Hottest Record, and Dirty Hit, the label to which you're now signed. Do you think your age has had much of an effect on the trajectory of your career so far?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I think, if anything, it had kind of a good impact because people kept wanting to call me nineteen for a long time - actually it hasn't been that long since I was twenty, but I think people tend to like that. I think one of the reasons that is, is that I'm younger than a lot of musicians. I don't even know if I am really? I started earlier. I started writing songs when I was really young, so obviously by the time I'm at that point where it's not embarrassing; your songs aren't so embarrassing, that you can release them. I think it takes a certain amount of years. It doesn't really matter, from when you're six, or from when you're twenty.
HOW I FEEL ABOUT MY DEBUT ALBUM…
CDM:At what age did you write your first song ever, and what was it about?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: About five. It was about a chair. It was something like, "You there, sitting in that chair." And then I wrote when I was Year 5 or 6 - how old is that? Nine or ten - a song called 'Teenage Life'. I was obsessed with that film 'Confessions Of A Teenage Drama Queen' with Lindsay Lohan, and I used the lyric, "I feel like a pink flamingo in a flock of pigeons."
CDM: Another adjective you get a lot is “glacial”. You've shot visuals for cover art and social media in Iceland, which seems quite fitting. What was it about Iceland that you think represents your music well?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I decided to go there because we were thinking of what to do for album art, and I'd seen this photographer called Tom Kondrat, and he had loads of photos in Iceland and I've always wanted to go. So I was just like, 'Oh, why don't I go and try and take the photos myself?' Then just went to Iceland, like on a whim. Then I got there, and there's actually only four hours of daylight a day, so I was just like, 'Oops.' And then I accidentally overdosed on cough medicine. It was horrible - I was really ill, and then I didn't realise that it wasn't just casual cough medicine like in England, it was really hardcore stuff. I tripped. I hallucinated for four hours. I was on my own, I was in my hotel room, I called my Dad for four hours, because I thought I had ebola. I was like, "Dad, something is going on." I was shaking, it was absolute hell.
CDM: Do you have a picture in mind for your album cover art?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: Not for the album, but the pictures for the EPs were taken in Iceland. I haven't even thought about the album yet, I'm just thinking about the next EP - where I wanna go to take a photo. I'll think of somewhere really exotic. It's so I can get holidays.
CDM: Although water is a recurring theme in your music, I've read that you don't really know why that is?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I don't really know why, I think it's quite strange. It was maybe raining a lot last year. I don't know, a lot of strange... I think water is definitely a big theme in the things, and I guess in my life.
CDM: If your music was a specific body of water, what would it be?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I'd say the sea. Because I feel like that's the coolest one, and I wanna try and be cool.
CDM: The lyrics in 'Sugar Pill' seem to be talking about being viewed as a throwaway or fairweather friend, who people only care about when you're contributing to their lives positively - “I'm a pick me up / And put me down again." It's an incredibly powerful track that touches on something most people feel at some point in their lives. What made you decide to write about this often confusing situation?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: Yeah, it's one of those ones where I don't really know. I was quite drunk when I wrote the lyrics, so I don't really know what it's about. I think at the time, I was in between stages of my life. I'd just moved up to London, and I was living in London with friends before for ages, but I'd just got my own house. I was still coming out of my last relationship and felt a bit like... I was just going with it and felt/had these relationships where I'd be like, 'Do you really know? Do we really get each other? Do we really like each other? Why are we even together?'
CDM: Do you write your lyrics specifically for the songs, or do you write poems or prose and then evolve them into song-form?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: It depends. Sometimes I'll have a song - my favourite kind - when it'll just happen in like five minutes. I'll just do it all in one, the lyrics and the chords together. Then other ones I'll write lyrics down, like a line that I think of, and then I'll use that in a song. Or sometimes I'll write a song and have lyrics for it, and then scrap that song, and use the lyrics for a different song. It kind of changes it up a bit.
CDM: At the moment your discography consists of two EPs, 'Pools To Bathe In' and 'Clean', with the expectation of a full-length album in the pipeline. Is it hard having that expectation?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: Before, when I was writing songs, I was just writing songs because I didn't know anyone was gonna hear it. Writing songs before was a form of procrastination for me. Anything that I needed to do, I'd be like, 'Fuck it, I'll just write a song.' But now, because I only really have one thing to do which is write songs, or go on tour, now, I'm just terrified that I'm gonna start procrastinating against writing songs. I dunno what other hobby I'll start doing, like rock-climbing or something. But I guess there is a pressure to produce material. But at the end of the day, I would rather produce songs - even if it takes longer - that I'm actually happy with, that aren't forced and lame.
CDM: You're signed to Dirty Hit, a label where artists such as Wolf Alice have really flourished through being able to do their own thing. How has their support helped you so far?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: It's been amazing. They've just helped so much with creative stuff that I've done, like working with different producers, and then finding George [Daniel] and Matty [Healy]. Well, actually I found Dirty Hit through them, so I found them. Going to Iceland, going to America, and then getting us a rehearsal room so I can go there anytime to record and stuff - it's been really good. There's no pressure at all and everything is my decision.
HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOING ON TOUR WITH THE 1975…
CDM: Like many others, presumably, I came to know of The Japanese House through The 1975. Do you find you have a large crossover, in terms of the fans and critics of their music have become the fans and critics of yours? Are there a lot of pre-conceptions that people have on hearing you've worked with them?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I guess there's a lot of people that always ask me that, so I guess that is one form of criticism; one effect that has happened. No-one has actually been like, "Oh, well both, blah blah." I don't really feel that our music is very similar. But in terms of being associated with someone who's famous, it'll have its effects. The fanbase is obviously, it's not synonymous, but there's a parallel there with the fanbase. But also a lot of people that don't like The 1975 will like me, and a lot of people that like The 1975 won't like me.
CDM: Have you inherited any of their crazy fans?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I think I have. There was this one girl that was pretty mental. I don't wanna say which show, 'cuz I imagine she reads this and gets really sad. But she was quite intense.
CDM: Almost every interview or review or your music touches on this association with The 1975, making much out of the fact that they have produced with you. Do you think there's a tendency - particularly with young, female artists - to oversell the input of famous collaborators, whilst failing to acknowledge that the majority contribution comes from the artist in question?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: A lot of people think that they've written the songs and produced all of it, and I have no input whatsoever. I think that is inevitable. I guess that's the reason you do interviews, and that's the reason people read interviews, because they wanna know. And obviously, I did write all the songs. Also I feel kinda bad for George, 'cuz a lot of people assume that it's just Matty that's doing all the production. Matty's more of the ideas-- he's more of a creative influence, rather than... George is the technical, mix-y guy. Matty's more of the creative influence producer, if you know what I mean, the vocal producer. I'm just the one that... I'll set the foundation for it, and have all the stuff, and then George will make it sound pretty.
CDM: Are you looking forward to supporting The 1975 on tour next year?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I'm doing quite a lot of shows with them, I'm so excited. It's gonna be the next six months.
CDM: Are you taking a band with you?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: Yeah, I'm taking my two band-members, Freddy [Sheed] and Will, who I love. It's gonna be really fun, 'cuz I don't really get to see them a lot anymore 'cuz I'm so busy. So now I get to see them. They're good friends of mine.
CDM: Did you find The 1975 once you'd started The Japanese House, or did you already know them?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I'd always been making music - I think I'd already recorded my first EP before I thought of the name. I found them when I was in school, so two-and-a-half years ago or something. It was really cool at the time; it was a cool thing to do to talk to a band when you're in school. We just became friends, and obviously we work really well together, so I'll probably do a lot of work with George on the road.
CDM: Are you planning to include any songs from previous EPs on the album, or to create something entirely new from scratch?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I think I'll probably have the singles on it. Just because I feel like - it's hard to say - I'm proud of those songs, and I really like those songs. People who haven't heard the EPs, I feel like they deserve them. Obviously I don't wanna fill an album with songs that I've already released, but I think three songs wouldn't be that much.
CDM: If you had to pick one of your songs as an introduction to your music, which one would you recommend people listen to and why?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I think I'd pick... 'Letter By The Water', if it was one of my friends who I could then show another one to. 'Letter By The Water' and 'Clean', because 'Letter By The Water', I feel like, as a song it's a good song and I really like the production in it. That's one of the songs that stayed really close to the demo, there's only a couple of changes. I think that's because I was really overprotective of that song. When I wrote that song, that's the most proud of a song I've been when I wrote it. And then 'Clean', which actually took me ages to finish, I wrote it over the course of a year I think. But then it's one of those weird songs that I don't think really has a genre. You know that saxophone thing in it? It's actually a vocal.
CDM: You're an artist tipped to make waves in 2016 - what other artists do you reckon people should be keeping an eye on?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I've listened to Niki & The Dove. It sounds like Stevie Nicks. I feel like her album is gonna be really cool. There's so many bands. My friends, The Big Moon, I think they're gonna do really well, they're doing so well anyway.
CDM: Coup De Main is based in New Zealand, so we're obviously gutted that you're not going to be making it over to visit us in January. Do you reckon we'll get to see you live at some point in the future?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: Yeah, definitely. I was really sad when I found out that. But I'll go there - I better go there.
HOW I FEEL ABOUT NOT COMING TO NEW ZEALAND IN JANUARY…
CDM: Are there any places that you've got on your wish-list to play?
THE JAPANESE HOUSE: I really wanna go to Japan, just because it's really cool. So that's something I wanna try and sneak in. I haven't really thought about it in terms of places I wanna play, but places I wanna go - I really wanna go to the place with the Volcano that killed everyone. Pompeii. I just wanna go to Sweden; I'm actually going to Sweden! So that's good. Copenhagen, that kind of deal.
THE JAPANESE HOUSE's EP 'Clean' is out now - click HERE to purchase it via iTunes.
Watch the 'Sugar Pill' music video below…