There’s a small but revealing detail you might notice while scrolling through the comments section of YouTube videos from The Japanese House, a beguilingly genre-defying indie pop collective fronted by U.K.-born singer-songwriter Amber Bain. Lots of the group’s listeners seem to be there incidentally, either having clicked on an algorithmically recommended video, or been told to check out the group by someone in the know. Or maybe they were just intrigued enough to listen on the basis of the group’s esoteric name, one that harks back to her childhood and a cottage in the south of England where she once stayed with her parents while on holiday. The property was designed in the style of a Japanese tea house and at one time belonged to Kate Winslet — and it’s also there that a young Amber once dressed up as a boy, decided to call herself Danny and won the affection of a girl who lived nearby.
Newcomers may not know what they’re in store for with a band name like The Japanese House, but Bain is perfectly content to be found in roundabout ways by fans. It’s an approach that’s working out pretty well, because 2019 has been a massive year for The Japanese House. The group released its debut album Good At Falling earlier this year, plus a 4-song EP The LA Sessions in August. Meanwhile, the writing for album number two has already begun — and along the way, the group has been dropping plenty of standalone tracks like “Chewing Cotton Wool,” a new song released just before Thanksgiving. Taylor Swift is a fan; she included the track “Follow My Girl” from Good at Falling on her recent Apple Music playlist. Bain and the group have toured the U.S. three times over the past year or so, and a run of U.K. dates is planned for the middle of December starting in Glasgow.
“I didn’t want to use my name, because I write lots of different kinds of music — and I wanted this project to have its own name and sound kind of quite surreal or like it had a story behind it,” she tells Billboard. Speaking of the way things sound: if you’ve never heard her music before, Bain’s voice can resemble an androgynous combination of Frou Frou-era Imogen Heap mixed with that of The 1975’s Matty Healy. The Healy comparison, in fact, is so apt that early The Japanese House recordings were at one point suspected of being some kind of secret side project of The 1975’s frontman.
What to make of this 24-year-old writer and frontwoman who so casually defies definition? To call her a singer-songwriter, which she is, belies her staggering chops as a producer with a knack for adding layers of intricate electronica to round out her compositions and elevate them into the territory of the sublime. One of her early songs, “Clean,” is an especially ambitious production that distorts her voice and mixes a throbbing beat with synth effects to create a gut-punch of a masterwork about how good it feels to be forgiven by someone — to get “clean.” But don’t put her in some experimental electronic bucket either, because she’s just as capable of writing catchy pop hooks backed by drums and chugging guitars (for example, “Something Has To Change,” another new song with an instantly-memorable refrain).
Bain’s music embodies happy contradictions: It’s danceable pop when it needs to be; other times, it’s the soundtrack to your worst breakup. Her songs are dreamy, sonic wonders, such that, even when she’s singing with introspective frankness about her relationships, it can feel like she’s speaking directly to you.
To make “Good At Falling,” she holed herself up at the Wisconsin studio of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. The album, which at the time of this writing has a perfect 5-star rating on iTunes, includes tracks like “i saw you in a dream,” a shimmering, lullaby-like ode to Bain’s falling in love with a girl for the first time as a 15-year-old — and the heartbreak that came after.
“Chewing Cotton Wool,” the newest release, is a song that “I guess is about when you’re in love with someone, how that person basically becomes an all-encompassing part of your life or your day. They become something a lot more meaningful, almost like a higher power.” Many of Bain’s songs, such as this one, deal with her relationships with women in a powerful, direct way:
She’s the only one around
And she’s turning off the lights
And she’s inside every crack
She’s the?only?thing in sight
“I think it’s important to keep releasing music,” she says about the need for younger artists to keep feeding the beast outside of a traditional album release schedule. She always gives fans a few days’ heads up on social media when she feels like dropping a new song, though (fun fact: the profile photo on her personal Instagram captures Bain and her dog in a way that’s reminiscent of the Call Me By Your Name film poster).
“It’s such a weird feeling when you’ve written a song that completely represents how you were, like, 10 years ago or five years ago or even two years ago and releasing it and people feeling like that’s how you are now. So this is a way to keep everything current and flowing. I want to make another album and that’s what I’m working on now. But, yeah — I don’t think we’re at a stage now where everything has to be consumed in an album form. Sometimes it’s nice to have a random song, you know?”