Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
On the surface, the story of how Amber Bain decided to record as The Japanese House is not unusual. "I was thinking about what I wanted to call myself as I didn't want to put my name out or my gender." Her account is the last thing Bain and I discuss over the phone before she heads for brunch on a Friday afternoon. At home in East London, she fumbles getting ready, and while I'm placed on her loudspeaker, I can hear that she's snacking. Once she's still, she proceeds:
"I began to think of things that had happened to me, and I remembered going to Devon or Cornwall with my parents. I was between six to eight years old and pretended to be a boy for a week by dressing in dungarees. I felt really cool. But, a girl that lived in the house next door had a crush on me. She wrote me love letters and at the end of the week I revealed I was a girl, and she broke down and cried, which I thought was really sad. I spoke to my mum about it, and she said that the house that we were staying in was Kate Winslet's, and it was called The Japanese House."
You may have heard this story before. In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the shipwrecked Viola arrives in Illyria disguised as a young man named Cesario. The comic subplot of the play focuses on a love triangle with Countess Olivia falling in love with 'Cesario' before Viola later reveals her true identity. Twelfth Night ends with a happy resolution but for the girl in Bain's experience the reality is harsher than fiction: "I'm a heartbreaker, what can I say."
Androgyny has come to define The Japanese House in name and performance. Looking at Bain's Spotify playlist, her work sits alongside a range of artists who follow a tradition of gender ambiguity. There are songs by Cocteau Twins, Animal Collective, The Beach Boys, and Beach House. Bain reveals that she used to copy Victoria Legrand's voice when she was younger – a more appropriate connection compared to the comparisons with Imogen Heap, which is accidental ("I only know Hide And Seek and to be honest, I'm not a fan").
I recognise the influence of The Beach Boys in her work and she thanks me for saying so, adding that it's the best thing she's heard all day. The artwork and videos for 'Pools To Bathe In' and 'Clean' convey a blissed-out location documenting voyages and bodies of water – an 'Endless Summer', if you will. "I didn't realise until people told me," she says of the water theme, before illustrating her songwriting process and addressing the misconception that vocoders feature on all The Japanese House tracks. "If I want to pad out a song I just layer harmonies than using more instruments," she says.
With Berlin, Barcelona and Iceland already rubbed off her scratch map, Bain's next aim is to return to Iceland during the summer. "I think what I do is a really good way to get free holidays," she says. The trick is finding a window between recording an EP and the subsequent tours that follow, but we reckon if anybody has the magic formula teed off, it's probably Amber.
How did you become involved with Dirty Hit and working with members of The 1975?
The Japanese House: "I was supposed to be playing a gig in Camden a few years ago, but I was too ill to do it, so I cancelled. I looked at the [venue's] website to see if I was still listed and I saw that The 1975 were playing the next day. My friend Gemma started seeing one of the members, and they played my music to Dirty Hit. Jamie [Oborne] then contacted me and within a year, I was signed to the label."
George [Daniel, drummer] co-produces with me. A lot of people think that they are writing songs for me, but it isn't true. I'd have the main ideas, and we'd collaborate and articulate them. I now have a band to map everything out. Originally they were going to help us, but they have too much on their plate. I'm glad because I don't want my whole career to be coming from the back The 1975. I want to do this myself."
Are you worried people will think you're living on their coattails?
The Japanese House: "I don't want to use their success as my own, but I'm not worried about what people think."
How would you rate your first touring experience?
The Japanese House: "It went a lot better than I expected because I thought it would be impossible to create the same sound live. I didn't see how we were going to do it, but the guys are clever and mapped it out exactly how I wanted. It's allowed me to be more confident on stage; at the first show, I was a nervous wreck, and I couldn't speak. I still can't talk on stage [laughs], but at least, I don't shake uncontrollably now."
With your tour complete are you working towards a full-length now?
The Japanese House: "There will be another EP before I do my album. I don't believe I want to do an album now. I could, but it's easier to make EPs that can sit well together. You have to build up a fanbase before you release it; you have to know if people want to hear an album by playing live rather than promising your fans that it's good."
That makes sense. Some of the best work I heard in 2015 were EPs.
The Japanese House: "It's harder to do a really good album than an EP, but an album will have loads of shit filler songs. If you have an amazing album that will always be better than an amazing EP, but it's harder to come across that because not many people are doing it. A lot of my favourite releases are EPs. This year I haven't listened to many: I find it hard to be obsessed with an album."
What has impressed you?
The Japanese House: "Tame Impala's 'Currents', and I loved Marika Hackman's album [Hackman is in the other room, and Bain begins to laugh]. Adult Jazz's 'Gist Is' too, even though it's from 2014."
I guess it's helpful that you're not under any immediate pressure.
The Japanese House: "I have as much time as I want I guess. I always feel like somebody is out there doing the same thing. You know when you come up with an idea and everyone else already has that idea. Because you came up with it, you still say to yourself that it's yours, and nobody else's…"
The Japanese House's latest EP 'Clean' is out now through Dirty Hit (buy).