When she first broke onto the scene, people assumed that Amber Bain had chosen the moniker The Japanese House to perform under so as to appear genderless. Which, Bain says now, used to really quite annoy her.
“I’d say, I’m sorry, but which guys would you ask, ‘Oh, is it because you want to hide the fact that you’re a boy?’” she says, on a Zoom call from London, over the sound of a windstorm happening outside her window. “I’m not hiding my gender, I just want a band name.”
The 25-year-old musician is recently more interested in the concept of gender presentation, something she explored when it came to photographing the art of her latest EP, “Chewing Cotton Wool,” at home during lockdown. (And for the record, the band name comes from a home in Cornwall that she visited as a child).
Bain, who has released one full-length album, in 2019, and six EPs, has always hated being photographed and shooting music videos.
“I’ve had to really get better at it. The fact that I can take a selfie with someone now is just insane,” she says.
In the instance of her latest EP art, she found that photographing herself made her much more comfortable with her body — there were several initial attempts where she was completely naked, she says — and also made her think more about the ways perceived female bodies are policed in ways male bodies are not.
“It made me think a lot about my own gender. Because I don’t identify…I don’t really know, I was talking to my girlfriend about this, and she is much better at explaining it than I am, so I’m pretty much going to use her exact words. But when I was younger, it was quite a big thing that I was gay or was into women or whatever I am. So I felt like I was already quite other, and I felt like being gay explained a lot of my gender expression, for example, not really wanting to wear heels and the way I dress, or not really identifying with my friends who were women in the same way. Feeling different, but I assigned that all to being gay,” Bain says.
“But if I was growing up now, at a lot of schools, it’s really not a big deal. It’s like, ‘well, everyone’s gay, so what, who cares,’” she continues. “So maybe I would identify as nonbinary now, because I don’t feel fully female, that feels really close to the middle somewhere.”
It should come as no surprise to those familiar with the way she weaves intimacy of the most personal nature into smooth indie-pop songs, but Bain is quite skilled at leaning into a discovery about herself and letting it lead her. Much of her new EP is about the breakup of one relationship — “Jesus Christ, I hope, that it’s the last ever songs I’ll write about this certain relationship” — which is sort of her specialty, she says. The past few months, during which she’s been in lockdown between London and Margate, in Kent, she’s found it difficult to tap into that well, however.
“All this s–t in the world is happening, and it feels so depressing, and I felt a bit silly writing about my sorrowful heart. And I find it really difficult to…I know bands that are great at engaging with politics in their music, and even just their online presence or whatever. But I find it really, really difficult to do. Because I think my talents as a writer lie within nuanced intricacies of relationships and that kind of thing,” she says. “I’m not very good at sharing a public message. But I’m getting to the point now where I’m like, ‘OK, actually, everyone is talking about this and it doesn’t mean you can’t be sad about, I don’t know, being broken up with or you can’t miss someone.’ The small things happen, too. And that’s where my writing tends to go, rather than big world messages.”
Bain grew up moving around the English countryside, living in places like Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire before going to school in a “tiny, tiny village, literally in the middle of nowhere, where I had one friend and there was one shop, one post office,” she says. Her dad always had instruments lying around the house, and as a kid she wanted to be a pop star like Avril Lavigne.
“Even when I was in year five or so, for my birthday, I got me and my two friends to go and record four tracks in some random studio somewhere,” she says. “And I genuinely thought I was going to make it at that age. I was like, ‘Simon Cowell’s going to hear us. We’re going to be huge.’ I’ve always just been really into music — it’s just been my absolute passion since I was basically able to walk, really.”
She went through all the phases as a kid – first her dad’s tastes, like The Beatles, the Jam, Blondie — then an emo phase, then indie, before coming into the unique pop-esque sound she has now.
On the heels of the new EP, she’s turning her mind toward a full-length album, which will be her second.
“Obviously, I want to write another album and make it better than the first one. And just keep it growing — that’s what I’m going to try and do,” she says. “I just need to finish these songs.”