The Japanese House on Breaking Up In a Throuple, Feeling Genderqueer, and the Power of Perspective

The Japanese House on Breaking Up In a Throuple, Feeling Genderqueer, and the Power of Perspective
Photo by Jay Seba

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I love Amber Bain's music as the Japanese House, I deeply connected with her 2019 record Good at Falling right before (gestures towards the pandemic) and it's great to have a new album from her, In the End It Always Does, which is still working its way into my own emotional bloodstream. We hopped on Zoom recently to talk about her latest, as well as a host of other topics.

One thing I noticed about listening to this record is that "Touching Yourself" reminded me of Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere" almost immediately.
I've never made that comparison—I wouldn't dare.

Would you consider them as an influence on you?
One of my biggest. I did not listen to current music when I was a kid. I thought you had to go to a video shop to see music videos, I didn't even know what they were until I was 12 years old. I just listened to my dad's music—the Beatles, the Jam, I had a really big Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons phase. Fleetwood Mac was never really one of the bands I listened to until I was 17, and I was just like, "Whoa, this is exactly what I want to sound like." They're a band that spanned so many different genres. "Everywhere" doesn't sound like "Honey Hi," or "Beautiful Child." They're such different energies, and I think it all comes down to the snare drum.

I also got into Fleetwood Mac around that age. I feel like listening to them as a teenager is like having wine for the first time—you're like, "Oh, I'm feeling very adult," even as you're still tapping into feelings you experience as a teenager.
I didn't even know what any of the songs were about, beyond the feelings that they made me feel. I never thought about what "Gypsy" was actually about, but I know what it's about in my soul. It's something very intrinsic, an emotional reaction—and that's where the good songs lie. They could be saying any old crap, but you just feel it, you know what I mean?

I know exactly what you're describing. Sometimes knowing the true intention behind art can sully what it actually means to you.
You're projecting what you feel onto it, and that's how people connect to it. Something can be universal in that way. I'm not one of those artists that write political songs, necessarily—although people thought "Something Has to Change" was about global warming, and I was like, "Well, it could be!" Usually, I'm just writing about relationships. There's a lyric that I wrote, "I'm just thinking of a new way to say 'I miss you.'" I'm saying the same things that people have said for thousands of years, but I'm trying to figure out new ways to say them. Anyone can read a poem or watch a film, but you put yourself in it to feel it.

During the lockdown era of the pandemic, the relationship you were in ended, which went into this new album. Tell me about dealing with something so specifically painful while couched within this larger thing that was going on in the world.
Our relationship started in a throuple. I joined a relationship that had been together for six years. Then, one person left, so it was a couple, and then it was lockdown, so it was like, "OK, so you guys are gonna be going off together for I don't know how long." There were so many lovely and sweet moments in their relationship, like there are in all my relationships—but it was hard, because we were forced to look at one another and nothing else. That was it. I also went from living in a city to living in a small town outside of London, so my life got a lot smaller as everyone's did. It went inward, and I didn't feel the most inspired or creative for a long time. It was hard. I was writing this album as I was making it.

I'd write a song in the studio and we'd just put it on the record. I'd write half of a song from one perspective, come back in later and write the other half from another. When you're writing a song, you're really in one specific headspace, and if you don't finish that song you'll never be in that headspace again. The best thing to do is come back and write about it from a different headspace. It can be a call-and-response, like the first two verses of "Sunshine Baby," which are both written during the breakup—whereas the chorus is written from the perspective of trying to make it work, and the outro is kind of about it ending.

Even a song like "One for sorrow, two for Joni Jones," we were still together when I wrote that song, and then after reading it back, I was like, "Oh, I guess the relationship is over." The song was telling me that it is. It must've been hard for my partner too, because suddenly I was coming out with all of these truths that she didn't really know, which was informing the end of our relationship in a lot of ways.

Given how personal your music is, what's your relationship with your earlier songs now?
I don't really listen to a lot of it, but there's a few songs I go back to because I really like—and, of course, a few I come back to because I'm playing them live. For my first album, I really have to be in the right mood for some of the songs. Sometimes I'm like, "I don't really like this that much." With this record, I know I like it, which is a new feeling because I can be so self-critical. This is my taste, what I like to listen to.

The earlier stuff is strange. You write a song and you know that it couldn't be anything else, it's just an outpouring of truth. Then there's songs where you're just fitting stuff in lyrically and it's not the most honest version of things, and I feel like in the past I slipped into just trying to get a song done and compromising in that way. This time, I had all the time I needed, so I refused to compromise—and as a result, there's not one song on the album that I don't really love. I'll never compromise again.

When you started out as the Japanese House, there was this slippery anonymity to the project, even though you never actually intended for it to be anonymous. What was it like to watch other people confuse the identity of who's behind the music, while you're making personal music?
You realize how much identity plays into how people receive your music. People thought I was a guy, or that I was someone's side project. You think that taking away identity means that people listen to the music more, but it turns out that it just becomes more about your identity. It was never a conscious decision, but I find it a lot easier to assign my own identity to the music. I'm being so open and frank about what I'm feeling in the songs that people who listen to the music know pretty well about what I'm like. Even in interviews, I'm never like, "Oh, I shouldn't be saying this," because at this point, I've been as honest as I can be in the songs. Some of my lyrics are extremely intimate. I prefer having people know about my identity now, because it's more interesting to talk about a real thing than the reactions to a thing.

At one point, people thought a man was behind the Japanese House—which is interesting, because this record talks about gender identity at large. Tell me about your own journey when it comes to gender identity.
I haven't made any decisions or changes, I've just been in the process of opening my own eyes to how I'm perceived and how I feel—and I think I'm perceived pretty close to how I feel. I don't feel the need to change my pronouns at the moment, and I'm not saying I won't. I don't know what I'll do, but right now I'm like, "Whatever." I'm really happy with who I am, and I'm accepting of that.

I think it's also interesting that I haven't come to any conclusion but I'm talking about it as I'm going, because an important aspect around the discussion of gender is that it's not linear. It's not just "You are genderqueer, or you aren't." You might feel one way one day, and another way a different day, and some people might feel one way their entire life while others are always changing their minds.

I definitely feel so genderqueer that, day to day, I feel like a different gender. I feel like it flows all over the place. I don't identify as one particular thing beyond the umbrella term "genderqueer," which, again, is a spectrum. One day I'll be like, "I wear a bind," and another day I might feel more feminine than masculine. It's become less about figuring out what I am and more about feeling OK about what I am, and embracing that. For a long time, I've tried to make myself feel a certain way, and now I'm like, "Well, whatever." It's hard to label yourself if you just feel like everything.

I do think that it's been thrilling, amidst a lot of terrible things that's happened in society, that younger people have been able to say that they don't have to make a choice immediately when it comes to gender identity. It gives me a bit of hope.
The only thing that worries me about that sentiment is that some people might read into that and say, "If you don't have to make a choice, then you really shouldn't be making a choice." Some people just know, and one way of making a world where it's OK not to know is to get rid of the stereotypical things that make gender what it is.

One day you can wake up and be a boy, and the next morning you can be a girl, maybe another morning you can be both or neither. That's a really freeing place to be. Obviously, there's so much stuff surrounding it still. I'm very aware of my bubble within the people I talk to. To the general masses, it's still a bit of a headfuck. People are still getting over the "they/them" thing, they find it hard to say, but it's actually kind of easy.

I do hope that, the more people come in contact with others living honestly, the more the bigotry dissipates—but I feel kind of naïve saying that out loud.
That's why it's so good to talk about this stuff in interviews. People do hold so much of the creators' identities to music. It's one of the main things talk about with music: the person behind the music. It's quite unique in that way. Usually, when people are doing a book tour, they're just talking about the book. With music, the conversation is so surrounded by who's behind it, and that can act as a way of normalizing certain things. A few years ago, I would've been really conscious about the pronouns in my music, but now I'm like, "Oh, every song I'm singing about girls, huh."

You're on Dirty Hit, which kind of has a reputation at this point for offering sounds from the pop world that feel distinctly left-field sometimes. What's your own perception of the label?
It's been interesting for me, because I joined the label when I was still in school. I was so young, and at the time it was just me, the 1975, Ben Leftwich, Marika Hackman, and Wolf Alice. There were only three people at the label when I joined, and now I don't know half the people who work there. It's heartwarming, because the label is essentially built on the idea that the artists and the label get 50/50—usually with label deals, the artist gets 20%, which is just crazy to me. The idea behind the label was making something that's fair and only releases cool stuff and does really well, and it did do really well. It's nice that the sentiment stuck and it worked. It gives me hope that it's not just this hype-churning machine that's kind of fucked.

There's a lot of amazing pop music, but there's also a lot of crap, and I have this theory that the pop music on the radio is purposefully replicated. "If we make people think that this is an amazing pop song, then we can keep churning stuff like this out." You can hear the money-making behind a lot of it. It's quite rare that an artist is given four years to make this record, but Dirty Hit aren't like, "Come on, you just gotta finish it now." A lot of times I was like, "Should the album be coming out now?" and they'd say, "It doesn't matter—the only thing that matters is if it's good." And I was like, "OK! Whatever you guys think!" They were like, "You will make a really good record and it will do well, because that's the fanbase you have."

It's amazing that I've been able to flourish in this environment, because I don't think I'd do well if I had to churn out songs regularly. I'm too much of a perfectionist, I care too much about what I'm putting out. My experience has been having as much artistic freedom as I want, and I've been trusted to just make something good. They're really good at putting in the time and money. If the idea is good, they will facilitate it, and that's amazing.

"One for sorrow, two for Joni Jones" is inspired by your dog, who is named after Joni Mitchell. What does Joni's music and artistry mean to you?
She was someone that I only really started listening to in the last five years. When I listen to her songs, I think, "Wow, this feels so new." I can't believe they were written so long ago. There's a sort of honesty to her lyrics that destroys you—then, you build yourself back up in a better way because you've heard that perspective. It's about the purity of the production, too.

I just like the way that she says things. She does so in a way that really winds you. "Both Sides Now," the version that's in Love, Actually—that horrible, heartbreaking scene—is a big inspiration for this song's arrangement. I wanted to capture that feeling. I was saying earlier about coming back to a song and treating it completely differently from a new perspective—there's something so amazing about her saying "I've seen love from both sides now," in her early 30s, and she's got her high-pitched voice and singing these wise lyrics. And when she comes back to it as an older person, now she really has seen it from both sides, and there's something so poignant about that. You can hear what she's lived through that performance. There's something magical about that that's so hard to capture, it's an inspiring song to me.

It reminds me of Radiohead's "True Love Waits," how they never recorded it and Thom Yorke was playing it on acoustic guitar, with some hope in his voice—and then his partner died, and they recorded it, and the song is now about someone dying and you washing their feet and begging them not to leave. He's recording it from this whole different perspective, this sad knowing. It's piercingly sad. Whatever that change is, you're so lucky when you're able to write something with even a tenth of a feeling of that. Maybe one day I'll come back and record another version of this song after I've lived and experienced a lot more, and hopefully it'll have the same effect. That's what inspires me to be as raw as possible. Music can actually change so much in a person's life, and my life has been changed by songs constantly. There's a lot of weight to that.

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Jamie Larson