The Japanese House: ‘I wrote Matty Healy a really long thing about the podcast’

Amber Bain will release her second album as The Japanese House this week  (Max Barnett)
Amber Bain will release her second album as The Japanese House this week (Max Barnett)

There’s a pop trope for nearly every experience in the book – meet-cutes, breakups, marriages. But with her song “Friends”, London-based singer-songwriter and producer Amber Bain might have genuinely broken new ground. Taken from her second album as The Japanese House, In The End It Always Does, it’s a breezy, tropical pop track about sex in a polyamorous relationship. Over a skittering electronic beat and squealing synths, Bain sings openly about becoming the third in a throuple: “Did your friends find out?/ Do they like the fact you’re moving on?/ Do you like the fact it turns you on/ When they f***ed in front of you?”

Written about Bain’s experience of joining a six-year relationship back in 2019, “Friends” initially felt like dicey territory for the 27-year-old musician. “I was kind of like, I’m just gonna write a little sexy song about having two hot girlfriends,” she recalls. “I remember sending it to them at the beginning and feeling like, so nervous – pressing send and being like ‘Oh my God, what are they gonna think of it?’ I’m always like ‘My girlfriend’s parents are gonna hear that, killing myself!’”

Since the 2015 release of her debut single, “Still”, Bain has covered a lot of musical ground, drifting through loping indie rock and muted folk, anxious synth-pop and hazy electronica. In the End It Always Does, her first full-length since 2019’s Good at Falling, widens the parameters of her sound: it’s a lush, expansive full-band Eighties-indebted pop record inspired by the life cycle of a complex, unusual romantic situation. Featuring contributions from The 1975, Charli XCX and MUNA’s Katie Gavin, among others, it solidifies Bain’s reputation as an insightful, distinctive breed of pop star, and arrives ahead of her biggest tour yet, including a slot supporting The 1975 at their sold-out Finsbury Park show on Sunday (2 July).

Aside from “Friends”, and one other track – the sweet, glowing ballad “Over There” – the album is less interested in the throuple Bain became a part of than what happened when one-third of that relationship left, when Bain stopped being the “shiny new toy”. “I was in a relationship with two people that had been together for six years, and I saw their relationship end. I don’t know if it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I was like, ‘Well, that’s how our relationship is gonna end,’” Bain recalls. “And our relationship ended and we started to have the same arguments, the same patterns as they did. It was almost like I’d seen my future.”

I’ve met Bain at John Henry’s, a warehouse complex in Islington, where she’s rehearsing with her band ahead of an impending tour, which begins on Friday (30 June) at London’s XOYO and takes her through the UK and North America throughout the rest of the year. She walks in wearing double denim and a white baby tee embroidered with the words “Super Freak”; she has a coffee in one hand, on top of which a can of Diet Coke is balanced, a necessary double-hit of caffeine for our morning interview. Although she says she doesn’t usually smoke in the morning, Bain lights up a Camel Blue before we start speaking, periodically stubbing it out throughout the course of our conversation before rooting around in the ashtray and relighting.

Heartbreak has always been at the core of Bain’s writing. In the End It Always Does is different: it’s about the end of a relationship, sure, but it also speaks frankly about the listlessness and boredom Bain felt after moving to Margate during lockdown to be closer to her then girlfriend. “I guess I didn’t realise at the time, but I just slowed down so much. I had no energy, I just wanted to sleep,” she recalls. “When I look back on it, I wonder if I was depressed because all I wanted to do was eat and sleep and lie horizontally. That’s the only time I felt good, or when I was drinking.”

Bain has a “complicated relationship” with alcohol. A few years ago, she quit drinking altogether after realising she couldn’t stick to the moderation required by Accutane, an acne drug she was on at the time. A year later, she slowly began drinking again, and during lockdown “really began struggling”. She quit for another period until she felt mentally well enough to begin drinking again without being reckless. “When I’m feeling mentally well, I’m now able to drink in a really healthy way,” she says. “I feel so relieved that I’m not there mentally any more.”

Bain is deeply invested in personal betterment. Throughout our conversation, she mentions things that have helped her overcome roadblocks in the way she thinks, or solutions for unhealthy patterns of behaviour: the final monologue from Call Me By Your Name, the podcast Exploration Live. Across In the End It Always Does, Bain’s desire to shift her habits is close to the surface: “I wanna change, but it’s nothing new,” she sings on the sweet, searching “Boyhood”; “I’m trying to change myself, but it’s tiring,” on “Sad To Breathe.” She says that writing mainly about relationships – and therefore being particularly in tune with the way her mental health can affect others – is what sparked her interest in self-improvement. “I’ve struggled with poor mental health, been quite up and down, and I’ve found that conflict [between up and down] really difficult.”

‘I find it really hard to stay completely in control of myself’ (Jay Seba)
‘I find it really hard to stay completely in control of myself’ (Jay Seba)

As a child, Bain was, by her own admission, “really angry” and “found it really hard to stay completely in control of myself. I would often would lose control and say things I regret,” she says. “My whole adulthood has been me trying to shake those things and trying to figure out why I’m like that. I really am interested in finding ways to improve those sides of myself. And as a result, you then end up having a better time in your own life.”

Key to this experience has been Bain coming to terms with her queerness. She says it took her “a long time to even say I was gay”, but over the past few years she’s been “falling in love with the whole queer experience”. Nowadays, she is “absolutely in love with gay pride,” and has been known to tear up at queer bars, just from the feeling of being around so many gay people. Working on In the End It Always Does with Chloe Kraemer, an engineer and musician who’s also queer, felt liberating. “I’m singing these songs about women and queer experiences, but most of the time I’m working with people who obviously try to understand it, but haven’t experienced it themselves,” she says. “Suddenly, I have someone who completely gets it. We just spend so much time talking in the studio so deeply. I often think I use her as my therapist because she’s so good to talk to.”

As with a lot of past Japanese House music, In the End It Always Does features extensive production from The 1975’s George Daniel and Matty Healy, Bain’s longtime friends and labelmates. When Bain and I speak, Healy has been trending on Twitter for a matter of months, with many criticising him for a February podcast appearance during which he made jokes about “queerbaiting”, laughed at a handful of unsavoury gags made by the podcast’s hosts, and joined in when they began to mock various accents.

Clearly I have issues with things that Matty Healey has said – he knows everyone does, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Bain says it’s “hard to know what to say publicly” about Healy’s comments given the fact that he is “a family member at this point”. When I ask her about the situation, she’s firm on her feelings, but never condemnatory of her friend and collaborator. “I wrote [Healy] a really long thing about how I felt about [the podcast], and it’s really difficult – I don’t think it’s black and white. Clearly, I have issues with things that have been said – he knows everyone does, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s hard to hold a family member accountable for everything – pretty much everyone I know has a family member that will say something f***ing bats*** crazy at a family get-together, you know? And you’ll be like, ‘Why are they saying that?‘ But I also feel confident in the fact that I have strong values and opinions and that I voice them, basically.”

“I guess it’s interesting, isn’t it?” she continues. “Because I’m a gay person, and then in a lot of ways I’m associated with someone who says offensive things. And he’s on my song [“Sunshine Baby”] – does that mean that I think the things he says? Absolutely not. But I feel confident that I’ve made my views about it very clear. And ultimately, here’s someone that on a personal level has been so supportive of me and inspirational – there is no denying that he is an incredible musician and incredible songwriter.”

Bain seems intensely conscious of the fact that even speaking on the matter pulls her into a situation that she’s only tangentially related to. “This is going to be the thing that people are going to quote from the interview, so it’s hard because I don’t want to engage with it. I don’t want that to be the narrative of me and my music. I am interested in doing the right thing and making my views very clear, which are, I’m assuming, probably the same as your views, or like, most of the queer community’s views. I don’t align with a lot of things that he said,” she says. “I make my views to him very clear. And I think that’s all I want to do. I know I’m not a bad person, he’s not a bad person, I can say that with ease. I think he’d be pretty upset that it even becomes a part of the conversation about my music. Because that’s not his intention.”

As in her music, hearing Bain speak about Healy feels like listening to her working it out in real time. Which is not to say she’s not emphatic or considered – it just feels refreshing and real.

‘In the End It Always Does’ is out on Friday (30 June) via Dirty Hit