The Japanese House arrived onto the scene in 2015 shrouded in mystery. Little was known about 19-year-old singer-songwriter Amber Bain, the solo face behind the project, as she released her debut EP, Pools to Bathe In. Featuring co-production from The 1975’s Matt Healy and George Daniel, it featured electronic, ambient beats fused with stirring, layered vocals. Now aged 23 and four EPs deep, Bain has developed her moody alt-pop style under an androgynous veil. Indeed, her act name was taken from a house in Devon she stayed in during a childhood trip where she masqueraded as a boy before breaking the heart of the girl next door who had developed a crush on her.
Over the previous few years, Bain has found success supporting The 1975 on their UK tour in 2016 and being shortlisted for the BBC Sound of Music award the following year. She now has a cult following of fans she calls ‘Biddlers’ who’ve had to wait patiently to see Bain live; her last stage appearance was at Leeds Festival in 2017.
Yet here at the O2 Institute in Birmingham, we see an artist with a new-found grasp on her own material. Her brooding sound is enhanced by a new, grungier tinge. Bain is backed with a live band which gives an extra dimension to her music – punchy percussion adds energy above the comfy bed of electronica.
Her EP covers use tasteful aesthetics that would fit on any refined Instagram page; her music videos are filled with rustic but evocative visuals
Supporting The Japanese House is the equally mysteriously named Art School Girlfriend, a.k.a. Polly Mackey who brings a similar brand of sparse, minimalistic textures. She sings over soft pads played on her synth or while strumming gently on a guitar as her drum machine rings out. “Are you excited for The Japanese House?” she asks before wielding a bass guitar for her next song. The gathering crowd seem to agree.
And then the long-awaited entourage arrives. Bain strides on to the stage with her keyboardist, drummer and bassist to a pre-recorded wash of dreamy synths and manipulated vocals. They all wear blazers to match the lead vocalist’s suave look. Openers ‘Face Like Thunder’ and ‘Somebody You Found’ have a heavier, almost indie-rock feel compared to their studio versions, helped by Bain swaying around with a right-handed guitar that she plays left-handed throughout the set. A duo of water-related songs follow (‘Swim Against the Tide’, ‘Cool Blue’) which were introduced with sounds of crashing waves against the shore.
The Japanese House is an artist that thrives on stylish imagery. Her EP covers use tasteful aesthetics that would fit on any refined Instagram page; her music videos are filled with rustic but evocative visuals. This is the case with the beautiful new single ‘Lilo’, which features Bain’s ex-girlfriend, Marika Hackman, in its video. Onstage, through a vocoder effect, the words, “I needed someone to depend upon/I was alone, I was emotional”, drift above the crowd. The couple in front sing along. It is stunning.
Throughout the set, we see an unshackled Bain bouncing about the stage, a far cry from the enigmatic aura of her previous releases
“I’ve written an album,” Bain announces. The highlights of the performance are the two unreleased songs from this forthcoming offering, Good at Falling. ‘You Seemed So Happy’ is bouncy with an anthem-like hint to the choruses, despite the melancholic lyrics. Likewise, ‘Maybe You’re the Reason’ features heavy autotune and another dazzling chorus. ‘Saw You in a Dream’, the titular track from The Japanese House’s fourth EP, is given a gorgeous acoustic treatment akin to the version found on the new album, and it’s mashed up with the fuller EP version later in the song.
Throughout the set, we see an unshackled Bain bouncing about the stage, a far cry from the enigmatic aura of her previous releases. Yet her spellbinding alt-pop sound still captivates the audience and her solo moments in the penultimate song ‘Leon’ are haunting. As the final track, ‘Clean’ demonstrates The Japanese House’s progress as an artist and as a live performer – she tweaks its sound to give a slightly grittier touch – a running theme throughout the show. As Bain and her band members all headbang subtly, it’s clear that we are watching a braver, bolder artist compared to the one that appeared three years ago.