At the end of a long week, I joined a packed-out crowd at Southampton venue The 1865 to see singer songwriter The Japanese House as part of her latest headline UK tour. It had to have been a sell-out – the floor and both mezzanine areas were completely full of punters eager to experience TJH’s brand of feel-good avant-indie-pop for themselves. I think that’s why The Japanese House is so popular; her music, whether it’s a sparkly synthy pop track you can dance to, or a slow, vocal-laden breakup song, just feels so good to listen to.
TJH is Buckinghamshire-born Amber Bain, and she’s been writing and recording music since the tender age of 11. Signed to the same label as The 1975, her star’s been on the rise ever since her breakthrough in 2015 and her dreampop sound has amassed a legion of loyal fans.
What inspired the moniker? Amber performs under a pen name because she wants to avoid too much publicity and doesn’t want to be defined by her gender, and chose ‘The Japanese House’ for a holiday rental in Cornwall she stayed as a child with her family. It makes perfect sense to me, and I think the androgyny of her vocals and lyrics is something that keeps her music relatable and accessible.
Grinning happily at her warm welcome to the stage, The Japanese House launched straight into Sad to Breathe, the second single from her new album In the End It Always Does. Like much of the record, it’s a song about the end of a relationship but it’s anything but gloomy – with playful guitar hooks and a pop beat complimenting Amber’s soulful lyrics. One of the most distinctive elements of TJH are the reverb-rich vocal harmonies and it was great to hear those featured as part of the live performance too, thanks to vocal back up from her band on stage and her melodic multi-layered backing track, but without taking anything away from Amber’s own gorgeous live vocal.
The Japanese House played a good chunk of the new album during the set, including the bright and breezy Touching Yourself, latest single Morning Pages and the sweet and lilting Baby Goes Again. Telling us how she’d had the most perfect day in the New Forest making friends with the donkeys, she went on to dedicate her performance of Boyhood to them, which was undeniably adorable.
There were also plenty of established fan favourites, from the echoey Saw You in a Dream to the shimmery pop of You Seemed So Happy. I loved hearing Something Has to Change, one of my personal faves, and found a new one in new album track Friends, with its quirky synths and bouncy beat.
Spotting a ‘play Lilo’ sign in the crowd, TJH did just that – giving us a stripped-back acoustic first verse of Lilo, Amber’s ode to ex and fellow musician Marika Hackman, which sounded even fresher and more poignant for being unrehearsed. My all-time favourite track, Maybe You’re the Reason, came towards the end of the set and was everything I wanted it to be; a warm glowing hug of a sing-along we all bopped along to.
The main set ended with the slow crescendo of Dionne, before The Japanese House came back with an encore that started with One for Sorrow, Two for Joni Jones, which she dedicated this time to her dog (and the donkeys). It’s an acapella track and we could really hear the purity of Amber’s voice with the pared-back arrangement. Finally, THJ left us with the sublime recent single Sunshine Baby (her nickname for her dog), which was the perfect song to hear before heading out into the wet and windy night.
Photo by Max Barnett