Photo by Jim Mangan.
This is “Add to Queue,” our attempt to sort through the cacophony of music floating in the algorithmic atmosphere by consulting the experts themselves. Our favorite musicians tell us about their favorite music—the sad, the happy, the dinner party-y, the songs they want played at their funeral. In this edition, we chat with Amber Bain, the brain behind English dreamy indie-pop act The Japanese House. After releasing several successful EPs and signing with indie label Dirty Hit Records in 2015, her first full-length album, Good At Falling, was met with acclaim by critics and fans alike. Ahead of her new album Chewing Cotton Wool, Bain gives us a little taste of her musical milieu.
JEANNIE MCDONALD: What was the last song you listened to?
AMBER BAIN: It was either “Rangerover” by Porches Or “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” by Caroline Polachek.
MCDONALD: I was just listening to that this morning!
BAIN: Yeah, I think it sounds a bit like me.
MCDONALD: What’s one of the earliest musical influences that you can remember?
BAIN: Ah, The Beatles. It was my first CD that I bought. I didn’t really listen to anything apart from The Beatles for about 10 years. Or ELO, Electric Light Orchestra, and ABBA. They’re my top three.
MCDONALD: Do you remember the first concert you saw?
BAIN: Yes. I saw Blondie with my mom.
MCDONALD: Oh my god. That is a great first concert.
BAIN: Yeah, at a festival. Actually, but just before that, it was Suzanne Vega. And just before that, it was The Feeling. I don’t know if you remember a Scottish band called The Feeling. They’re kind of big in England now. I still dig them.
MCDONALD: Do you have a favorite movie soundtrack?
BAIN: I love Toy Story.
MCDONALD: A classic.
BAIN: Randy Newman. The song makes me weep. I used to love the soundtrack, I haven’t listened to it in a while, but I used to love the Beasts of the Southern Wild soundtrack because the people who wrote the film also wrote the music, which is really cool. I really liked the soundtrack for Under The Skin—it’s got Scarlett Johansson in it as an alien. I love the soundtrack to American Beauty.
MCDONALD: [Laughs.] Yes, absolutely. Do you have a dream collab? This could be all time or current.
BAIN: I think I would like to collaborate with Caroline Polachek. She has a bit more pop than me, but I think there are similar tastes in production. And I may have a bit of a weirder—I don’t know, sometimes she’s pretty weird. I’m terrible at collaborating. Half of me does not want to collaborate with anyone that I like because they would then probably end up hating me. So I don’t want to make Kate Bush hate me, but probably her. Or Muna because they’re my friends, and we probably will collaborate.
MCDONALD: What do you listen to when you’re in a good mood?
BAIN: Fleetwood Mac. Yeah, I’d probably put one of their albums on when I’m not trying to do something. Fleetwood Mac or Muna.
MCDONALD: Do you have a good song for a road trip or traveling?
BAIN: My ex used to be in charge of the playlist as she was driving. So I got kind of good at getting road songs, but my issue is I have such poor memory. I absolutely have to look at my phone to think of a song. Let me think. I always play Play it on My Radio by Niki & The Dove. That’s a good road song, or Warpaint’s first album. That’s good road music.
MCDONALD: Yeah, those are great. I recently moved to Brooklyn so I commute, and I have to say, your recent song, “Something Has to Change,” is the perfect subway song.
BAIN: Oh, amazing. Thank you. So maybe that one. [Laughs.]
MCDONALD: So if you’re having a house party, what would you play?
BAIN: Probably a lot of 2000’s R&B and like that kind of stuff, or-
MCDONALD: That’s always a good choice.
BAIN: Or ABBA maybe, I don’t know. I’m bad at that. That’s why I don’t hold house parties. I’m trying to think of the last time I did have a house party. My girlfriend at the time, did a playlist and it had Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child, and Shaggy.
MCDONALD: What about a dinner party?
BAIN: I always just go Beach House, Teen Dream. That’s my go-to album, and it always has been. And I think it’s a lot of people’s go-to album that everyone would like.
MCDONALD: How about crying in your bedroom song?
BAIN: Every single time I listen to “Meet You In The Maze” by James Blake, I cry. “True Love Waits” by Radiohead. “Need Her Love” by ELO, and [Singing] “I Found a Reason” by The Velvet Underground. Those four.
MCDONALD: What’s your go-to breakup song? These could overlap…
BAIN: I can’t listen to some music when I break up. Like honestly, okay, I cannot listen to music, the radio, anything that makes me feel anything. I have to listen to something that makes me feel completely numb, which is actually really hard. And the song I always go to, or the album I go to, is “Pet Grief” by The Radio Dept. And the song I always go for is “I Wanted You To Feel The Same.”
MCDONALD: And what would you play at your funeral?
BAIN: Oh God.
MCDONALD: I know that’s a little morbid.
BAIN: I don’t know. I always think about those, I just can’t decide. I’ve been at a funeral that had quite a funny music taste once.
BAIN: Yeah. At my friend’s grandma’s funeral, they played that Camila Cabello song, “Havana.”
MCDONALD: Oh no.
BAIN: Yes. They played that at her granny’s funeral because she just wanted it.
MCDONALD Are there any instruments you’d like to learn how to play?
BAIN: I’d like to get really good at the violin because I think it’s really hard. I’d like to get a lot better at the piano. I can play the piano, but I’d like to be really good at it. I’m better at drums. It’s more that I’d like to improve the ones I can play rather than learn to play, like the clarinet. I don’t think I’d really be interested in playing the clarinet.
MCDONALD: Do you have a theme song?
BAIN: For myself? That’s hard. Maybe like probably an ABBA song. Maybe one of my own songs.
MCDONALD: Do you sing in the shower?
BAIN: Yes. Sometimes I do. I sing all the time. I literally sing constantly around the house.
MCDONALD: Well my follow-up was going to be what do you sing in the shower, but if you’re singing all the time…
BAIN: I have some go-to songs. I have the BBC News theme tune stuck in my head, and it has been for 15 years.
MCDONALD: 15 years!
BAIN: I sing a lot of The Lion King.
MCDONALD: I feel like I have 15 songs stuck in my head all at once.
BAIN: Yeah. And my girlfriend always sings, which is hilarious. And she always sings like something from Les Mis. [Singing].
MCDONALD: That’s a good one. Do you have a favorite song to play live at the moment?
BAIN: Probably “Something Has to Change,” because it’s new.
MCDONALD: I’m excited to hear it live tonight.
BAIN: And it’s the only one I’m not fucking bored to death with!