On a windy Monday in late April, Amber Bain, the British musician behind the moniker The Japanese House, kicked off her North American Tour at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago. Unlike her previous visit to Chicago in December, warmer air rushed around the ever-growing queue outside of the Bottom Lounge. Teens and adults alike crowded around the doorways waiting in anticipation for the show. Just over a month prior, The Japanese House released her first full-length album, “Good At Falling,” and her fans were impatient to hear the new songs live for the first time. With entrancing lyrics paired with powerful stage presence, The Japanese House translated her dreamy-pop style and raw, honest emotion perfectly from the studio to live performances.
The inside of the Bottom Lounge was dark and cool, but filled with anxious energy as the time ticked closer to 7pm. A seemingly endless flow of people gathered together in the room, murmuring voices overlapping. Conversations around The Japanese House’s cameo in the recent The 1975 music video wrap around arguments over whether the band is going to finally have an encore.
Finally, dressed in a casual black t-shirt and orange track pants, The Japanese House took the stage. A pre-recorded “Count To Nine” played over the speakers, a song from her 2017 EP “Saw You In a Dream.” The nine-minute long song — played from minute five — has a lengthy instrumental at the beginning, allowing for the band members to get settled. The layered eerie vocals and soft notes within the song established an air of mysticism, and the crowd held their breath as they waited for Bain to sing.
Bain started her set strongly with “Face Like Thunder.” She appeared confident yet somber throughout the song, staring straight to the back of the venue. One of The Japanese House’s strong suits while performing is her ability to change the energy of the room with subtle body language, even within a single song. Blonde hair shielded her face and fell onto tense shoulders as she sang the beginning a unique mashup of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, and “Sister” and “Everybody Hates Me” from her own discography. When the energy builds around “Everybody Hates Me” she loosened her shoulders and crowded the mic stand, tossing her hair back so the audience could see the pained expression on her face, possibly reliving emotions felt while writing the song.
Perhaps the two most compelling songs from the set were “Worms” and “went to meet her (intro),” both from the recent album “Good At Falling.” Bain has a gift of juxtaposing somber lyrics with more uplifting melodies, and “Worms” is one of the most successful examples of that. Devastating lines like “This doesn’t sit right / And I feel unreal / She’s my lullaby / And I can’t sleep right” are contrasted with electronic background vocals and upbeat instrumentals that kept the audience, and even Bain herself, dancing along. Before this show, “Worms” had never been played live before, but the effortless, confident way Bain faced the crowd with such a new and vulnerable song speaks to how much time and energy went into perfecting the first live show of the tour.
“went to meet her (intro)” is arguably The Japanese House’s most experimental song to date, with interwoven organic noises and percussion sounds accompanied by Bain’s voice, which was made all the more ethereal with the generous use of auto-tune. On stage, Bain rotated the mic stand so she was facing stage left, leaving the audience to be enthralled by her profile and the surrounding intensity of the moment as she sang “Something’s wrong / Stop, you’re gonna ruin it, baby, it’s you all wrong.” As the song ended, the instrumental smoothly transitioned into the next song in the set, “Maybe You’re The Reason.” The Japanese House closed out the show encore-less with “Clean,” as she’s been doing consistently in every tour she’s ever headlined.
The lighting was hazy, blue, and comforting to reflect not only the recent album’s artwork, but to build an atmosphere in which vulnerability is at the forefront. Although the lyrics of the songs themselves are open and honest, there’s still an air of mystery surrounding the way they’re delivered to the audience. It’s moving to see how open Bain can be onstage, given the difficult topics she tackles in many of her songs, such as heartbreak, addiction, and grief. The way the setlist jumped back and forth between recent and old releases could be too emotionally exhausting for some performers, but Bain handled each song with care and unwavering maturity. The atmosphere was careful and gentle, with a certain edge to it, like slowly ripping a piece of lace in an empty room, or floating down a river during summertime. The private element of the whole event made everything performed seem like a secret — as if Bain performed these songs specifically to one person, and the crowd had the privilege of viewing it.
There was a certain delicacy to the event, from the carefully crafted setlist to the hazy, romantic lighting. Paired with the stunning visuals, Bain’s velvety voice was like a beacon of light in the dark room, spilling secrets and tragedies and creating a sense of unity between the audience and Bain herself. Experiencing The Japanese House live was like looking through a kaleidoscope: Fragments of images were carefully pieced together with color and light to make something that sticks with each listener like a vivid dream. Each song in the set was expertly crafted with such attention to detail and honesty that the listener felt one with The Japanese House, as if we were Amber Bain, and just a passerby all in the same moment. Listening to The Japanese House feels like breathing in sync with someone, and looking directly into their eyes, but knowing the person you’re looking at isn’t you; a way of feeling that is both unique and imperative to The Japanese House’s dream-pop style. The entire performance felt like a tangible collection of emotions wrapped up into a few short hours, and made for an unforgettable experience.