Earlier today, a countdown clock on Amber Bain’s phone congratulated her on six months of sobriety. “I forgot to reset it when I started drinking,” the 23-year-old sighs. “It’s annoying because it’s only been three days.”
It’s a Friday evening in Hackney; dusk dissipating into sable darkness in a dimly lit cafe. Bain and I are the only people left lounging, talking over golden daffodils plonked in a vase on the table. “There’s something about the sun there that makes me feel happy. Don’t you think that?” she asks, looking outside and plotting an eventual escape from her homeland. “I always go to LA to sort out my head, and so when I’m there, it’s like falling back into the pattern of that. The last time I was there for myself—not work—I stopped drinking for five and a half months.”
Her half-decade musical stretch has culminated in a startling alternative pop project, pregnant with anxieties and melancholy, tales of break-ups, losses and past relationships.
Fast forward more than a decade and the then-19-year-old released her debut EP Clean. It garnered critical success, but beneath its swirling mix of contemplative synths, strings and soothing vocals, Bain was hiding something. A way of forming a protective barrier, her work was released under her alias, and so her songs—expertly co-produced by The 1975’s Matty Healy and George Daniels—became the subject of speculation. Who was this person? Was this nothing more than a side project by The 1975? Did they even write their own material?What once felt like a good call to forgo the possibility of pop star-level scrutiny soon transformed into a cacophony of confusing fan theories. The artist had become separated from her own art.
I guess it’s like going to an actual therapist for me: I don’t walk away feeling free, or as if I’ve [experienced] a massive relief. It’s like going for a run for the first time in a while, and the next day you’re in agony.
You can hear the ebb and flow of Bain’s emotions in every note. Slotted together sporadically (“It’s not a concept record,” she insists), few of these songs from the past six years are harbored to a specific moment in her life. She’s a prolific writer but, at her own admission, is bad at decision making, and so finds herself dipping into a vast catalogue of half-finished songs to write their long overdue endings. She started writing the aching ode to her ex-girlfriend, Lilo, when the pair first met and finished once they’d parted ways. Once a love song but now about a lover that’s missing, time, as it so often does, has changed it.
Amber’s now listened toGood at Falling so much that she “can barely hear it at all”, which might explain why she’s rather blind to its sheer greatness. The overarching feeling it exudes is one of solitude, and how we try and come to terms with it no matter how sore it might seem. In many ways, I tell her, it feels like the way we prod at the memories of people and places that hurt us. She knows the feeling. “I search my name on Twitter,” she says, “looking for disparaging adjectives next to my name to see what people are saying.” A couple of choice phrases she's typed into her search engine? "Amber Bain Shit" and "The Japanese House Boring". She elaborates,“I care about that kind of shit because I care about making [music] so much.” It turns out that was true of the record’s writing process too. “Making music is not a therapeutic process for me,” Amber assures me, when I ask if making this record was, unlike self-sabotaging Twitter searches, somewhat cathartic. “I guess it’s like going to an actual therapist for me: I don’t walk away feeling free, or as if I’ve [experienced] a massive relief. It’s like going for a run for the first time in a while, and the next day you’re in agony.”
On a song called "Everybody Hates Me", over a bed of crunching power synths, Bain’s manipulated, layered vocals wail the title of the song almost indecipherably, carrying more emotion than clarity. It’s steeped in so much anxiety that it rubs off on the listener, but for every song that requires a certain level of endurance there’s a freeing moment too. "Maybe You’re The Reason", one of the record’s singles, contrasts verses about aching over her ex-girlfriend with a chorus that celebrates the time they spent together. "I saw you in a dream", the closer, is the only track to be lifted from a previous EP. Though remastered and stripped back here, it speaks of a girl Amber was close to and lost touch with, only to learn that she’d died a few years later; the pair met again in Amber’s sleep.
What’s peculiar about the way Bain says those words is that there’s a universality to them, as if she’s aware that being crushed by solitude is a reality for so many of us. And yet, despite the morose nature of her art, Amber has learned to leave the pain of The Japanese House to the side at times. “I feel really depressed a lot of the time—a lot of people who write music feel like that – but I don’t walk about looking gloomful,” she stresses. “I have a lot of fun and my favorite thing is to laugh. I need humor!” The recent spell of London’s good weather, as well as talking to other strangers walking dogs in the park has lifted her spirits. She loves the way her dad takes time out of his day to text her little anecdotes, asking how she is and telling her that he is, in the most on-brand Dad way possible, “unshakeable in [his] goodness”.
As the days to her album release tick closer, it feels like Amber has her life together, even if she’s dealing with it one day at a time. She’s experienced fraught relationships that would break most of us (there’s that fragile resilience), and released songs that relay those stories to the world. “Really? Oh my god!” She looks at me quizzically, her face contorts to tell me I’m wrong; that there’s still so much this 23-year-old has left to do. She sips the last dregs of her coffee and leans onto the table. “I don’t feel like I’ve got my shit together,” she smiles, “but does anyone?”