Sugar Pill

If you’ve heard me talk about music in the last couple weeks or so, you’ve probably heard me rave about bizarre British singer-songwriter Amber Bain, AKA The Japanese House. As with any new musical discovery, I had early favourites (Still, Swim Against The Tide, 3/3 (when it released)), and predictably pointed most of my attention at those tracks.

Well, today, I officially have a new favourite The Japanese House song. Sugar Pill is just as weird as anything in her catalogue, with a few gorgeous production decisions that have me saying “wow” pretty much every time, most of which revolve around the re-intro and second verse.  It’s an incredible, moving track on its own, and I was already ready to talk about it to anyone who would listen, but then I found this live version:

If this is your first time ever seeing The Japanese House live (and, of course it is, because who even knows about this band, let alone hunts down youtube videos of them), you’ll notice a few things right away. First, Amber’s stage presence is just as weird as you’d imagine. She stands so close to the microphone and keeps her face so un-moving you can barely even tell she’s singing. She essentially showed more emotion while introducing the song than while actually playing it. She plays her guitar upside-down. She’s wearing an oversized ‘USA Sport’ jumper. I’ll remind you she’s definitely British.

I’ve watched a few (read: all) of the pro-shot live videos of this band on youtube, and this performance is easily the most striking. Let’s return to the middle of the song (The re-intro starts at about 1:44, if you’re following along at home). Watching Amber sing that second verse (specifically the mid-verse six-word, “I feel flimsy when I grin”) with such a blank face is devastating in an other-worldy sort of sense. It’s a performance unlike any other, and at this point, I’m pretty confident saying Ms. Bain has replaced Imogen Heap as my celebrity crush. (One odd British songwriter to the next, I guess).

What’s Next? or, “Change in the House of Leaves”

Just in case you didn’t get the joke in the title.

My Netflixing over the past few months has been a watch-through of Aaron Sorkin’s classic political drama, The West Wing. Those familiar with the show will know one of President Jed Bartlet’s catch-phrases is ‘What’s Next?’ It’s established early on that when he says ‘What’s Next?’ he’s ready to move on; the current discussion is over. As time goes on, his staff really internalize the phrase and some (notably CJ Cregg) even take it up themselves.

I’ve been having a lot of ‘What’s Next?’ moments lately. Mike and I are all-but finished writing our upcoming EP (I’ll talk more about this below). My soccer team played our last game of the season yesterday, and are now on break until September. I’ll be moving into a new indeterminate apartment next month without my roommate of two years. One of my closest friendships ended unceremoniously a few weeks ago. While not all of these things are really loss (finishing an EP is an obvious gain), they are all change, and I find that when combined with some significant loss, any change gets bundled up in that feeling.

I don’t even really dislike change. I love the feeling of a new challenge, a new mountain to climb, a new problem to solve. I’m looking forward to moving into a new place, and I’m immeasurably excited about releasing our music and putting an actual band together to play shows. Furthermore, I would describe myself as a driven person; I have the energy, motivation, and discipline to really tackle head-on one or two big life shifts in a (generally) positive manner. Things (well, things), however, have a tendency to happen to me all at once (did I mention my laptop that’s been the life-blood of my computing over the past 5+ years hasn’t been booting properly lately?).

This isn’t going to turn into one of those, ‘5 Ways To Manage Change Successfully’, or ‘How I Got Through My Life Turning Upside-Down and Came Out On Top Because Vertical-Surface Based Idioms Are The Only Way I Know How To Communicate Achievement Over Adversity’ posts. Really when I started writing this I just wanted to talk about the creative effects of finishing writing an (albeit loose) concept album, and how I now have to adjust my thinking about new songs. But then, in true Johnny Truant style, the whole thing took a turn into more exploratory (excavatory?) territory. 

I guess the whole thing’s really about adjusting thinking. 

Let’s get back to songwriting.

Early on in the life of our band (well before we had an actual band name), we decided our first release would be a loose concept album based around an archetypal character thing I’ve been doing with my life for years. As such, each song focuses on one character (The _____), discussing how way they interact with the world, and sometimes the speaker.

I’m a person who’s always had a strong appreciation for facts, accuracy, and fairness. In the last few years, I picked up refereeing, and that only further internalized my love of objectivity. The concept of Mythology is by nature a contrast to stiff objectivity. Mythology is fantastical storytelling used to interpret the world around us. It is by nature extremely subjective, more allegorical than straightforward, and perhaps most importantly, it’s somewhere I don’t have to be fair.

I use the phrase ‘Personal Mythology’ a lot, and this project has really been an exploration of that.  Last summer I was hurting over something, and I distinctly remember talking to The Narrator (dots connecting, casual readers?) about how I wasn’t being fair about it in my songwriting, but I thought that was okay because it’s probably the one place that I really get to just tell my side of things and not have to worry about objectivity. She assured me that’s true, and also said something lovely like, “And you don’t have to be fair with me, either. I’ll allways be on your side.”

And so, that’s what this project became to me. It’s about personal mythology; saying things I would never say in actual conversation with someone. There are actually a couple lines on this EP that I feel almost guilty about because of how they’re not necessarily selfish, but how they refuse the other person’s perspective.  One, in particular, I almost cut several times, but always ended up deciding to leave it in because it’s accurate to how I was feeling.

But now that paradigm is done. The next song I write won’t be titled, “The _____”. It won’t be a conscious portrait. It won’t be grouped with these other songs. So that brings us back to ‘What’s Next?’ and the real reason I started writing this post. I don’t know if our next album is going to have any sort of particular theme. I’m a firm believer in the album as a cohesive unit, but I also don’t think that means there has to be an obvious concept tying it together, so it’s not like MinThe is going to be an exclusively-concept-albums kind of band.

I’ve been thinking about Justin Vernon’s songwriting a lot lately. Bon Iver’s last couple albums have definitely been conceptual. ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ was full of place-names, and obviously ’22, A Million’ had its own numerology thing going on. Trevor Hagen speaks beautifully about the shift in concept from BI,BI to 22AM in Bon Iver’s official bio (which is for some reason posted as a screenshot of a Claris Works document instead of actual text), and the way he explains Justin’s songwriting coupled with my own interpretations have been percolating into some new things I’d like to incorporate in my storytelling.

JV has a knack for making his obscure, unexplained fragments of memory infinitely relatable to a wide and foreign audience. I’m not as good at that (obviously). I struggle a lot with finding a balance between obscurity and obviousness in my lyrics, and I think sometimes I can probably trust myself more to be able to find a nice phrase about something that isn’t necessarily explicit. I feel like the concepts on this EP of ours are all pretty straightforward and accessible, which isn’t necessarily bad, but maybe interesting coming from someone who likes things that resist interpretation as much as I do.