Bat for Lashes - Away with the fairies
Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, sings of a hippy-dippy universe of woodlands and wizards. Fiona Sturges enters her world
Friday 10 July 2009
Musicians who claim to be doing something different are two a penny. Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, is one of the few who actually manages it. She is a singer and songwriter like no other. Since the release of her debut album, 2006's Fur and Gold, she has been quietly beguiling fans and critics with her dreamy soundscapes and fairy-tale theatricality. She sings of wizards, woodland creatures, mystical horses and being licked clean by bears, backed all the while by gentle strings, propulsive synths and tribal percussion. It's no wonder that she has been fêted by those other bastions of waywardness, Björk and Thom Yorke.
Khan's work is as informed by art and literature as it is music, combining the histrionics of Kate Bush and the psycho-sexual atmospherics of PJ Harvey with the heady imagery of writers such as Angela Carter and Susan Cooper. She is also an unapologetic hippy and much of her charm, both on record and in conversation, lies in her utter lack of self-consciousness.
"I became a musician because I believe in freedom of expression," she tells me. "I believe in being spontaneous and free and child-like and following your inner voice."
Her latest album, Two Suns, released to much acclaim earlier this year, charts the arc of a doomed relationship – her own – with the help of an alter ego, a blonde-haired vixen named Pearl.
"The album was about the dichotomy of being a human being stuck in a body on your own with your own feelings, and the desire to merge and join with others and be communal," she explains. "In particular, it's about pain of the two opposites. Pearl was an experiment for me in the same way that [the artist] Cindy Sherman might work with aspects of her personality through films and photographs. I would put on this make-up on and put on my wig and be someone else for an evening. It was a period where I suffered a lot of disappointment. I think Pearl was a fantasy, she was my way of coping."
Khan seems to have sacrificed a great deal for her art, not least her relationships. She is, she says, a private person with whom fame, and in particular the life of the touring musician, sits rather uncomfortably.
"Recently I have been feeling like a performing bear in a circus," she confesses. "You get on to your bunk in your tour bus and you travel for 12 hours to the next city where they bring you out and you put on your sparkles and perform. You have to understand, I love performing. I love the whole communal aspect of singing for people and feeling their energy coming back. It's the hours in between. It's can be like living in a parallel dimension where you don't see your friends or family and never get to go home. It's very lonely."
If Khan's music has become public property over the last 18 months, then so has her aesthetic. Her look is part Pre-Raphaelite siren, part Arcadian nymph. 2007's awards ceremony for the Mercury Music Prize, for which she was nominated, saw her bedecked with feather shoulder-pads while her sartorial calling card has, until recently, been a native-American-style headband, an accessory that has since started appearing in High Street shops.
"It's always been about raiding the dressing up box and creating my own palette of colours and styles," she says. "So when you see headbands in H&M, it's just surreal. Of course it's flattering but I also think: 'Well, I just went to the haberdashers and bought some sequins and a piece of elastic. You could do that too.'"
Today Khan is wearing a sparkly pink and green leotard, with matching green glitter around one eye that sweeps dramatically across her temple and makes her look as if she has had a nasty run-in with Tinkerbell. She sees her aesthetic, from the outré outfits to the stage sets comprising antlers, harps, glitter balls and standard lamps, as a throwback to the books she read and the films she watched when she was growing up. Later, as a student, Khan began investigating the work of artists whom she saw as like-minded. "I was fascinated with artists' depictions of childhood, from Michel Gondry's videos to the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer's surrealist version of Alice in Wonderland. It unlocked this whole part of me that had been buried for years."
The daughter of an English mother and Pakistani father, Khan grew up in the Hertfordshire suburbs. Despite her Anglo-Pakistani parentage, she says her upbringing was very British. She would play in the garden and in the woods and read fairy stories. Her favourite films were The Wizard of Oz, ET, and anything by David Lynch. "They were all beautiful though faintly unnerving. They told me that there was a world outside of my own little universe that was huge and frightening but also alluring and beautiful."
When her father abandoned the family when she was 11, she sought refuge in her imagination. It's a period that she still finds distressing and would rather not go into, although she will say that it gave her the impetus to banish all negativity from her mind and "create something beautiful instead".
In her late teens, Khan went on a road trip across the US and Canada with her then boyfriend. "We went to New York and visited the Chelsea Hotel and went to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and to the Mojave Desert. It was a pilgrimage really. I wanted to see where the Beat writers had been and where Leonard Cohen had written his greatest songs and where Gram Parsons died. I think I was looking for inspiration." On returning home Khan enrolled at Brighton University to study art and music. Over the next three years she found herself putting on shadow-puppet shows, editing and scoring films, creating sculpture installations and performance pieces.
After finishing her studies she worked as a nursery schoolteacher for three years where she revelled in the innocence and imagination of children. "They'd all bundle on to cushions and beanbags around me and ask me to tell them about the witches and the goblins. It was wonderful." It was during this period that Khan wrote Fur and Gold, a fantastical work awash with magic and mysticism. Khan was 27 when she released the album. She feels her maturity was beneficial. "I felt like I had a good life's worth of experience to share, which I think is important. I also felt that my head wouldn't be turned by the attention."
Now Khan is almost 30, a milestone that is prompting her to wonder what the next decade will bring. "All my friends are getting married and having children," she says. "I do wobble sometimes and wonder if I'm doing the right thing. But then my friends point out that if I was married and doing a nine-to-five job, I would probably be miserable. I mean – I've always wanted lots of children – but I don't see myself getting them in the same way that other people do."
I tell her that I imagine her in middle age tinkering at the piano in a crumbling country pile with children running around her feet and deer and squirrels peering through the windows.
"Oh, that sounds lovely," she exclaims. "That's exactly how I'd like it to be. There'd be a secret garden and a beautiful lake and an outhouse where I could create things and write music."
'Two Suns' is out now. Bat for Lashes play at Somerset House, London on 16 July, Latitude Festival on 17 July and the iTunes festival, Roundhouse, London on 19 July
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