"It's about conjuring some magic," says Natasha Khan, the 27-year-old, Brighton-based woman who records under the name Bat for Lashes. In the labyrinthine backstage area of a pleasingly musty theatre in Paris, Khan is chatting keenly about memories of childhood Hallowe'ens, the subconscious and other such juicy matters. You'd expect no less, though, as Khan's Fur and Gold album is one of the most vivid debuts of 2006, from its spectral take on ethereal, folk-tronic avant-pop to its ripe, pantheistic imagery, which gives the "wolfy ladies" of Goldfrapp's stage show a run for their lusty money. In a world that isn't exactly starved for Libertines-esque urchin-rock, or post-Franz Ferdinand new-wave revisionists, or the ever-bewildering arena of emo-rock and the emo-wars, this is an album that casts a refreshingly distinct spell.
At first listen, the intimations of pagan mischief and magic on Fur make it sound like Khan is batting for a place at the "wyrd" folk table, alongside Devendra Banhart and his increasingly expansionist elfin empire. Either that, or channelling the elemental emotions, nicely wayward sonic innovations and theatricality of a Kate Bush or a Björk. But a singular imagination colours Khan's songs of dream and dark desires, which weave their sonic magic from Hammer House-ish harpsichord, spirit-raising percussive clatter, zither, vibraphone, electronics and Khan's part-piercing and part-yearning vocals.
A risk of quirkiness cleaves to this kind of conjuring act, but there's nothing kooky about Khan. Far from being affected, or turning me into a frog for making her talk while she's suffering from the perennial touring hazard of a chest infection, she's quick and quietly confident. During the soundcheck for her gig, she accepts the misfortune of having to make do with a 10-minute soundcheck with an endearing earthiness: instead of having a tantrum or stressing out, she simply throws the soundman the devil's horn hand signal and shouts, "10 minutes! Yeah, rock!"
Very soon into the interview, it becomes clear that there's substance and a sense of design behind her album's flights into the imagination, beyond their similarities to Kate Bush's The Dreaming or Mercury Rev's All Is Dream. "All of the art that I love is about peeling back layers," she says, "and delving into something that's in a subconscious or dream realm. People like Jan Svankmajer, or the artist Yoshimoto Nara, or David Lynch. You live your everyday life, but then there's also thoughts, feelings, energies you get from other people, ghosts, ancestors and the path you're on... all of those spiritual things that are deeper in the mind than what is just in front of you."
A little digging reveals rich soil for Khan's muse. Raised as part of the Khan squash-playing clan in dreary Hertfordshire - "a repressed, Edward Scissorhands-style place", she says - Khan managed to find "beautiful landscapes and forests to escape into". More pertinently, her Mongolian roots meant that she spent childhood summers in Pakistan until the age of 11. She is keen to downplay the influence of these summer holidays on her music, but they clearly gave her something to work with that, say, a bucket, a spade and Bognor Regis wouldn't. For starters, her online biography points out that she once "lost a goat in a sacrificial religious ceremony".
"It was very exotic and barbaric," she says, "with lots of animal sacrifices, ghost stories, religion, mysticism. It was a long time ago, so I'm not sure it has much bearing on where I am now, but for a child, there was a lot of magic and mystery in that place."
Do any aspects of her religious upbringing still linger? "I'm not religious," she says, "but what interests me is that when people are religious, they need to be able to suspend their disbelief in order to believe in fables and stories. There's an element of naivety there that they need to keep. What I learnt from that has to do with storytelling, being able to escape into other worlds, or feeling emotionally connected to worlds that are symbolic or outside of normal human experience."
At the age of 11, Khan certainly suffered a shock of unusual proportions: her father suddenly disappeared from her life. This isn't something she wants to talk about too much but, as she says, it couldn't not have had a formative impact. "The only thing I'll say is something that Nick Cave talked about in his lecture on love songs," she says, with a wariness that suggests a door being opened ever so slightly and gently closed. "He talked about how children invite a tragic event into their lives in order to believe that life is a serious matter. To start them on their journey. I think there's a karmic purpose that souls make before they decide to come into people's bodies and become someone's parent, or become someone's child. Maybe my dad disappearing was his way of giving me material with which to work, or a predisposition to feel heightened emotions."
Khan's online biography makes reference to her praying to aliens in order to bring her father back. Did she spend a lot of time in her imagination as a child? "A great deal of time," she nods. "It's a form of escapism, isn't it, to delve into your imagination. But it's also a divine kind of freedom: inside your mind is somewhere where you have total freedom, which no one can take away. If you go through painful events, or you find it hard to live, you have a greater desire to create something in your mind that's more beautiful."
Journeys of the imagination are central to Fur and Gold: the opening track alone, "Horse and I", details a psychosexual dream-trip, bathed in "mystic golden light". It's a kind of fairy-tale number that builds a bridge from childhood fantasy into more adult territory, and it tallies with Khan's interest in the young and, you suspect, Jungian imagination. At Brighton University, she studied music and visual arts (key qualifications for a certain kind of British art-pop singer, surely, from Bowie to Goldfrapp) and wrote a dissertation on the artist and childhood.
Later, she worked as a nursery-school teacher, partly to pay the bills but also because it "resonated with the ideas of imagination and freedom that go with childhood". She was born on the same day as Picasso, too: "He had a fascination with childhood," she deadpans, perhaps referring to the queso grande of cubism's famous quote about children's hotline to creativity, "Every child is an artist."
"When I was writing my dissertation," Khan says, "I wrote about Freud and the process of sublimation, which is when you learn to stop breast-feeding, or stop going to the toilet whenever you want to. It's about learning to repress a desire for instant gratification. And in a repressed society, artists fulfil a sense of harking back to instant gratification, or immediate expression, by doing things that function on the edge of society, or outside of what is conventionally accepted."
There's enough blood-drinking, wizardry and bubbling desire on Khan's album to suggest extra-societal intrigue aplenty. In her late teens, too, Khan ditched a day job and took a pilgrimage to America in honour of the similarly convention-challenging Beat writers, a quest that took her from San Francisco to Mexico, New York and Vancouver.
"I'd been working in an office and I was looking for something to, er, light my fire," she says, giggling. The lure of the Beats was obvious: "Sexy, sleazy, jazzy, drinking," she muses, wistfully. "The travelling troubadour, in a car across America... It was all very appealing to a teenager. All of a sudden, working in a conference centre or sitting at a fax machine didn't seem quite so tempting."
Having found the spark she needed, Khan returned to Britain with the confidence to pursue music and art seriously. In the boho-by-the-sea enclave of Brighton, kinships and happy, accidental collisions with other artists confirmed her sense that she was on the right path. When she saw the transcendentalist Texas space-rock trio Lift to Experience in concert, for example, she was "blown away" by the heavily bearded, booted and cowboy-hatted singer Josh T Pearson's grandiose visions. "His voice, the biblical elements, the storytelling, she says. "I said to myself, 'I'm going to sing with him one day.'" She saw Pearson play a solo gig a little later, offered to send him one of the CDs she had recorded and danced with him at a party to Fifties music, kick-starting a friendship that resulted in his vocal contribution to the Bat-track and single "Trophy".
Similar boosts of confidence came from Banhart, the crown-king of the freak-folk scene, whose Cripple Crow album was released last year with a cover suggesting that he's building his very own retro-psych army. Earlier in 2006, he gave her a slot on the bill he curated for the alt-rock All Tomorrow's Parties festival, alongside the duly revered wyrd-folk veteran Vashti Bunyan and the acid-psych scare-mongerers Espers. "He's a kindred spirit," Khan says. "I felt when I met him that I'd known him for a long time. He's like a kind of pied piper, and very generous with inviting people in, which is a quality people tend to gravitate towards."
In concert an hour later, Bat for Lashes exert a pull of their own. The band had to make do with a 10-minute sound check, the 30-minute supporting slot is all too brief, the venue is over-crowded and everyone seems to have an exacerbated passion for smoking, but Khan and her all-female backing trio, magnificently decked out in glitter, crowns and pagan-priestess clobbe, prove transporting. As tinkling bells signal the start of "The Wizard", you could be in a pine forest at midnight, communing with the sprites. For the spooked Spector-isms of "What's a Girl To Do?", Khan strikes a warrior-woman stance while a bandmate bashes a big bass drum. Happily, the performance is grounded enough to decimate any cynicism: there's proper songcraft and a rich sonic imagination at work there, and the band take to performing in a spirit of joy.
With the album's percussive elements and the band's personalities being pleasingly amplified, there's an earthier, more visceral quality to Bat for Lashes live. Will Khan's second album dabble in stronger kinds of voodoo? "Something more raw, more rough," Khan says, nodding. "Still magical, but more powerful and less polite. I'm not interested in writing singles or anything like that - I just want to get it out with integrity."
She pauses for a second, as if weighing up the possibilities. "It's really become quite a serious matter now," she says. It sounds like this dream trip is for real.
'Fur and Gold' is out now on Echo; Bat for Lashes play Scala, London N1 (08700 603 777) on 6 December and St George's Church, Brighton (01273 606312/325440) on 7 DecemberReuse content