Natasha Khan, a.k.a. Bat for Lashes’ The Haunted Man looks set to be one of 2012’s most discussed albums.
That cover [see page 2] helps, obviously, but most importantly, it marks the first album since 2009 (the excellent Two Suns) from one of Britain’s most frequently endearing and intriguing pop acts. Over the years, FACT has featured Bat for Lashes rather a lot: what follows is an interview with Khan, conducted by FACT’s Sean Bidder in 2009, a 2007 FACT TV feature, and the front cover that Kahn designed for FACT’s discontinued print magazine (R.I.P.), also in 2009.
“It was just partying and drinking and everyone is really on a hedonistic mad binge…it was quite dark atmosphere, quite self destructive. I was drinking a lot more and not sleeping that well, and struggling quite a lot if I’m honest about it.”
Is Two Suns the record you’ve always wanted to make, but only recently had the means to do so?
“I don’t know. Stylistically it’s quite different but I think that happened quite naturally as a result of me coming out of my bedroom, moving all over the world, doing a lot of touring…living in Brooklyn and picking up on the transatlantic influences the last couple of years…just hearing more complex music. I’ve always liked quite complex and layered and lush music but my first album was pretty much done in a month and was very purist – I kept it that way because that’s where my confidence level was. With this one I was gathering all the elements over one-and-a-half to two years. I was writing while I was touring Fur & Gold, then I moved to New York and then I was in England, all the time I was writing, trying to make sense of all these disparate elements and different experiences I was having.
“It was all happening very fast and I think that’s why the album sounds quite vast, not because I set out to do that but because naturally my scope of experience was vast compared to what it was before. I guess making something of a transient situation almost helps you put little pins in the map.”
How did the time you spent in different locations affect the sound and feel of the record?
“Whenever I had time in Brighton I’d always be thinking of being in Brooklyn, because that’s where my boyfriend was. I always felt like no matter where I was there was always a piece of me missing, but also at the same time a really nice thing happened which was that I met kindred spirits and this kind of extended family developed of people in California, in New York and back home in Brighton. I felt a real sense of the vastness of the different countries where I knew everybody. There’s a kind of heartbreak that goes with that because wherever you are you never quite feel complete. But then at other times I felt quite happy to be moving all over.”
Did you hook up with Yeasayer while living in Brooklyn?
“Actually I met Yeasayer in Amsterdam…when we were supporting Radiohead we did a couple of shows with MGMT and I knew the drummer from living in Brooklyn. We all went out one night and they invited Yeasayer, who were supporting Beck in town. I hooked up with them again in Brooklyn. It was mainly Ioan (check!) and Chris who I ended up working with on the album. They’re really hi-energy and fun to work with; we had such a laugh and tried out all kinds of different things. Chris, who sings, also does a lot of interesting beat programming…I’d already started beat programming on ‘Pearl’s Dream’ but when I went to work with them they pushed it into an area that was even more dancey than I’d expected to go. I’m quite protective and territorial usually about my vision, so letting groups of people come in and do their thing was quite challenging but it was fruitful to do because it took me out of my comfort zone, which I’m not used to. It was good to just step back and let it happen.”
Does Brighton feel a bit quaint these days?
“I think so. I lived here for so long and I went to university here. I’m not so enamoured anymore with the whole quirky seaside town thing and I treat it more as a sanctuary really. I’ve got my old flat where I can be completely myself and hide away from the world, with my piano and instruments…I feel like in Brighton you can just drop out if you want to, there’s a very relaxed artistic atmosphere which suits me, and being by the sea. I struggled with living in New York City, I thought it was really intense.”
“I just felt a massive connection between relationships and landscapes and the universe.”
How did the time you spent in the desert in California affect the album?
“When I’m in England I dip into London but I know I can always come back to Brighton, and the sea. When I was in New York I struggled with the whole massive concrete jungle, endless buildings, the pace of life, feeling like you’re plugged into a 1,000-voltage socket constantly…I didn’t realise until then that I can’t write that much in that environment.
“I find it really hard to come back to myself and reflect on things and have time to sleep properly… a lot of my ideas come to me when I’m falling asleep at night time when it’s quiet. In Brooklyn, it was just partying and drinking and everyone is really on a hedonistic mad binge or that’s what it felt like…it was quite dark atmosphere, quite self destructive. I was drinking a lot more and not sleeping that well, and struggling quite a lot if I’m honest about it.
“And so I thought I have to get to California, which I think is similar in some ways to Brighton, in the air it’s just calmer. So I went to the desert, when I first got there the sky hit me first, and the stars and the barren wilderness of it, the silence is deafening…it was such a stark contrast to New York and those two juxtaposing landscapes really affected me. They were such polar opposites…and I think a lot of the record is about polar opposites and wanting to unify those things so that I felt more whole. And always being one extreme or another, being together with my lover or being separated by oceans, expanses of land…I started thinking about it in more cosmic terminology when I went to the desert I suppose because I was thinking about planets being in orbit and sometimes crashing into each other and sometimes creating third things, beautiful comets…like when you meet people and come together you make a third, new thing, but then you’re pushed apart again into your own orbit. It all sounds a bit philosophical but I just felt a massive connection between relationships and landscapes and the universe, and trying to make sense of all of those.”
“When I came out of seeing The Wrestler I cried, the light was amazing in it…like The Virgin Suicides with that golden light but cold at the same time.”
Did that sense of polar opposites lead to you to create your alter ego, Pearl?
“I wouldn’t say she was an alter ego. For me, when I was in New York I met a lot of theatrical, debauched old New Yorkers, funny characters, like these guy called Edgar, an old-school thespian, who lived in the top flat above us, he had about seven fish tanks in his front room with all these crazy tropical fish. And he wrote poems, he was in his Fifties…and he spoke in that old Laurence Oliver way. I’d romanticized the idea of New York and when I arrived it wasn’t really like that. But there were these little, you know, rough diamonds, left over from that time. I felt like I identified more with those people than with all these kind of new hipstery rich kids I met while I was there. I got myself thinking about Candy Darling and the old Andy Warhol New York, and the early 80s with the beginnings of Madonna and all the underground drag queens vogueing, street dancing and the graffiti, and Cindy Sherman and her old film stills and strange characters that she dressed up in. And I felt me and my boyfriend at the time would do little projects together…Pearl just came out of that…she was a fantasy I suppose.
“I felt quite misplaced in New York and felt more comfortable as someone like her because she fitted in with a more reckless destructive falling apart side of me, because I was kind of falling apart while I was there. All the illusions I’d had about moving were falling apart too, it wasn’t working and I wasn’t very happy…so I think setting up as her was a way of dealing with being there. I’d already been thinking of writing songs from another side of me…the more deluded and heartbroken side of me, and the Pearl songs on the record are very much about that.”
You’ve said before that you often visualise places in your mind while you’re writing music, but this time you actually travelled to some of them…how did the creative process differ as a result?
“The writing didn’t really change because I can’t write on the road. The times when I write usually I’m sitting in my bed…I’ve got this little machine, an 8-track with a 1,000 sounds in them and you can record loops and overlay them. You can do a beat then a bassline, put choirs or string parts on top of that, and then work out the vocal melody. In order to that I need to be on my own, quiet and focused.
“In the first album it was very much my vivid imaginary world, which was very internal, very much based on dreams and subconscious things and imagery. Whereas this album I was trying to get those stolen moments whilst travelling so it felt a little bit more precious…a really intense creative spurt…I felt I had so much built up that I wanted to say that the recording would be quite dynamic…this one feels far less laconic or relaxed sounding, this album feels more urgent, more potent and confident, pushing out my creativity. But the visual influence is still strong…I’ve always got a story, or a landscape or colours or characters or times of day, or the light…like in ‘Daniel’ the light is a sunsety, golden colour, but by the end of the song I’m driving a car and got my head out of the window and there’s a dark blue sky with trees wheezing past and I’m singing it to myself in the dark.”
Which visual artists inspire you?
“For me, film is a huge inspiration. When I came out of seeing The Wrestler I cried, the light was amazing in it…like The Virgin Suicides with that golden light but cold at the same time. It really inspired me musically, when I came home I really felt like writing music. Directors like Steve Speilberg, growing up, was a massive influence, and David Lynch with Lost Highway or Wild At Heart, also Buffalo 66, The Wizard of Oz….I reference those films still in my imagination. On this album especially I was trying to get better as a songwriter, I wanted to be able to write a good pop song, that was one of my ambitions, to challenge myself to do. Now I’m rebelling against that I suppose and making these grand orchestral pieces…”
Would scoring a film be a dream come true?
“Oh definitely, that’s where I’d like to go eventually. Because all this touring and being away from my loved ones is okay for a while, but I’m quite a homebody and the idea of getting lost in my own magical world but sustain a normal life at the same time would be my ideal, that’d be amazing. Because I have such a strong link to visual imagery when I’m working to be given something visual to represent sonically would be really exciting, I’d love to do that.”
Maybe you’d even make a film yourself…
“Well, I’ve been thinking about that. It’s a bit of pipe dream at the minute but I really want to make a teenage road movie, or something, like the new old-school fantastical film. I was watching ET over Christmas – there’s not many special effects, it’s about this relationship between a boy and this outside force, he’s lonely, he doesn’t really fit in but it’s his relationship with something outside his safety net, this microcosm of a suburban home, and I feel a lot of affinity with that concept. I feel like a lot of films lately, especially for children or teenager or young adults, are either really gritty and disturbing and violent or like really fantastical and slightly cheesy with loads of CGI and I’m craving a little bit to make a film that has those magical elements but is old school in that way. I’d love to make a film.”
The front and inside front covers for issue 30 of FACT’s print magazine, as designed by Bat for Lashes.
Now, let it never be said that FACT TV was always the slick operation it is now.
Back in 2007, our then-camera crew interviewed Natasha Kahn for a feature named ‘Me and my Instrument’, in which artists talk about a musical instrument that they hold particularly dear. Natasha’s episode is embedded below.