Feature for The Skinny
In a music business where female artists are so often forced into pigeonholes – Duffy the doe-eyed kitten, Lily Allen the feisty brat, Kate Nash the kooky every-girl – it’s only the true individuals who stand out over time. The talent of non-conformists like Kate Bush, Bjork and PJ Harvey burns far brighter and longer than the aforementioned chart dwellers, and now we can add another name to that list: Natasha Khan.
The silken voice of Bat For Lashes paints from a palette of influences and inspirations that extends far beyond that of the current crop of pop tarts. Like countless musicians before her, the creative diversity of the half-Pakistani, Brighton-based Khan stems from an art school background. “I did artwork before I ever considered music so I think it couldn’t help but imbue what I do,” she says. “When I was at university I did a 50% music, 50% art degree and it was all about how music and visuals relate to each other. So it’s always been natural for me to express the universal concept rather than just keep to isolated mediums.”
It was this all-encompassing ambition that led to the stylistic panache of her debut album Fur And Gold in 2006, the bookmakers’ favourite to win the Mercury Music Prize of the following year. In the end she lost out to The Klaxons’ music tabloid friendly ‘new rave’ debut. I ask Khan if that was a blessing in disguise. “Definitely,” she replies without pause for thought. “I mean I’d already been touring the album for two years and I was dead on my feet by that time. It was lovely as a little affirmation and to be thrust into the spotlight and give it that final sort of bang before I stopped and went on to make the next record. But I think if I had have won it would have been a good excuse for the record company to send me off on another tour for a year and I probably would have died! I think I was really ripe and ready to move on creatively at that point, it was like the perfect outcome really.”
What the nomination did do was turn heads, and one particularly famous noggin was that of Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, who asked Bat For Lashes to support his band on last year’s In Rainbows European tour. And according to Khan they’re not the irritable chin-strokers of Meeting People Is Easy yore. “It was great. We danced a lot every night, drank lots of wine, had lots of fun,” she recalls. “I was quite nervous playing to so many people, like up to 50,000 people, but after a while I realised that the Radiohead fans were being very patient, interested and quiet during my set and that was really cool. So if it was going to be a big band Radiohead was the one. It was a big learning curve but a good one.”
With such endorsements, the pressure was on Khan to follow the rather bare-boned Fur And Gold with a second LP that took Bat For Lashes an artistic step forward. So there was probably no better environment for creative inspiration than the epicentre of indie that is Brooklyn, New York, where Khan lived for a time during the conception of Two Suns, her new album. “I think in Brooklyn and America there’s a lot more interesting stuff coming out than in England,” Khan says. “I’m glad I was there when that was kinda incubating.” But she wasn’t just holed up in one studio the whole time: “The proper recording started in Wales, and then a bit in New York. I also did quite a bit of field recording, like the subway trains in Brooklyn and my friends sitting around a campfire in the forest that comes at the end of Sleep Alone.”
A campfire in the forest? It sounds almost too new-age to stomach, but Khan happily revels in her own brand of 21st century mysticism, an outlook that extends to the primeval cover art and vaguely pagan overtones of Two Suns. I enquire about the duality that the title suggests. “This record is based on a personal relationship I went through. I wanted to call it Two Suns because it’s the analogy of two personalities crashing into each other. I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a romance album, that the concepts were quite universal, on a personal and on a big, cosmic level.”
It was this particular approach that drew Khan to another band with a penchant for out-there lyricism and ethnic beats. “When I heard Yeasayer’s album I was really excited because I knew it was along the lines of what I was doing,” Khan says. “I asked if they could enhance that and help me push it even further, which they did. I liked their album because it had that element of spirituality and mysticism but it was quite rootsy and dancey and I love that combination.”
Although the Brooklyn band focussed their energies on the song Pearl’s Dream, their sound permeates the album’s more kinetic moments. Khan elaborates: “I wrote the bassline for Daniel but I had done it on a little bass synth and Ira [Wolf Tuton, Yeasayer bassist] kindly replaced quite a few basslines for me, and added his own to Pearl’s Dream that was really funky and was something I never could have come up with. Chris [Keating, singer] added a lot of African-style drum programming to the second half of Pearl’s Dream that moves it to a really happy, dancey place. We were dancing around the studio being silly, enjoying the pop-ness of it!”
Khan’s hedonistic collaboration with Yeasayer was a world away from her experience of working with Two Suns’ other guest star, the reclusive 60s icon Scott Walker with whom she duets on album closer, The Big Sleep. “It was totally different,” Khan confirms. “And that’s what’s interesting about collaborating if you choose wisely. I knew Scott Walker would be perfect for that kind of brooding song. We emailed each other because he’s so shy but we discussed the song and talked about the characters and the imagery and he sent me his amazing part. So I never met him and I’m not sure I’d want to really. It was nice to write for each other and communicate on that level without all the embarrassment and awkwardness. It was really special.”
Now that her album has been released and critics are striving to sum up its myriad qualities, Bat For Lashes are on the road again, with a revamped line-up that includes former Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley. “I loved the last tour because we had all the strings playing and the girls were just so well disciplined,” Khan says. “It was powerful in some areas but there wasn’t much opportunity to dance. This time there’s still all the dark, magical elements but there’s also the drumkit and electronic drumpads and beat machines. The beat’s really big now so you get that real dynamic during the set, up down and all over. And Charlotte’s kick-arse. She’s singing, playing guitar, bass, synth and drums. I like multi-instrumentalists, so we can all move around. She’s very diverse and quite feisty.”
The same could be said about Khan, and although she’s amiable in conversation, she doesn’t like to give too much away. It’s when I ask a dry, non-personal question about the production of Two Suns that she actually hints at a deep-set concern over how she is perceived: “I had a massive say in the production. I like to make that clear because some people think ‘oh she just sings’ but I’m quite proud of my technical abilities.” Unlike your standard-issue chanteuse, it’s safe to say that Khan does more than just sing.
Two Suns is out now via Parlophone.
Bat For Lashes play Latitude Festival, Suffolk on 17 July.