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Bat for Lashes, Bat for Gold

Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes, seemed to come out of nowhere in 2006.

Soleil Nathwani Jul 10, 2010
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Bat for Lashes, aka Natasha Khan

Bat for Lashes, aka Natasha Khan

Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes, seemed to come out of nowhere in 2006. Nominated for the 2007 Mercury Music Prize for her debut album Fur and Gold, a heady sound that teeters on the edge of fantasy meets reality, she went on to earn two Brit award nominations in 2008. Her second album, Two Suns which explores self and duality takes English folk music and turns it on its head with electro touches, primal beats and pulsing strings. Natasha has received much acclaim for the lyrical, ethereal beauty of her voice and her fusing of musical styles. Daughter of Pakistani squash pro Rehmat Khan and English mother, Natasha was brought up in suburban north London and his received almost equal attention for her Anglo-Asian Heritage. She has been feted by the fashion and art crowd for her striking visuals and has brought an individuality to music that the world has not seen since Björk. Hot on the heels of a 2009 tour for her Two Suns album, followed a South American tour opening earlier this year for Coldplay. Khan talks to us about her journey.

What about your upbringing, childhood and relationship with your family has influenced you most as an artist?

My father is from Pakistan and my mother is English. So when I was growing up I was subject to quite diverse beliefs, cultures and ways of being and that was very influential. My dad was a very successful sportsman but he was also a brilliant artist and singer so we got a lot of theatricality from his side of the family. I would go to Pakistan for long summer holidays until the age of nine or 10. It was all very evocative and colourful. My dad and his family would tell us lots of stories about genies and spirits so there was definitely a mystical element that probably found its way into my music much further down the road. My parents divorced when I was young and I grew up with my English family. Even they are theatrical in their own way, all my cousins play guitar and piano and enjoy acting and singing and they used to play me lots of amazing music which I got into like Nirvana, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, The Velvet Underground, Nick Cave and The Cure. There was a rich influence from both sides but in very different ways.

So when was it that it crystallised in your mind that this was going to be your career?

It was quite late for me because I never really thought I would be a musician. From an early age, I used art and music as a way of dealing with emotions that I could not talk about. I was around eight when I started playing piano. And then my cousin lent me a guitar and I started teaching myself the guitar. I always painted and drew as well. I loved doing it but I went to quite a traditional school and they looked at art as a hobby. My mum’s side of the family has a very strong work ethic and before I knew it, I was working in an office and I hated it. It felt so stifling and it really wasn’t me but I didn’t know what I was, so finally I went with a boyfriend on a trip all over the US and Canada. We did a “pilgrimage” to New York because we loved Leonard Cohen and other musicians and so we decided to follow our heroes. I stayed in a youth hostel and played every night for people. People started telling me my voice was beautiful. I’d never thought about it because I had never really sung much for an audience because I was really shy. But this became my epiphany. I came back to England and took myself back to university to study music with visual art. It was a really scary but liberating time where I finally felt like I was with people that made sense to me.

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You know, you come across as having such a strong, expressive personality. So would you still describe yourself as shy, now?

You have to be a sensitive person to pick up on creative impulses. I am not that shy now but I am extremely sensitive. My confidence in myself was much lower but it has grown through my music. It has taken upto now for me to take myself seriously as a performer and an artist and there is a lot of self-doubt that you go through. I finally feel like I am good enough to have things to say but it’s still terrifying. One day you think I can do this and the next day you’re in a heap of self-pity thinking ”˜Oh my god, I’m so awful.’ Everyone goes through that but when you have to do it in the public eye, it’s hard. Most people get to go through cycles of change and their metamorphosis in private. Having to do it in public is quite a struggle.

So what has helped along the way in terms of taking yourself seriously outside of industry awards?

Initially, doing my degree and learning about my craft helped tremendously. Doing production, editing and programming especially on the second album and really understanding all this was empowering. It’s great to be nominated for awards and things but really that’s external approval and I think if you are truly doing something for your soul, it’s a constant evaluation of whether what you’re saying is really in tune with who you are that’s important.

That’s not easy especially when you’re performing for an audience. Do you think you’ve been able to do that”¦ stay true to yourself?

Well, the latest transformation for me was about being truly joyful and it is, ironically, very frightening. It’s scary because I feel I’ve been supported in being in my dark place because it has generated a certain kind of music and I feel ”˜What will people think if I start not to be that thing any more?’ But at the end of the day, it’s being genuine that’s important and so I stay with it.

So in the context of this new feeling of contentment, can you talk to us about the musical influences for the third album that you are currently working on?

Whenever I’m writing, the sound always changes as I go along, so I don’t want to say too much. Also, there is a purity that happens when you just let something be borne. You get rid of the old you. It is really terrifying to do that and I’ve had a lot of panic attacks thinking ”˜What the hell is this?’ and ”˜How am I supposed to deal with what’s coming out?’ But it’s my job as an artist to take that and figure out how to give it to the world.

Can you talk about what goes into creating your unique aesthetic? For a lot of people, their image is quite constructed and for you, it’s seems organic.

All my visuals are very much to do with my passions, I love the 1920s and I love adornment and Native American art and I love being out in the wild, in nature. When we did my first press shoot, I used a pair of gold antlers with mirrored bits all over them because I’d been making drawings of people with animal heads. I also took peacock feathers and made sequined headbands out of them. I wanted to establish myself and my visual was very precious to me and I didn’t just want to give it over to some poncey graphic designer. I’m very stubborn. Many artists that I love have retained this aspect of control over every element of what they do.

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Who are these artists for you”¦ your icons?

I think that there are the obvious – Björk and Kate Bush – when I was growing up. When I first came across them, it just felt like I’d found home and I felt for the first time I wasn’t mad. I felt this is what I’d always been but I didn’t have the older sisters, the mirrors or the artistic community to show me that. David Bowie and Madonna are amazing visual and theatrical artists. Peter Gabriel is another one that I love because he covered such a spectrum. Those kinds of artists are a real comfort to see because they are very much themselves but also because they break barriers and so have a lot of freedom.

So how do you give yourself freedom in your music?

I love to combine instruments which don’t necessarily go together. For example, I’ve used a hip hop beat along with a marxophone which is an old American folk instrument from the 1890s. I feel like a lot of people rely on the guitar and bass drums and it’s limiting. I think, for me, also having my dad play the tabla and listening to Indian music gave me that love of more unusual stringed instruments or things that had that mystical sound to them. So I’m not tied to using any kind of instruments or conventional pairings.

A lot of the musical and visual aspects of Bat for Lashes seem to come from everything that is earth, nature and celestial. Where does that come from and why do you feel attracted to those things?

I don’t think that I’m attracted to those things; I think that we all are those things innately and it’s just getting back to remembering where we came from, that people struggle with. I think, over my career, the earthy aspect has come across more because I want to celebrate nature. I live in Brighton a few minutes from the ocean and this is where I do my writing. I feel elated when I spend time in nature when there are no buildings, no people, nothing to unsettle the mind. I think that we miss that without even realising. It reminds me of the characters of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz or Alice from Alice in Wonderland. They have both have been to Wonderland and years later they forget that they were even there. People in cities seem like that as they forget about the purity of being in nature and it’s very sad. Everyone seems to ignore the quite primal need to have quiet time and stillness and nature and not be putting up these defences and tottering around in massive high heels. It’s great for a little while but all of us need to go back to the source regularly and part of my mission in making music is to remind people of that.

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