AU PRESENTS: Bat For Lashes
The heir to Kate Bush's throne releases Two Suns, her 'difficult' second album
Two fiery orbs hang in the sky, emitting their orange glare and illuminating a strange terrain. The topography might look like something we’d find prefacing a JRR Tolkien book, but the contours we see before us, those canyons and peaks, dips and ridges represent the landscape of Natasha Khan’s heart. This is the world of Two Suns, the latest journey into the mystic with Bat For Lashes. Have you packed your sense of adventure? Yes? Then let’s go.
It was the end of the affair. It was the start of something beautiful. Natasha Khan – better known by the nom de guerre Bat For Lashes – was going to do what every self-respecting musician before her had done - subsume personal anguish into the creative process.
Music is built upon clichés – the previous sentiment about pain and art is one, and ‘difficult second album’ is another. In this instance, both contain more than a sliver of truth. For Two Suns really was a difficult second album to make: Natasha really was experiencing pangs of the soul.
'It [writing and recording Two Suns] didn’t come easily,' she admits, her voice dipping ever so slightly. 'Not because of external pressures, or worries, but because my emotional wellbeing wasn’t very good. I was having a tough time personally.
'Documenting that was on occasion really difficult. Yes, it can be cathartic, but getting it out and singing about it whilst you’re still going through it can be really hard. It was a difficult record to make and I was quite lonely and unsettled and looking for a home and the right love affair and just trying to make sense of so many things. Personally I felt that my life was much harder through having become successful and having to be flown all over the world.'
Natasha is, it must be said, extremely honest and forthcoming. However, she stops short of spelling out the obvious. It is widely known that this personally difficult time concerned the demise of a love affair under the wicked pressures that attend the life of a full-time musician. As this isn’t Heat we’ll spare you the titillating details. The important thing is how this event permeates much of the new album, albeit hidden behind metaphors and visual symbols.
Making music that deals with such subjects must be a curious, at times uncomfortable process, willingly offering up your vulnerabilities, exposing your emotional Achilles heel to the masses…
'It’s an interesting position to find myself in, alright,' muses Natasha. “When I’m actually making music, I’m in with [co-producer] David Kosten for 12 hours per day, co-producing, playing instruments, programming drums and being really involved and working intricately on every little layer. When you’re in the moment you don’t think about the vulnerability, you are just thinking about getting [the album] out with a lot of heart and soul.
'Then, once it’s done, you realise that you have this body of work that people are going to pore over, they’re going to be looking in your pants drawer [she stifles a giggle] and getting involved with the dark and difficult things that you’re trying to process. Then you feel exposed and vulnerable and there are a few uncomfortable months whilst you get used to the idea that people are listening to it.'
And listen to, and pore over it, we have. Much of the comment that the album has excited has concerned the theme of duality, in fact, the title itself alludes to the concept.
'As I was finishing the record, I started to realise that it was about duality,' confirms Natasha. 'It could be in reference to romantic relationships, or two different countries, or perhaps two planets crashing into each other and creating a third thing before moving away again into different orbits.
'Also, it could be about two different types of music, modern electronic music and organic music, two different landscapes, city and country… so it’s very much to do with the number two and it’s also the second album. I also liked the idea of not giving it an obvious title and perhaps using more of a metaphor.
'The idea is that Two Suns sounds like such a cosmic, universal example of two entities and things that are moving on two paths. For me, that was a great analogy for relationships and the other dualities that are on the record, so I took the more cosmic tone.'
On ‘Siren Song’, Khan introduces us to the persona of Pearl, a temptress with a shock of blonde hair, a daring, seductive and carnal counterpoint to the more spiritual, doe eyed and chocolate brown tresses-framed Bat For Lashes.
These personae – and Natasha insists they are personae, not alter egos – have been described as separate, yet attached. Indeed, they are not only attached to each other, but to Khan. These are projections of the self rather than characters she has adopted. At times Natasha talks about Pearl as if she is a living, breathing entity, out there in the world at large, existing beyond the confines of her imagination.
'The reason why I featured Pearl was that I believed her to be a very visual, cinematic character and she reflects my love of David Lynch films and [Cindy] Sherman and Diane Arbus photography and the old New York of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, when it was a bit more gritty and these fabulous drag queens were on the streets and there was the early disco scene and Andy Warhol was alive and there were these amazing, debauched blonde women lying in hotel beds, taking too many sleeping pills and losing themselves.'
Two Suns was recorded largely in New York and, when Natasha speaks of the place, a sense of rain sodden romanticism emerges, her words alive with sheer yearning, a dreamy desire for the synthetic sparkle and gutter allure of the city. It’s easy to imagine how Khan could have been bewildered by the labyrinth of experience that New York has to offer, biting down on the Big Apple and tasting both the bitter and the sweet, a latter day Edie Sedgwick disoriented by the metropolis’s unceasing thrum.
'When I went to New York I felt that I was missing something and I wanted to recreate it for myself. I was stricken by this New York sickness and was in danger of being lost in the superficial, in partying and meeting all these industry people and everything was so fast-paced and I wasn’t really coping very well with just being Natasha in New York, so maybe these other characters came to the fore as a little bit of self-protection. These figures weren’t even alter egos, I treated them almost like characters in a film and this [the album] is the soundtrack.'
From film to filmmakers, photography to pop art, it’s telling that Natasha’s primary reference points for Two Suns are visual rather than audio. It figures that she’s schooled in the visual arts herself.
'I learnt about art and film way before I was learning to take music seriously,' she acknowledges. 'However, music is my foremost love and it always has innately been that way with me. Academically, at school, though, I was more encouraged in the other arts.
'I feel that I have quite a broad knowledge of the arts and that all informs the music. Whenever I write something I do tend to see the songs, the characters and landscapes. I take lots of inspiration from visual art, but music will always be my first love. At some point, I’d like to maybe make a cool film and then make the soundtrack. Everything I do is so multimedia, so I could probably turn my hand to a few different things, but I think it would take a lifetime to become fully accomplished in any one thing and I’d like to spend this lifetime at least becoming really good at music. That’s my mission.'
It’s no surprise either that David Lynch is an avowed influence, for like Bat For Lashes the filmmaker is a master at putting a surreal spin on the everyday.
'My favourite Lynch movies are the more narrative-based ones. I love storytelling, so Wild At Heart, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks and Elephant Man. Later it seems that David Lynch has increasingly come to embrace that dream world where things come in and out and they don’t have much logic and where people’s identities shift and change.
'I find that exploration of the subconscious fascinating and also I like emblems and the way he uses visual symbols and these strange recurring characters to represent the way the mind works. I think his films are a great antidote to American blockbusters. Lynch makes you think.
'I like that in music too when artists leave space for you to interpret things your own way and tie it into your own life. I don’t like it when everything is spelt out for you. At the same time, you have to be careful you don’t go too far the other way, go completely up your own arse and be pretentious, y’know [she laughs disarmingly]? So it’s a fine line.'
Khan certainly doesn’t feel the need to join the dots for her listeners, to take them by the hand from A to B. Rather she lets us get from one point to the other in whatever circuitous fashion we desire. Still, if the meaning is open to interpretation and can be moulded to our personal experience, the songwriting is built upon a mastery of melody and the conventions of the craft.
'I challenge myself in the construction of the songs,' she asserts. 'I think there is a true skill in writing songs that people can remember. Maybe at some point in my career I would like to be more avant garde or try more experimental music, but on this album I definitely wanted to get a good balance between the freedom and sense of innovation, but also the more traditional songwriting structures. I wanted to see if I could write a good pop song, or a ballad.'
There is even, occasionally, a classic disco vibe. You can imagine certain of the songs slotted into the Studio 54 playlist between Chic’s ‘Good Times’ and Alicia Bridges’ ‘I Love The Nightlife’, the beautiful and the bold boogying, rock’s great and not so good indulging their licentious sides in some darkened corner, whilst Truman Capote ogles the semi-naked bar boys.
'When I went to New York I was thinking about the early Eighties and Arthur Baker and the slow dance disco stuff,' says Natasha, before flagging up the importance of more contemporary acts, not least Yeasayer whose Chris Keating and Ira Wolf Tuton appear on several tracks.
'The Chromatics, TV On The Radio with their hybrid music and then there’s M.I.A. and Gang Gang Dance and all that happening. And there are so many amazing ethnic dancehall mish mashes of musical cultures coming through – African, Indian and Jamaican.
'So New York was inspiring because of both its musical history and what was coming through with the contemporary bands. It inspired the beats and the synth sounds. Other synths and electronic sounds came from me asking to hire in synths and equipment that I knew The Cure had used, or Kraftwerk, and using modular synths and old Eighties synths [laughs]. I’m a geek and that to me was cool. At the same time I have this love for old, archaic instruments, the Marxophone, the harmonium and all that stuff.'
Another archaic object for which she expresses her love is Scott Walker. T he iconic singer was tempted out of his self-created, splendid isolation to contribute to the album’s closing track, ‘The Big Sleep’.
'I didn’t actually meet him face-to-face,' says Khan with a scintilla of disappointment. 'He’s so reclusive and shy, but it worked out brilliantly. We’d just email each other back and forth, it was very sweet.
'We’d exchange influences and I’d tell him I was reading Last Exit To Brooklyn [Hubert Selby Jr.’s notorious, initially banned, walk on the wild side of a novel] and how it inspired the song [‘The Big Sleep’] and it was kind of about a drag queen dying and her final performance and a bit about Pearl and he would ask me what I wanted him to do. We just went back and forth and there was a lot of mutual respect, two people just trying to make a song even better.
'And because I didn’t meet him, he was almost like this sweet apparition; he kind of appeared and then disappeared back into the dark. Which was appropriate for the song.'
Having exiled himself from celebrity at the height of his fame, Scott Walker is a modern day enigma, a Rubik’s Cube of a man, wreathed in mystery and impossible to work out.
'The modern world demands content and more content, the mystery get dragged off everyone,' she sighs. 'It’s amazing to have these icons who don’t give a shit, who come out only occasionally and then, if they come out with something beautiful, you are even more amazed. I feel really proud that he came out to do something for this.'
Walker is a rarity in this age of the micro celebrity. Natasha too has something of this quality about her, idiosyncratic by dint of her intelligence, charisma and sheer unwillingness to offer up every last detail of her life for the public’s edification. When I mention Twitter she is dumbfounded. 'I don’t know what that is, what is it?' she asks.
We provide a brief and, admittedly, unflattering description of the reportage joys of Twitter. 'Oh that’s so boring,' shrieks Natasha in disgust. 'Who cares? Go and read a book. I get really annoyed at things like that. I’m reading Ring of Bright Water [Gavin Maxwell’s 1960 autobiography] today. I love this book, it’s about this man in the Highlands in Scotland who raises this family of otters.
'He builds his own house, he is kind of a recluse, but it’s just so fascinating. I don’t want to be on YouTube for the latest thing, or go on Twitter or blogging, all that doesn’t interest me. There are so many magical, beautiful pieces of work out there for everyone to delve into.
'I remember when I was little and would read Roald Dahl and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales. I think reading good stories and well written English is such a lovely thing that we can do, and it’s such a shame that people spend their time telling the world that they’re away for a cheese sandwich, what a waste of life! I know I get on my soapbox about it, but education and being intellectual is something I rate, even if so many others don’t.'
AU can only applaud Natasha’s passion for the joys and self-improving properties of the humble book over the likes of Twitter and YouTube. However, further investigation does in fact reveal the existence of a Bat For Lashes Twitter. We can only suspect that it is operated by the PR, or marketing machinery at her record label, EMI. Of course, what they should be doing is celebrating the contrariness and otherness of Bat For Lashes, leaving the dull, shopping list life to others and charging Natasha with spiriting us out of the ordinary.
'When you look back at art over the history of time I think you’d see that it has been created primarily with the purpose of lifting people out of the everyday and mundane experience,' observes Natasha. 'It’s about elevating people. The original artworks were all about God and religion and lifting people up into that spiritual place, that’s what you get with those magnificent cathedral ceilings.
'I understand that need to look up and get lost in something beautiful and otherworldly. I think there is a need for that now more than ever. Everyday life can be a bit grim and a bit gritty and I’m not dismissing the need to reflect that and discuss that, that’s also really important to me as well, but to be lifted up to a higher resonate, a higher vibration of your person is a human need. It’s lovely to escape sometimes.'
Two Suns is out now on EMI.
This review is reproduced in association with AU magazine and I ♥ AU.com.