Q&A / Music: Bat For Lashes

In the October issue of Dazed & Confused, Natasha Khan talks about two-day trips, posing naked and keeping a nice bed of dahlias

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Back in 2009, I interviewed Natasha Khan for a Dazed cover feature about her second album as Bat for Lashes. We were out in the Californian desert, staying in the famous hippy mecca of Joshua Tree, and there was a lot of talk of cosmic influences, mystical alter egos and astrological alignments. Fast-forward to 2012, and her forthcoming album The Haunted Man is less elliptical, bursting with a clear confidence and drawing on homely, historical references while still retaining the otherworldy romanticism familiar to her admirers. Having recently relocated to London from her Brighton hemp-and-henna hometown, how is this twice Mercury-shortlisted pop star with little interest in media or fashion games preparing to make an impact on our hyper-accelerated, celebrity-soaked cultural landscape? By gardening, obviously. 

Check out the Bat For Lashes - All Your Gold (Noze Remix) exclusively here:

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Dazed Digital: In 2009, we talked a lot about how inspired you were by the cosmos, but where is this record coming from?
Natasha Khan:
I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to stay in England for this record cos I’ve been moving around like a crazy person for so long. I went back to my old university and asked my art teacher whether she’d have some sessions with me. She recommended loads of books and visual artists to look at and I just started exploring the ancestral kind of aspect to the record, the whole English roots thing. On top of that, I started gardening at Charleston House, which is Virginia Woolf’s sister’s (Vanessa Bell) house in the Sussex countryside. I just really wanted to be out in nature. It’s very grounding, very magical...

DD: Have you got mad horticultural skills?
Natasha Khan:
I have a fantastic dahlia-bed! So rock’n’roll. (laughs)

DD: Do you feel you don’t have to hide behind alter egos and big concepts any more?
Natasha Khan:
I’ve grown to the point where I’ve sort of shedded that need to dress something up and present something through a filter, and it feels much more direct and raw and honest. And I’ve also noticed a lot of, well, token mysticism around, and it’s got a little bit, um, boring for me. I know what I’m like inside and so I don’t need to show it on the outside. I suppose that’s my test on this one. 

DD: Was it a deliberate challenge to do it without the props and big concepts?
Natasha Khan:
Exactly. Will it still be beautiful and magical if I don’t dress it up in that way? And am I confident enough with myself to present it with none of that and still communicate something deep and beautiful? We live in such an age of symbols and sexuality and women, especially the way they’re presenting themselves, it’s all Photoshopped and babes and glowing skin and lip gloss. 

DD: Why did you want to be naked on the cover of The Haunted Man?
Natasha Khan:
There’s not much reverb with all the instruments, it just sounds a bit more direct. I thought, how do I feel about glitter and makeup and feathers, and I was just like, I don’t need to do that any more. I’m over it. And I started thinking back to seeing pictures of Patti Smith or like, PJ Harvey.

DD: Was the photographer, Ryan McGinley, a natural fit? There’s an honesty and spirituality to his work...
Natasha Khan:
This album’s about family and relationships and generations and soldiers. I was speaking to Ryan about nature and nakedness and families, and I’d done this Native American medicine ceremony where I asked to go back to my ancestry, and did this crazy two-day trip. I met Ryan in New York just after I went through this really epic experience with this Native American chief. 

DD: Was that an ayahuasca thing?
Natasha Khan:
There were about 50 people. We did the ceremony in New York City – this Native American chief and his wife led the ceremony and they talked us through it. Basically, you descend into the pits of any shadow-side of yourself, anything you’re trying to hide from yourself, and it’s fucking terrifying. All of your stuff, you have to face it, and you’re sick as well, so it’s quite a physical purging as well as a mental one. It was really powerful, it definitely helped me get clear about what I’m doing. I felt a bit lost before that.

DD: How was writing with (Lana Del Ray co-writer) Justin Parker? Did you both just bring your Ivor Novellos along and stick them on the piano?
Natasha Khan:
Like jousting with massive willies! No, he hadn’t got his yet. I always have mine with me, of course. (laughs) Anyway, I’ve always been quite snobby about that co-writing thing, but I did realise that there was a sort of gap. I have been listening a lot to The Carpenters and Neil Diamond, Elton John, and thinking like, ‘God, it’d be great to write a sort of subversive, alternative ballad,’ like Lou Reed does so well with ‘Perfect Day’. And I really loved ‘Video Games’ – at the time it hadn’t really got as big, but it’s a classic song, you can’t deny it.

DD: How did you come to work with Beck?
Natasha Khan:
Obviously, we collaborated on the Twilight song (‘Let’s Get Lost’), and that was mainly by email. And then I’d written a bunch of songs and felt a bit isolated with them, ‘cos I don’t have a band to go into rehearsals with and bounce things off, so went over to stay with him for three weeks with his kids and his wife. He’s got a lovely house on the coast in Malibu, like down the cliff to the beach and chickens, and a studio in his house, and a summer house in the garden that I stayed in.

DD: You’ve moved to London. When we last talked, you were resisting that. You didn’t want photos of you falling out of clubs with your pants hanging out...
Natasha Khan:
But I don’t do that bit anyway! We have crazy house parties with very close people that I love. I can’t be bothered to court that thing. I get invited to premieres and I’ve been to a few fashion shows and stuff, but I always get really bored. I feel quite awkward. You have to wear something by them and it all feels like, ‘Why am I doing free advertising for you?’, do you know what I mean? It’s just a bit weird.

DD: What’s this about an epic dance film for the album’s title track?
Natasha Khan:
I love film and the idea of directing. The Haunted Man is about communication barriers between men and women, and in that song it’s a woman’s wait for her husband to come back from war. The vision for me was of a group of men and women on the opposite sides of two cliffs, trying to move or sing to each other and communicate, but they’re kind of misfiring.

DD: In the last few years, the media have developed a near pathological obsession with solo female artists.
Natasha Khan:
I had noticed that there’s a lot more female musicians about, and I think the good ones will prevail. Sometimes there’s a flood of things but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all brilliant. I still like current music, I really liked Jai Paul’s first single. And I loved the Drive soundtrack, that slow, sexy electronic, synthesised LA romanticism. I’ll keep in touch with what’s happening, but I’d say that a lot of my influences are filmic and literature-based, and photographic and paintings. 

DD: Do you get lumped with other artists the more you become part of the mainstream?
Natasha Khan:
But I don’t feel like I am part of the mainstream... I meet people who are fans who’ll come say ‘hi’, but generally people never know who I am so I don’t feel like I’ve really become famous or anything.

DD: Would you like to be famous?
Natasha Khan:
I would like to be successful so I can keep making new work. I want this album to do well so I can make my Haunted Man film, not so I can go out with Ryan Gosling or whatever. I want to do really well so I can keep going and put my success into making bigger or bolder things. At the end of the day I like having some recognition and some respect. You know, my ego is assuaged by having an Ivor Novello here or there! (laughs)

DD: And you can write to Scott Walker and say, ‘Would you like to sing a song with me?’, and he says yes.
Natasha Khan:
It’s power, isn’t it? The way you wield your power is about using it to afford you opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have. So I’m very creatively ambitious and I just hope people notice it, that’s all I want.

DD: In our last feature on you, Alexander McQueen said, ‘I like people who are not safe and have depth. It’s people like her who should form this generation’s icons: people who are risk-takers, who are, most of all, individual.’ How does that make you feel?
Natasha Khan:
Bloody hell! It’s obviously very touching, it makes me feel quite emotional. I just think that’s all anyone trying to make work can ask for really. And the fact that he’d worked with Björk so much, and some really iconic, amazing people – I’m flattered... I hope that I grow up to be someone that he could look down on and be like, ‘Oh, well done, Natasha’s done it.’ I still feel like I’ve got to prove myself but that’s really nice. Thanks, Lee.

The Haunted Man is out on October 15 on Parlophone

This interview first appeared in the October issue of Dazed & Confused

Photo by Ryan McGinley

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