Bat for Lashes plays the Bowery Ballroom: an Interview with Natasha Khan
Friday, September 28, 2007
Bat for Lashes is the doppelgänger band ego of one of the leading millennial lights in British music, Natasha Khan. Caroline Weeks, Abi Fry and Lizzy Carey comprise the aurora borealis that backs this haunting, shimmering zither and glockenspiel peacock, and the only complaint coming from the audience at the Bowery Ballroom last Tuesday was that they could not camp out all night underneath these celestial bodies.
We live in the age of the lazy tendency to categorize the work of one artist against another, and Khan has had endless exultations as the next Björk and Kate Bush; Sixousie Sioux, Stevie Nicks, Sinead O'Connor, the list goes on until it is almost meaningless as comparison does little justice to the sound and vision of the band. "I think Bat For Lashes are beyond a trend or fashion band," said Jefferson Hack, publisher of Dazed & Confused magazine. "[Khan] has an ancient power...she is in part shamanic." She describes her aesthetic as "powerful women with a cosmic edge" as seen in Jane Birkin, Nico and Cleopatra. And these women are being heard. "I love the harpsichord and the sexual ghost voices and bowed saws," said Radiohead's Thom Yorke of the track Horse and I. "This song seems to come from the world of Grimm's fairytales."
Bat's debut album, Fur And Gold, was nominated for the 2007 Mercury Prize, and they were seen as the dark horse favorite until it was announced Klaxons had won. Even Ladbrokes, the largest gambling company in the United Kingdom, had put their money on Bat for Lashes. "It was a surprise that Klaxons won," said Khan, "but I think everyone up for the award is brilliant and would have deserved to win."
Natasha recently spoke with David Shankbone about art, transvestism and drug use in the music business.
DS: Do you have any favorite books?
- NK: [Laughs] I'm not the best about finishing books. What I usually do is I will get into a book for a period of time, and then I will dip into it and get the inspiration and transformation in my mind that I need, and then put it away and come back to it. But I have a select rotation of cool books, like Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés and Little Birds by Anaïs Nin. Recently, Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch.
- NK: I haven't seen it yet!
DS: Do you notice a difference between playing in front of British and American audiences?
- NK: The U.S. audiences are much more full of expression and noises and jubilation. They are like, "Welcome to New York, Baby!" "You're Awesome!" and stuff like that. Whereas in England they tend to be a lot more reserved. Well, the English are, but it is such a diverse culture you will get the Spanish and Italian gay guys at the front who are going crazy. I definitely think in America they are much more open and there is more excitement, which is really cool.
DS: How many instruments do you play and, please, include the glockenspiel in that number.
- NK: [Laughs] I think the number is limitless, hopefully. I try my hand at anything I can contribute; I only just picked up the bass, really—
DS: --I have a great photo of you playing the bass.
- NK: I don't think I'm very good...
DS: You look cool with it!
- NK: [Laughs] Fine. The glockenspiel...piano, mainly, and also the harp. Guitar, I like playing percussion and drumming. I usually speak with all my drummers so that I write my songs with them in mind, and we'll have bass sounds, choir sounds, and then you can multi-task with all these orchestral sounds. Through the magic medium of technology I can play all kinds of sounds, double bass and stuff.
DS: Do you design your own clothes?
- NK: All four of us girls love vintage shopping and charity shops. We don't have a stylist who tells us what to wear, it's all very much our own natural styles coming through. And for me, personally, I like to wear jewelery. On the night of the New York show that top I was wearing was made especially for me as a gift by these New York designers called Pepper + Pistol. And there's also my boyfriend, who is an amazing musician—
DS: —that's Will Lemon from Moon and Moon, right? There is such good buzz about them here in New York.
- NK: Yes! They have an album coming out in February and it will fucking blow your mind! I think you would love it, it's an incredible masterpiece. It's really exciting, I'm hoping we can do a crazy double unfolding caravan show, the Bat for Lashes album and the new Moon and Moon album: that would be really theatrical and amazing! Will prints a lot of my T-shirts because he does amazing tapestries and silkscreen printing on clothes. When we play there's a velvety kind of tapestry on the keyboard table that he made. So I wear a lot of his things, thrift store stuff, old bits of jewelry and antique pieces.
DS: You are often compared to Björk and Kate Bush; do those constant comparisons tend to bother you as an artist who is trying to define herself on her own terms?
- NK: No, I mean, I guess that in the past it bothered me, but now I just feel really confident and sure that as time goes on my musical style and my writing is taking a pace of its own, and I think in time the music will speak for itself and people will see that I'm obviously doing something different. Those women are fantastic, strong, risk-taking artists—
DS: —as are you—
- NK: —thank you, and that's a great tradition to be part of, and when I look at artists like Björk and Kate Bush, I think of them as being like older sisters that have come before; they are kind of like an amazing support network that comes with me.
DS: I'd imagine it's preferable to be considered the next Björk or Kate Bush instead of the next Britney.
- NK: [Laughs] Totally! Exactly! I mean, could you imagine—oh, no I'm not going to try to offend anyone now! [Laughs] Let's leave it there.
DS: Does music feed your artwork, or does you artwork feed your music more? Or is the relationship completely symbiotic?
- NK: I think it's pretty back-and-forth. I think when I have blocks in either of those area, I tend to emphasize the other. If I'm finding it really difficult to write something I know that I need to go investigate it in a more visual way, and I'll start to gather images and take photographs and make notes and make collages and start looking to photographers and filmmakers to give me a more grounded sense of the place that I'm writing about, whether it's in my imagination or in the characters. Whenever I'm writing music it's a very visual place in my mind. It has a location full of characters and colors and landscapes, so those two things really compliment each other, and they help the other one to blossom and support the other. They are like brother and sister.
DS: When you are composing music, do you see notes and words as colors and images in your mind, and then you put those down on paper?
- NK: Yes. When I'm writing songs, especially lately because I think the next album has a fairly strong concept behind it and I'm writing the songs, really imagining them, so I'm very immersed into the concept of the album and the story that is there through the album. It's the same as when I'm playing live, I will imagine I see a forest of pine trees and sky all around me and the audience, and it really helps me. Or I'll just imagine midnight blue and emerald green, those kind of Eighties colors, and they help me.
DS: Is it always pine trees that you see?
- NK: Yes, pine trees and sky, I guess.
DS: What things in nature inspire you?
- NK: I feel drained thematically if I'm in the city too long. I think that when I'm in nature—for example, I went to Big Sur last year on a road trip and just looking up and seeing dark shadows of trees and starry skies really gets me and makes me feel happy. I would sit right by the sea, and any time I have been a bit stuck I will go for a long walk along the ocean and it's just really good to see vast horizons, I think, and epic, huge, all-encompassing visions of nature really humble you and give you a good sense of perspective and the fact that you are just a small particle of energy that is vibrating along with everything else. That really helps.
DS: Are there man-made things that inspire you?
- NK: Things that are more cultural, like open air cinemas, old Peruvian flats and the Chelsea Hotel. Funny old drag queen karaoke bars...
DS: I photographed some of the famous drag queens here in New York. They are just such great creatures to photograph; they will do just about anything for the camera. I photographed a famous drag queen named Miss Understood who is the emcee at a drag queen restaurant here named Lucky Cheng's. We were out in front of Lucky Cheng's taking photographs and a bus was coming down First Avenue, and I said, "Go out and stop that bus!" and she did! It's an amazing shot.
- NK: Oh. My. God.
DS: If you go on her Wikipedia article it's there.
- NK: That's so cool. I'm really getting into that whole psychedelic sixties and seventies Paris Is Burning and Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. Things like The Cockettes. There seems to be a bit of a revolution coming through that kind of psychedelic drag queen theater.
DS: There are just so few areas left where there is natural edge and art that is not contrived. It's taking a contrived thing like changing your gender, but in the backdrop of how that is still so socially unacceptable.
- NK: Yeah, the theatrics and creativity that go into that really get me. I'm thinking about The Fisher King...do you know that drag queen in The Fisher King? There's this really bad and amazing drag queen guy in it who is so vulnerable and sensitive. He sings these amazing songs but he has this really terrible drug problem, I think, or maybe it's a drink problem. It's so bordering on the line between fabulous and those people you see who are so in love with the idea of beauty and elevation and the glitz and the glamor of love and beauty, but then there's this really dark, tragic side. It's presented together in this confusing and bewildering way, and it always just gets to me. I find it really intriguing.
DS: How are you received in the Pakistani community?
- NK: [Laughs] I have absolutely no idea! You should probably ask another question, because I have no idea. I don't have contact with that side of my family anymore.
DS: When you see artists like Pete Doherty or Amy Winehouse out on these suicidal binges of drug use, what do you think as a musician? What do you get from what you see them go through in their personal lives and with their music?
- NK: It's difficult. The drugs thing was never important to me, it was the music and expression and the way he delivered his music, and I think there's a strange kind of romantic delusion in the media, and the music media especially, where they are obsessed with people who have terrible drug problems. I think that's always been the way, though, since Billie Holiday. The thing that I'm questioning now is that it seems now the celebrity angle means that the lifestyle takes over from the actual music. In the past people who had musical genius, unfortunately their personal lives came into play, but maybe that added a level of romance, which I think is pretty uncool, but, whatever. I think that as long as the lifestyle doesn't precede the talent and the music, that's okay, but it always feels uncomfortable for me when people's music goes really far and if you took away the hysteria and propaganda of it, would the music still stand up? That's my question. Just for me, I'm just glad I don't do heavy drugs and I don't have that kind of problem, thank God. I feel that's a responsibility you have, to present that there's a power in integrity and strength and in the lifestyle that comes from self-love and assuredness and positivity. I think there's a real big place for that, but it doesn't really get as much of that "Rock n' Roll" play or whatever.
DS: Is it difficult to come to the United States to play considering all the wars we start?
- NK: As an English person I feel equally as responsible for that kind of shit. I think it is a collective consciousness that allows violence and those kinds of things to continue, and I think that our governments should be ashamed of themselves. But at the same time, it's a responsibility of all of our countries, no matter where you are in the world to promote a peaceful lifestyle and not to consciously allow these conflicts to continue. At the same time, I find it difficult to judge because I think that the world is full of shades of light and dark, from spectrums of pure light and pure darkness, and that's the way human nature and nature itself has always been. It's difficult, but it's just a process, and it's the big creature that's the world; humankind is a big creature that is learning all the time. And we have to go through these processes of learning to see what is right.
- "Halo 3, Bat for Lashes, and Slavery in the U.S." — , September 25, 2007
- Alexis Petridis. "Amy Winehouse's hair, Bat For Lashes' headbands, Beth Ditto's leotards ... they're known for their music, but their styles are making waves, too" — , September 15, 2007
- Helen Pidd. "Klaxons are the big noise on Mercury awards night" — , September 5, 2007
- Helen Pidd. "The vocalist from Brighton who may yet pip Amy Winehouse for the Mercury" — , July 20, 2007