Year of the bat
“I look like a granny in the countryside today,” laughs Natasha Khan from within a peach knitted jumper and a sensible skirt. She could pass for 22 but the girl they call Bat For Lashes has now been 30 for two weeks – just another reason why 2009 will be a year for her to remember. The ‘rural nan’ look isn’t Natasha over-compensating for her recent birthday though, but rather, she says, because “it’s bloody freezing in Brighton.” Whitechapel, east London, isn’t much better.
This photo shoot and interview has been a long time coming – the whole of 2009 in fact. After Natasha’s studio time stood in our way long before ‘Two Suns’’ April release, Dazed & Confused beat us to the prize with a shoot in California’s Joshua Tree Desert; the place where Natasha conceived her planetary second album – an idealistic landscape hardly for countryside grannies. Then there were the never-ending tours, which meant we’d have to wait until Bat For Lashes won the Mercury Prize in September. Only she didn’t win.
“I suppose being nominated for the Mercury for the second time was a great highlight of the year,” she says “because I’d been quite heavily involved in the production of this record. That’s really important to me. It was a highlight being nominated but a disappointment not winning again, because I got disappointed both years, so it’s like, ‘Fine!’” She feigns a diva strop and lets out a short burst of laughter.
She says her money was on Florence and The Machine to do the spoiling that night. Ours was on The Horrors, if anyone, but we both agree that while the Mercury Prize is something of an honour, its political agenda has become impossible to ignore.
“It doesn’t upset me that Speech Debelle won,” she explains “because I really liked some of her tracks. It wasn’t about not winning but there’s definitely a feeling that they’re very tactical, instead of choosing who you actually think they might want to, and that upset me because I think you should just go with your heart, and it shouldn’t be political, it should be about the work. I feel like each year they just award it to someone who’s controversial and subversive, which in a way is cool because…” Natasha pauses for thought. “I mean, I shouldn’t comment on it, being part of it, but the concept of an award in general, and marking art, doesn’t sit very well with me. I think that getting nominated is the prize, really, because your album is getting highlighted. Winning is a farce.”
Natasha shouldn’t comment, and yet she does. It’s as if she can’t help herself. Her innermost secrets seem to inevitably wind up on record, and similarly her uncensored thoughts are voiced when discussing her music and all that surrounds it. Typical pop star etiquette is of no concern, simply because Natasha Khan hates the notion of being a pop star.
“I think our obsession with celebrity is bullshit,” she says. “Don’t go for a job being a celebrity or famous. If I hadn’t done this I’d have been a marine biologist, or perhaps a filmmaker.
“Earlier on I enjoyed having my picture taken – there is a little girl inside of me who loves that – but I wouldn’t say I’m a massive attention seeking, diva-ish person. I could easily have enjoyed life being a pearl diver or something. There are loads of things I could think to do,” she excites as if she might just do them “so it doesn’t matter what you do just as long as you’re not resentful once you have your midlife crisis. Hopefully kids growing up now will get interested in politics and the world and ecology. Like, David Attenborough I think is the coolest person in the world.”
Perhaps it’s no wonder then that for ‘Two Suns’ – a record with a central theme of twos, be it two different landscapes, two conflicting emotions, two separate worlds – Natasha drafted in a second personality to play the attention seeking extrovert. The alter ego of Pearl is a peroxide anti-Khan, far less sincere than her creator and far more at ease with living her life in the public eye and partying nearer the gossip columns.
In a taxi from photography studio to coffee shop, Natasha says how she’d like to accept certain invitations to art exhibitions and fashion shows (and she receives a lot of RSVPs), were it not for the red carpets that accompany them. Her spare time – especially throughout this year – is thin on the ground, so she prefers to spend it with old friends, not draped around a Little Boots as she leaves the launch party of Guitar Hero 5.
Natasha glances over a cup of mint tea. “I find [‘being famous’] harder now, actually,” she says. “The more successful you are, the more you invite backlashes and the more people have ideas about you. I feel more vulnerable the more I get known. There are more opportunities there, and I’d like to take some of them for enjoyment. Y’know, I’d love to get to a point where I can meet Spike Jonze or something. That would be so exciting to meet artistic, amazing people – that would be a great perk to my job, but in terms of interacting with trendy, cool people and going out for nights, it doesn’t sit well with me because I don’t believe it. I’ve got really great friends who are artists and musicians in their own right but don’t parade it around. I’ve got people who mean a lot to me and they’re the people I like to spend time with, because I don’t get much time anyway. If I am going to lose the plot and party really hard I do it in my own private way. The idea of being an exhibitionist about it just seems a bit weird. I love to stay up all night, dance and be wild but that’s my secret, that’s nothing to do with the album or music.”
Digging around in a bulging suitcase, Natasha pulls out various garments and proposes different shots to our photographer. Red, we agree, is quite Christmas-y and apt for the temperature if not the month of November. She then toys with some white eye makeup and is ready, having arrived ten minutes ago. Like she says, she’s not “a diva-ish person”.
At any one time there’s just six of us (including Natasha) present – no stylists, makeup artists, life gurus or swarms of assistants and assistants to the assistants. “I much prefer it like this,” she says. “It’s a lot more relaxed and personal; I don’t like it when there’s hundreds of people running around.” Although I now doubt it, she could have been being polite. Either way, all six of us (excluding, perhaps, her press officer and Natasha herself) have our Natasha Khan crushes confirmed. Apart from looking like she does, her hushed speaking voice is as alluring as you might hope it to be. She’s not shy but quietly confident, rather angelic and completely magnetic. Somehow she’s also totally normal; the famous singer who insists her job doesn’t prevent her from “going down to Waitrose in my slippers or walking around town without makeup on.” Her calm, self-assured confidence isn’t a result of the Mercury-nominated ‘Two Suns’, but rather a reason for the album’s success. She did, after all, write and record it behind doors closed to even her record label.
“I started this album deciding that I wasn’t going to compromise anything and went completely with my own vision,” she explains. “I went to the recording studio and told the record company that they weren’t allowed to come. I got one email about feedback, asking me to drop certain tracks, and I said no. So I started off with a little bit of a thing thinking, well, this had better work because the record company were like, ‘well, you’ve been so stubborn,’ so it was all on my head.”
And what did they think when you first played them the finished album?
“I wasn’t there, but I got some texts. They said, ‘Natasha, you’ve made a great album.’ But there were a few mutterings around like, ‘Natasha you’ve made a great album, but what are we going to do with it? Radio aren’t going to play it, y’know?’ They were happy for me on an artistic level, but I made their job a lot harder.”
The label [Parlophone], it seemed, must have missed track 4, ‘Daniel’. But not for long.
A rich and flourishing pop song of ghostly wails and Fleetwood Mac melodies, it was (and is) Bat For Lashes at her most electronic yet. And her most accessible. And her most ready for the radio. But while ‘Daniel’ swooned on the surface as if in a 1975 carefree disco, its undercurrent – true to ‘Two Suns’’ ying/yang, light/dark core – remained sombre and ambiguous, the perfect single to invade the mainstream with while keeping Bat For Lashes’ credibility in tact.
“I was a little bit concerned that people might think I’d sold out,” remembers Natasha now “but in the context of the album I felt like that song really had its place, and it’s really special to me. Even though a lot of the artists that I like are quite underground, I have a song-writing sensibility – I like to write a good chorus. And I didn’t want to shy away from that just to be cool on purpose. I thought, well, if I’m going to write a pop song, put a beat on it and make it lush. I could have dumbed it down and done it on a one string violin, or something, but it would have been wasted, and to be totally honest the record company did say, ‘Natasha, we need to use this single to hopefully get you on the radio, because otherwise this campaign could fall flat on its face and you’ve done all that hard work’. And it’s by no means a cheesy pop song – it’s quite dark. I’m glad. I tried to write a song that teenage girls could sing into their hair brushes, and I did that.”
Along with ‘Daniel’, the rest of ‘Two Suns’ plays like a personal diary, set to often beautiful and poignant music, because that’s exactly what it is. With the exception of ‘Pearl’s Dream’ (which scans opposing landscapes to rising, semi-euphoric synthesisers), nothing quite touches the driving pop sensibilities of ‘Daniel’ but no track feels less autobiographical or ‘lived in’ than the next. Perhaps that’s why Natasha Khan has no problem discussing all things ‘Two Suns’ as openly and passionately as she does, holding your gaze with her big brown eyes. As Bat For Lashes, she’s played over 200 shows this year, to audiences in their thousands around the world – what’s one more person in an east London coffee shop?
As with all great albums though, questions about them are pretty pointless. Thankfully, Natasha Khan is everything I hoped the creator of our album of the year to be – modest, funny, passionate, honest. And if she had turned up snapping at an entourage that couldn’t move quick enough, boasting how she wrote this record “for a laugh”, it would have certainly been a huge disappointment, but ‘Two Suns’ could probably weather that. It really is that good.
Any criticism that followed ‘Daniel’ largely towed the line of “why aren’t there more songs on the album like that one?”. But to want ten more instant pop hits was to miss the point of ‘Two Suns’, and indeed of Bat For Lashes. “When I started, I set out to make an album that was vocally stronger than the first,” Natasha explains “with more lush electronic sounds and tribal rhythms.” The opening ‘Glass’ almost crams all of that in within four and a half minutes. Beginning with an a cappella, ethereal reading from the Hebrew Bible, it quickly brags Bat For Lashes’ vocal range, from low and breathy to a high falsetto that has had critics banding a Kate Bush comparison around more than ever this year. African drums – attributed to Yeasayer who helped develop ‘Two Sun’’s bass and beats throughout Natasha’s time spent in Brooklyn – then seem to rumble and tumble as they wish, neither playing the same tune nor a completely different one. It’s world music meets icy ghost story about watchmen and emerald cities.
The following ‘Sleep Alone’ first taps into a desire to introduce electronics. Held together with a deep, synth bassline that’s soon joined by electronic drum clasps and fleeting keyboard chords, it also features maracas, the occasional flurry of piano and continual string plucks. Initially you’d be forgiven for mistaking its melodies as a close relative to ‘Fur & Gold’’s ‘Trophy’, but on closer inspection it’s a far more complicated beast.
‘Daniel’ didn’t so much promise a new populist Bat For Lashes, but rather a more ambitious one, and, in straight piano ballad ‘Travelling Woman’ and the extra-sad ‘Siren Song’, a record that can at times be uncomfortably personal to its creator.
“For me, personally, it’s been a year which has drawn to a close a period of time that’s been quite hard on a personal level, and quite unhappy,” Natasha confesses. “People are like, ‘you’ve had the most amazing year,’ and I am thankful for all of the success and support I’ve had, but on a personal level it’s been quite hard. I’ve had to fight my way through certain things, and been feeling quite vulnerable a lot of the time, but in terms of the success of the record, it couldn’t have gone better, because I didn’t play the game really. People might think that I did, but I just did what was fun.”
And once you’d made ‘Two Suns’, can you remember how you felt releasing it?
“I was actually excited. I was proud… you definitely go through ups and downs in terms of self doubt, and I think all artists go through bouts of nervous attacks of worry and sleepless nights, but by the time it’s done you’ve bloody worked on it for so long you just have to let it go. For me there was an element of excitement and ‘I’m so over it I don’t care’, and then there’s other bits of, ‘oh God, what if people think I’m rubbish or have sold out or whatever?’.
“I find it interesting with music because with all the blogs and Internet stuff, and Twitter, and newspapers, and magazines, there’s so much judgement that is happening continually throughout your career and I think for me to just get through this year without being a nervous wreck, I feel quite proud of that. I’ve felt quite hurt sometimes and bombarded, but I think you need to build a protection against that, because we’re the artists that spend all year touring and taking our work to people and trying to make the world a better place, if you’re doing it properly, but every five minutes you’ve got a review, like this out of live, ten people reviewing every show you do, then you release a single and that’s judged, then they review the special edition. So it’s not like you put an album out and if it gets good reviews then phew you can relax, it’s constant, and for me the work comes from my heart. It’s me!”
Yesterday was Natasha Khan’s first day off in as long as she can remember, and tomorrow she’ll have her life back once again for an unthinkable two months. After that she’ll scratch an itch of Chris Martin’s when she’ll tour South America with Coldplay. The millionaire frontman has been personally telephoning Natasha – also for as long as she can remember – but her own touring commitments have until now prevented her from sharing a stage with one of the world’s biggest bands. After that, she’ll be able to finally get back to where she’s happiest.
“The bit for me is the conception of the record and the writing and recording. I’m in heaven. It’s hard but I love it. And then you have to do what is kinda the antithesis of creativity, which is selling your wares, wheeling yourself out every night and doing the same thing. Saying that, this year I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve felt like I’m going through the motions because I’m so tired, and we’ve done over 200 shows. But it is hard. You can’t pretend that being on tour for 9 months isn’t gruelling because it is. Sometimes on the bus I’d cry myself to sleep because I missed home and I wanted to make new work. I want to write, I want to feel passionate and inspired, I want to research things in books. That for me – studying and knowledge and feeling my brain working – is what being alive is all about.”
I’ve never met anyone quite like Natasha Khan before. Her reluctance to be ‘a star’ is refreshingly rare in itself, but she also talks about her music like all musicians should. She refers to it as her ‘art’ or ‘work’ and steers clear of acting unimpressed or effortless at what she does. It’s not as if she bounces off the walls screaming her excitement, but you can tell that inside that peach knitted jumper she has quietly slogged away to get where she is today, and she’s proud of that. Perhaps that’s the key to ‘Two Suns’ being our favourite record of the year – because nothing gets the job done like good old fashion hard work.