Bat for Lashes: Bat Power
She sprinkles her haunting chamber pop with Karate Kid references and landed a reclusive legend for a cameo. But is Bat for Lashes' Natasha Khan ready to take flight?
Natasha Khan is in the middle of a shopping spree at a vintage-clothing boutique in Manhattan’s East Village when she gets some bad news from the store’s owner: A remake of one of her favorite movies, The Karate Kid, is in the works.”Noooo!” she moans from inside the dressing room, where she has been debating the purchase of a pair of white, high-heeled ankle boots. (“I’m not sure how Stevie Nicks I want to go,” the singer muses, “although I love Stevie Nicks.”) Also, according to the proprietor, the new version will star “somebody crazy.” “What, like Lindsay Lohan?” Khan asks.Try Will Smith’s son, Jaden.Khan grimaces.
Like many of her beloved pop-cultural touchstones — among them Pat Benatar and The Wonder Years‘ Winnie Cooper — the film is important to her because it reminds her of the ’80s, an era she often draws on for inspiration when writing and performing as Bat for Lashes. In 2007, for example, her mesmerizing video for the Phil Spector–esque “What’s a Girl to Do?” featured a gang of BMX bikers in hoodies doing acrobatic stunts while following Khan through the woods — a nod to E.T. and The Goonies.
Today, Khan is in search of the perfect wardrobe for her next YouTube sensation: a video for the awesome, Kate Bush–channeling single “Daniel,” off of Two Suns, her exquisite follow-up to 2006’s Fur & Gold. Though the song is actually named for Mr. Miyagi’s crane-kicking disciple, Khan wants the video to have a pugilistic vibe in the tradition of Rocky and Raging Bull. “I’m envisioning a big boxing ring and I’m fighting all of these guys,” she says, gamely throwing jabs in the mirror while modeling a sleeveless red sweatshirt. “We’ll be kissing and then punching. I want it to convey the desire you have to merge with someone that you love and the fine line between passion and violence.”
Interest in brutality of any kind is just about the last thing you’d expect from the 29-year-old Khan. She is disarmingly friendly, and her aesthetic choices — turquoise eye shadow and sparkly headbands — are about as intimidating as a My Little Pony doll. “But,” she continues, “instead of blood spurting out, there will be rainbows and glitter.” Now that’s more like it.
Yet despite the mystical tone and lyrics about wizards, “knights in crystal armor,” and other images she says psychedelic drugs are only marginally responsible for, Khan is, as she puts it, “struggling with some situations” on her records.
“Two Suns is about human relationships and the use of illusion to try to see beautiful things during a hard time,” she offers vaguely.
In other words, it’s a breakup album.
The Brighton, England–based Khan met Brooklyn musician Will Lemon in 2006 while recording Fur & Gold (which was nominated for the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Prize), but they eventually split in part because of her touring schedule. “I wanted to be able to come to New York and make a go of something that was really important to me,” she says quietly. “I was quite upset that I couldn’t.”
Normally, Khan is something of a pro at relationships, as evidenced by the fact that she dated her high school boyfriend for seven years. They played in a band together, and she used to ditch school (the strict, Christian kind) in bucolic Hertfordshire, England, so they could go to Cure concerts and party all night in nearby London. “I think I took my [final] exams when I was still drunk,” she recalls, laughing.
And when a relationship, any relationship, is damaged, she finds ways to cope: Fur & Gold is a gorgeously uneasy collection of piano- and harpsichord-driven songs partially about her father abandoning her family for his native Pakistan when she was 11. So it wasn’t that she didn’t make a similar effort to deal with her romantic estrangement; by 2008, she’d started spending more time in New York and figured out a novel, therapeutic coping mechanism.
“My name is Pearl and I love you the best way I know how,” she sings on the soaring piano ballad “Siren Song,” introducing her Two Suns persona. She doesn’t like the term alter ego — especially now that journalists keep using it to ask if there’s any similarity to Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce (her response: “Hell, no!”). “Pearl is my playful but quite desperate attempt to fit into New York,” she says, pausing to look through a rack of Victorian-style nighties. “She’s not a marketing strategy.”
Pearl was the tougher of their two personalities and, Khan says, “better at denying sadness.” She’d served her purpose: Album closer “The Big Sleep,” which marks the death of Pearl, was written even before Khan and Lemon broke up last year, and she now thinks of it as “a self-fulfilling prophecy.” It’s a thrill-is-gone torch song for which she appealed, via e-mail, to the famously reclusive orchestral-pop legend Scott Walker.
“I felt it needed a low, beautiful, male voice,” says Khan later, over dinner at a French restaurant. “I know he’s shy, but I wrote to him because I figured he would get what I’m trying to say about wanting to strike upon something outside your own experience. And he did.”
Now, having moved on — and back to England — she seems genuinely excited to begin the cycle again. She practically glows when the subject of last summer’s tour with Radiohead comes up. “They said we were the best band they’ve ever had supporting them,” she enthuses.
And she believes the new album will establish that “there are multifaceted elements to me.” Its lush sound belongs very much to Khan, who acted as coproducer and primary musician. She plays, among other instruments, a 200-year-old harmonium and a 19th-century harpsichord-thingy called a Marxophone, as well as guitar and piano. But where Fur & Gold, which has sold 100,000 copies worldwide, was an eccentric, radio-unfriendly record, Two Suns is both stirring and accessible. “I wanted to challenge myself to write something catchy,” she explains between bites of escargot. “I wanted there to be more beat-driven songs.”
“She has the talent to be considered on Björk’s level, and I think this record will take her there,” says Yeasayer’s Chris Keating, who contributed to Two Suns‘ “Pearl’s Dream.” “She’s really hard to pin down: One minute she’s singing in this spooky, goth way, and then all of a sudden there’s ‘Daniel,’ this timeless pop song.”
With the night winding down, Khan gathers her purchases (she sprung for the Stevie boots after all) and wonders aloud if this will be the last of her unhappy albums. “I feel like the next record is going to be about complete contentedness,” she says. Her reasoning is simple.
“It’s a psychic premonition.”