Q&A with Natasha Kahn of Bat For Lashes
The panoramic songwriting of Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes has gained the attention of critics and peers alike and lead to her recurring opening gigs on the 2008 Radiohead tour. Drawing on her rich imagination for inspiration, Khan's songs tap into the language and imagery of collective myths, ancient and modern, to tell stories that remind us that our life experiences far from pedestrian if you know how to look at it from the proper perspective. We recently had a chance to chat with Khan at length about her creative background, the artistic underpinnings of her craft and how she came to work with Scott Walker on her latest album, Two Suns. Read the full interview after the jump.
Westword (Tom Murphy): What was it about the work of Steve Reich and Susan Hiller that made an impact on you?
Natasha Khan: I discovered both of those artists when I was doing my degree in music and visual arts. I was twenty or 21 years old and I guess up until that time I knew a lot about certain types of music and certain types of artists that were more mainstream. Studying art in school you learn about the Cubists and Picasso et cetera. Suddenly I was introduced to people like Susan Hiller who did installations works using audio and sounds. I remember a specific piece about using people's voices from all different parts of the world, whispering through small speakers about their experiences with UFOs. Almost strangely confessional and religious words kind of connecting something you couldn't see. It just start to occur in my mind that there were these other forms other forms of art that were kind of ceremonial, ritualistic, magical and strange.
Listening to Steve Reich was a similar experience. I like classical music but I think his music was like modern classical music but it had emotion and beautiful wind instruments. It reminded me of 70s film scores. It had amazing synth songs in strange timings. It opened my eyes to new ways of being creative.
WW: Did your stint at as a nursery school teacher give you fodder for your visualizations and then your music?
NK: Yeah. I finished my degree and then I had to pay the bills so I knew that while I was developing the music for the first album that I had to work. I got my qualification in childcare and working with kids with learning difficulties. I knew that when I went into that job that I wanted to create an album and that I wanted to be performing. When I was working with children it kind of filtered in. Hanging out with them, they're so free, still quite raw and connected to their emotions. They're spontaneous, playful and wild in a way. I think that was a nice thing for me because that first album and a lot of my degree has been about the artist's appropriation of childhood--the idea that there's a wild and ancient anima to all of us that is sometimes forgotten about in adulthood. That was a huge thing for me so I think working with children enhanced what I was doing musically.
WW: Why did you call your label She Bear Records and have you released any but your own record?
NK: I haven't been able to do that yet because of the funding, I guess. It's been quite hard to do other people's albums even though I want to. The reason I called it She Bear, I think there's a lot of references to animal imagery...I love to read about Native American mythology and folklore. I love fairy tales and storytelling and a lot of those archetypal stories from other countries like Inuit, or Indian, Native American or Aborigines or whatever you come across. There are lots of animals like totem animals that have characteristics and ways of behaving that human beings have learned from. At that time I was reading about bears and their relationships with each other and how they behave and I felt close, virtually, to bears.
WW: What is the significance of the title of your latest album, Two Suns?
NK: The album itself is all about twos. The theme of the album is duality, opposites, twins, couples of things - lovers, two countries across an ocean, night and day, the sun and the moon. I took that title from the from the first song on the album, "Glass." That song is almost like a condensed narrative of what we can come to expect throughout the album. It's kind of a fairy tale story of traveling across the ocean to this city of glass and how these two lovers have burned each other out by being too bright, too free and too creative to be able to orbit together. I called it Two Suns because it was a cosmic metaphor for a lot of more intimate, private and much bigger questions about duality.
WW: You made the video for "What's a Girl to Do?" Were the visuals inspired by anything beyond the song itself?
NK: When I made that video I sent out a brief to the video director that we approached. What I said is that I wanted to capture the feeling of epiphany from films I loved in my childhood like E.T., The Goonies and The Karate Kid and even Donnie Darko. I called them my "hoodie movies" because it's all boys with hoodies and usually at some point they'll all get on bikes and that's a symbolic reference to breaking out of their suburban trappings and going on this journey of self-discovery and this contact with the outside world as something mysterious, shocking, great and frightening. I really wanted the video to capture that exact feeling. Everyone came up with different narratives and complicated videos and Dougal Wilson came up with that thing of just me riding my bike and the boys come out and we put animal heads on. My illustrations of that time had people with animal heads. It brought in the Bat For Lashes visual symbols and it was a nice collaboration with the director.
WW: Why did you cover "Use Somebody" by Kings of Leon.
NK: [laughs] I don't know much of the Kings of Leon's music. I kind of like them and think they're cool. But it wasn't because it was my number one choice of something I'd like to cover. The other covers I've done have been of people who have touched me in a specific way. This time we were doing the Live Lounge on Radio One in England. You have to cover something that's been on the top charts in the last few months or something and you focus on something mainstream, I guess. They gave us a big long list of all the A-listed Radio One songs. To be honest, a lot of that stuff isn't my cup of tea. When I saw "Use Somebody" I remembered that when it came out I quite liked it and I thought the lyrics were interesting. So we did kind of a doomful, gothic, church organ version of that song.
WW: What songs have you covered previously?
NK: I've done covers of Tom Waits, a song called "Lonely" off of his first album [Closing Time]. We did an orchestral arrangement for it that I quite enjoyed. We also did This Mortal Coil, Neil Young and we did "A Forest" by The Cure for a Cure tribute album.
WW: You're clearly a multi-instrumentalist. What did you start out playing? What do you enjoy playing the most? And what do you hope to learn to play someday and why?
NK: I started out playing the piano at 9 or 10. I didn't do very well because my teacher wanted me to learn classical pieces and I was quite rebellious. I was really bad at reading music so in the end she would duet with me and helped me to learn understanding chords and improvisation. I did that for years and then I kind of taught myself guitar because I got obsessed with Nirvana and Kurt Cobain and grunge music. Around 13 or 14, I was playing electric guitar. It stayed that way until I started making this album and playing these songs, I progressed on to autoharp. I've played all sorts of things now. On this album I played drums and did drum programming, I did quite a lot of things on the production side. I played Hammond organ and harmonium. Ancient instruments I've collected over the years. I really like playing harp instruments and piano but I think the most fun thing to record is playing drums because I do like a kind of quite bad like Mo Tucker style playing drums thing. I'm probably not very good but I do rather enjoy it and I play drums quite a bit on the record.
I wish I had enough money to buy some amazing orchestral instruments like a celesta. I love playing the vibraphone but that's like a thousand pounds. It's got a lovely vibrato and it sounds creepy. I'd love to be able to play the strings but I'm not going to try and start learning that now because it would be too hard. But I think it's more about my appetite for acquiring different instruments and playing them and that's exciting to me.
WW: Scott Walker does guest vocals on "The Big Sleep." What inspired asking him to be a part of that song and how did it come about that he did those vocals?
NK: When I first wrote the song, which was long before I approached him, I had that low, kind of theatrical, androgynous, strange man vocal in my mind. I tried to emulate it myself by singing really low and I tried to pitch the voice down but I wasn't satisfied with the sound. I then came to realize it was a voice exactly like Scott Walker's that I could hear in my head and felt was missing. I was nervous for a while and decided to go for it and I approached his manager and asked if Scott would be interested in singing on it. Scott Walker contacted me and we had an email exchange back and forth talking about the themes, the characters, the inspirations behind the song. He asked me questions about what I wanted and how I wanted it to sound. It was a really lovely, quite clearly creative interaction. He went away and sent me the finished vocal and it's really amazing. It was humble, gentle and easy. We connected in a creative way. It wasn't like I just wanted someone really cool on my record that I like. I felt that that's the person for the job and he turned out to be perfect.
WW: Your cover art reminds me of the illustrations I've seen of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Though your music is imaginative and mythological and that book is almost the opposite. Who designed the cover and is there anything in particular you're trying to convey with that imagery?
NK: It was my design. The front and back cover I did illustrations of and then I assembled a team of people who I thought would be able to construct that vision. The drawings were initially inspired partly by Mexican Day of The Dead. Also imagery of the Virgin Mary, the ancient female icon kind of thing. There was also a kind of diorama, natural history museum glass case image. Religious themes and Frida Kahlo kind of decorative art ideas. The front cover represents the desert and the back cover represents the city and obviously it's me in the character of Pearl, perhaps it's New York. Each of them are opposites of a whole. The two pull elements of my character at the time and what I was trying to convey and bring together.
They were actually photographed. We set all of those things up in the studio. None of it's Photoshopped, it's all for real. There's one back projection in each--a desert or a city. But everything else we set up and took pictures. The photographer and I had a lot of discussions on how to make the depth of field quite flat so you get that almost religious, Virgin Mary cards. I wanted that flat depth of field. Some people were like, "Ew, this is Photoshopped, it's so gross." And we were like, "It's real! We did it for real!" I wanted it to be real but be almost decorative art. Two mythological figures that are part of the album and the album's mythology. All of the objects I chose specifically - both of them have halos, the one on the front has a golden start and rusty, on the back it's a neon halo. There's a lot of mirroring and reflection between the two images. It represents illusion and the city and its mathematical ego-based concepts and the other has to do with the spiritual, the natural and art.