"Hold on a sec."
I'm on the phone with British multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter Natasha Khan (better known as Bat for Lashes), but the background chatter in her London press office is a bit overwhelming, so there's a furtive rustle as she scuttles to a quiet spot. "Okay, that's better. Sorry about that."
No need for apologies. I'm getting a glimpse into a recurring motif for Bat for Lashes, that of escaping the fray for a secluded spot to think and create. For Khan this sort of forced seclusion has resulted in music rich with imagery and built on its own internal mythology. And it's all guided by her peculiarly beguiling voice, spiraling and rising, fading and enveloping. When she finds a nook in the offices and we're able to speak in relative quiet, I feel as if I were being let in on a secret.
I'm not, of course. Khan's 2006 debut,
Fur and Gold (Caroline), was nominated for Britain's Mercury Prize, and no discussion of Bat for Lashes neglects to point out that her early supporters range from Björk to Yorke (who brought her on tour with Radiohead). But hype and famous fans notwithstanding, her musical world is often a solitary and strange place swirling with mythic and emotional tempests. Trembling midnight lands/I travel with the wizard/Drink his blood and he's our leader would be perfectly at home in the realm of Viking metal. But this particular verse is from Khan's debut single, "The Wizard," and it's got all her Bat for Lashy trademarks: the starkness, the seriousness, the crystal clarion calls of the vocal high points. She's like an R&B Joan of Arc with a toy piano tossed into the wilderness without her superproducer.
Khan's tangling of the otherworldly with the personal occurred through a strange confluence. "When I left university at 23 [she's now 29], I went to become a nursery-school teacher to kind of pay my rent and stuff. At the time, I was reading a lot of Carl Jung, as well as a lot of old fairy tales, and I just absorbed all of this information. I worked on songs when I would get home from work, and all of this stuff just kind of came out."
The result was Fur and Gold, a gorgeously bizarre effort that's as lush as it is raw. "I still think it's a small record, my personal baby — I feel that it's very pure and minimal and where I was at that point without any external interruptions. I was just living in Brighton, working, and indulging myself at that time with all sorts of instruments. That record, it's like a secret, almost to me. I suppose that one's first album is kind of imbued with the story of your whole life up to that point."
Khan's parents (an English Christian mother and a Pakistani Muslim father) split when she was twelve. She has lived with both her father in Pakistan and her mother in England, but her hyperactive imagination ensured that wherever she was, part of her surroundings would always be of her own creation. "Growing up with religious parents, I think a lot of us can recognize symbols and metaphors and archetypal characters without even knowing. I think that mythology is extremely embedded in our culture, extremely important. If you look at the last fifty years, things have changed very quickly. Until then, you had the birth of the written word and storytelling and folkloric beginnings and pagan and religious stories, and I think there's something universal about them. The Bible might be fairly far-fetched, but the metaphors still make some sense, you know?"
For all the hubbub over Khan's predilection for fairy-tale lyrical elements, it's important to note that her music always works at the intersection between myth and reality. "In my songs, sometimes the mythic elements outweigh the 'real' ones, but other songs are kind of straightforward and don't use mythical language at all and are more naked, emotionally. I mean, I love fairy tales, but I also love Raymond Carver; I love E.T., but I like David Lynch as well. They all kind of say the same thing to me."
This juxtaposition of reality and fantasy continues on Two Suns (Astralwerks), only this time Khan's sonic palette has broadened to fit the wide-screen vistas of her recent experiences. It's a record of her touring the world for a few years after the success of Fur and Gold. But it's also a documentation of jubilation and heartbreak.
"I definitely went into this record knowing that I wanted to make a much more powerful-sounding, lush, much bolder record. I'd have loved to make another magical childlike sort of thing, but I had to be faithful to my — well, I had more going on, for me, and it's not always pretty."
For Khan, the years after Fur and Gold were spent in motion, whether traveling on tour or relocating to New York for a romance that, in ending, was the fulcrum for the album's melancholy heart and its themes of duality and spectral coupling. "There are interplanetary things on this record: big skies and huge planets crashing into each other as a metaphor for relationships. I definitely felt a need for a more expansive sonic quality, you know?"
Two Suns' recording locations included the desert expanses of Joshua Tree, California. The wide-open panoramas are palpable in the opening "Glass," with its tribal drumming, shimmering synths, and thousand-mile-canyon-echo vocal treatments. A thousand crystal towers/A hundred emerald cities/And the hand of the watchman in the night sky/Points to my beloved is the sort of fantastical couplet that's gotten Khan pegged as a few dice rolls from Dungeons & Dragons territory. But for her, it's all about making the mythic personal, taking ancient and personal touchstones and mixing them together till they feel not just sensible but inevitable. The lead single, "Daniel," a darkly dance-y anthem to running in the dark "under a sheet of rain in my heart," is alleged to be an ode to Ralph Macchio's title character from The Karate Kid. (The cover of the single shows Khan on the beach, her naked back emblazoned with a large portrait of Larusso-san himself.) How does this all fit?
"I think that my attraction to myth doesn't just come through ancient sources; I'm fortunate to have grown up in a decade where there were so many amazing films about children experiencing epiphanies and having relationships with things much bigger than themselves. I think we all desire some sort of god or some kind of religious experience, whether it's with an alien or with giants or whatever it is. I don't separate science from religion, I don't think that one is right and the other is wrong. I think that they are just different ways of looking at the very fundamental basic thing, which is that we're all here and we're all connected and we all go through the same things, and there isn't an easy way to describe that."
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