In the form of her musical alter-ego Bat ForLashes, Natasha Khan was one of the brightest newlights on the live circuit throughout 2006, with gigsand festival appearances across Europe drawingattention wherever she performed.
As she prepares forthe release of new single Prescilla, musicOMHcaught up with her in London’s Strongrooms to talkabout The Velvet Underground, Sun Ra andthe influence of children’s fairytales in her work…
In real life, Natasha Khan is much as you’d hopeand expect. Even in the middle of the afternoon shelooks, reassuringly, as if she’s just stepped offstage. Resplendent in facepaint, sequined headband anda black bodysuit overprinted with skeleton bones, sheconjures up an image of running riot in the dressingup box.
“When I was growing up, my Dad used to usestorytelling all the time,” she offers in explanation.”Because he was religious, it was very archetypal,full of symbolism and the metaphors that go throughthe generations with fairytales”.
As a child, she says she was naturally drawn tobooks by Roald Dahl and “mystical, witchy books”, anddescribes own her storytelling as, “very intuitive.When I write about lions or queens or court jesters,they’re things I’ve dreamt about. They pop into mymind in a very intuitive way. When I listen to a song,a visual landscape goes through my mind – characterspresent themselves to me and I try to make sense ofthem, put them into a narrative or metaphor. That’shappened a lot in folk music, maybe because the peoplewho write it have that kind of imagination. I thinkdaydreaming and escapism are part of humannature”.
While the initial idea might come from children’sfairytales (honed by her brief career as a nurseryschool teacher), the visual influence on her stageshow has more obvious musical roots. “I was alwaysinterested in film and photography alongside sound,”she explains. “Like The Velvet Underground withAndy Warhol, when they had dancers on stage withprojections of the band behind them. The headdressesand the make-up we wear is an extension of the symbolsand themes in the music … [to me], it goes hand inhand.
“As a creative person, I’m obsessed with taking ininformation about all sorts of things and then I comeback and explore that, delve into the histories of thepeople I like, find out who inspired them, and whoinspired them, working backwards through history. Thatthirst for knowledge gives you more rounded ideas,more depth. Knowing the field you’re working in makesyou strong and sure of what you’re doing”.
The more cosmic influences, particularly the goldheaddresses and cloaks, she attributes to (legendaryfree jazz experimentalist) Sun Ra, whose sometimesoutr philosophy also appeals. “You see things all thetime”, she says, “and I think the things that resonatewith you are either because you’ve experienced them ina past life or through your ancestry, or becausethere’s a link back into something familiar. It’s away to establish yourself and to know who you are – tofeel comfortable”.
At times, she has had to strive hard for thatfeeling of comfort. She describes her childhood as “atroubadour lifestyle” from which her experiences fedinto, “a well of creativity. They bubbled around andcreated a soup and then later on, when I became moreemotional or felt the need to express something, andat times when life became a bit difficult and I feltthat I needed an outlet … through that lens, thecreative work started flowing”. The music, however,came later, “out of settled domesticity, when I was athome, from contemplation and reflectiveness”. It alsocomes from the influence of her mother, who played, “alot of Otis Redding and Al Green, Motownstuff.” In particular, she attributes the brassinfluence to Miles Davis. “Songs with horns inare more masculine and have more momentum,” she says.”I’ve got a desire to make things a bit more raw, abit more punchy”.
Considering the delicate, dressing-up box nature ofher live shows, masculinity is not something that’seasily identifiable in her performance but she likes alot of masculine music. “People think I run aroundplaying Kate Bush and Bjrk all the time but I like Lou Reed, Neil Young, TheCure … a lot of male sounding, male-led bands”. Acase in point is Bruce Springsteen, whose songI’m On Fire is a staple ingredient of her live set.
“I just love that song,” she says. “It’s a masculine,sexy song but I felt the words and I felt where he wascoming from, so I wanted to take it for myself.Certain songs you like might not be by people who areconsidered cool but they may have universal lyricalappeal that you can take into your own heart andredefine”. More of this will be seen in her newmaterial, she promises, particularly in current singlePrescilla, to which she’s added, “a lot more drums -it’s going to be more of a fully grown song”.
This reworking and re-evaluation of music is allpart of the growing interaction evident in modernmusic which Natasha, like many performers, seesspilling over into the current scene. “I think peoplefeel more part of the process now [with theinternet],” she says. “Human beings naturally desirecommunity and if [live music and live gigs] become asocial thing people can be part of, then that can onlybe a good thing.
“Music has always brought peopletogether and it goes both ways – I feel the audience’ssupport and that’s really nice. A lot of people rightnow are trying to make music more human. Pop hasbecome so manufactured, so bland and soulless witharchetypes of Britney and whatever but with Myspace,more people can make music at home and get it outthere. More idiosyncratic folk are coming through andI think people feel more of a kinship with that – it’smore home-grown … more humble”.
So what are her plans for the future? Over the nextsix months, Bat For Lashes will mainly be on the road,covering the UK from Glasgow to Norwich throughoutFebruary and March. “We’ve got a lot of touring,” shesays. “We’re going to play SXSW in Texas and thenhopefully, by the summer, I’m going to have time to bea human being again. It’s quite frightening, thepressure you feel after all this whirlwind. I’m goingto be looking forward to doing the next album, though- as it gets closer and closer, I’m peeling back thelayers to reveal more and more closely what I want tosay.”