Cover feature for Dazed & Confused, February 2009, running about in the Californian desert, ahead of the release of Natasha’s second album Two Suns.
Photography Jason Nocito
Wild at Heart
Cosmic wonder, Lynchian alter-egos and psychedelic sounds are all in a day’s work for Bat for Lashes. Rod Stanley travels deep into the desert to find the source of her far-out vibrations.
The sky is big. Really big.
No matter how many times you have been told how large everything is in the desert, it doesn’t really prepare you for it. For the magnitude of it all. The bigness.
Floating in this small swimming pool in the middle of the Californian desert, squinting up into the cloudless, deep blue, it’s clear why this place has appealed to successive generations of adventurers, keen to feel the grit of millennia under their fingernails, to be encompassed by the cosmos at night, so bright and near you could almost touch it, but so distant as to dwarf you… drifting in the void of space…
Natasha Khan breaks the reverie by splashing past on an inflatable silver armchair and laughing. “This is just ridiculous, isn’t it? I mean… how lucky are we to be out here?” Without waiting for an answer, she splashes off again around the pool.
We’ve been “out here” for roughly 24 hours. The day before, our small group had tackled the four-hour drive from Los Angeles, carving through the mountains, rocks and slightly scary towns full of meth-heads, before setting up camp at the Joshua Tree Inn, the self-styled American Cosmic Motel. A peaceful courtyard with 12 cabin rooms and afore-mentioned pool, it is largely occupied by long-haired types floating from room to room in aviator shades, silver bangles and sleeveless t-shirts, drawn as much for the surrounding scenery as the fact that in 1973 this is where alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons checked out permanently at the age of 26, after a tad too much tequila and morphine. There is a concrete memorial to him in the courtyard, covered in offerings – a small guitar, a bottle of Jim Beam, beads, bracelets. The Arctic Monkeys are also staying, recording some desert sessions with Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, who hails from this town. It’s a happening place, for sure. But why has Ms Khan, better known as Bat For Lashes, brought us here?
We all reluctantly drag ourselves out of the pool and drive a few miles to Pioneertown, originally built as a live-in film-set for Westerns in the 1940s, but now a bohemian community with a bar boasting live bands and a clientele that’s just happy to have a good time “because they ain’t in jail”. The 29-year-old musician settles down and explains that she first came out to the desert six months ago with her friend. Making films, taking photographs, you know. “It was awe-inspiring. I just feel so free out here. So, making this album became almost like a process of documentation, references of me being free out in the desert, dancing… and everything’s become a lot more visceral, with much more physical drumbeats.” A ceiling fan sweeps through a full rotation. “It just feels right.”
The waitress brings over some plates of food, and Natasha picks at hers while carrying on. There’s also the cosmic influence at night, which is so breathtaking, she says, wide-eyed. “The whole concept for this album is just that, cosmic. Like when we were all out last night, and we could just see those millions and millions of stars… that expansive but circular, contained spaciousness.” Natasha talks like this a lot.
The whole concept for this album is just that, cosmic. Like when we were all out last night, and we could just see those millions and millions of stars…
We discuss how she lived in New York for a while, and how that makes up the other landscape of the album. “Day and night. Two suns. Two moons. The number two keeps coming back, I think because a lot of this album is about relationships, on a personal level. But the mythology of the whole album is about planets. Crashing into one another, like people do. Making comets.”
Bat For Lashes is not the first to become captivated by the cosmic vibes of this expanse of south-eastern California, where the vast Mojave and Colorado deserts meet, and the famous Joshua Tree flourishes in sparse forests amid the enormous boulders. This otherworldly landscape has been a font of inspiration for modernday visionaries since back when Jim Morrison was seeing weird scenes inside the goldmine, and the town of Joshua Tree itself retains a sun-baked, psychedelic edge. Here, as one book puts it, hipsters, hermits and hippies all come together in one dusty strip of California desert. Shops sell climbing equipment, cowboy hats, and tie-dye clothing, while grizzled men with beerguts, Pink Floyd t-shirts and bandanas roar around on Harleys. Noticeboards advertise happenings like that weekend’s “rootsicana newgrassy folkadelic experience”, or the Andromeda Society’s upcoming “Star Party” in the Hidden Valley – no further details given, so presumably aimed at those already attuned to the rhythms of the spheres.
“I think the whole cosmic thing also really made sense to me, because I feel like I’ve been shot up into the stratosphere,” Natasha continues, distractedly pulling tiny cactus needles out of her leg, mementoes of rolling around in the dirt for the previous evening’s photo session. “You know, I used to live quite a normal life before the album came out. Then I was just catapulted all over the world, and over the past two years, I’ve been grappling with just trying to make things work.”
For some, Khan provokes criticism of embodying an outdated hippy aesthetic at odds with contemporary trends in youth culture. Yet over the past couple of years, her undeniable talent and tendency for unorthodox instrumentation has seen her carve out her own niche, gaining high-profile fans that include Jarvis Cocker, Bjork, and Radiohead, who invited her to support them on last year’s European dates.
Her haunting debut Fur and Gold has sold 100,000 copies, and was a favourite to win a Mercury prize, in a field including Arctic Monkeys, Amy Winehouse and Dizzee Rascal, and ultimately losing out to Klaxons. “I mean, I haven’t gone out and got photographed outside some Soho bar with my pants hanging out,” she laughs. “I’m not experiencing it in that way, because I’m private. But internally, it’s been crazy. Some of the darkest times of my life so far.”
These feelings have been channeled by the arrival of Pearl – a blonde babe of an alter-ego, Natasha talks about her as if she were a real person. This album is all about the tension between Pearl and her, she adds – she is the romance, the heightened emotions, the illusion of things. There are mysterious dreams of David Lynch-esque desert highways, those same, haunted roads we’ve been driving on, and burning houses. “Pearl’s all about the unconscious, and instant gratifi cation. She has diamante tears on her face… because it’s painful being aware. The people that have the most pain in mythology, like Jesus, are those that get crucified by people for trying to bring them out of their illusory state. I don’t profess to be that person, but I’m struggling between the two – everyone does. I’m trying to do things the right way, but it’s much easier to stay drunk on illusion.” Like we said, Natasha talks like this a lot.
I’m trying to do things the right way, but it’s much easier to stay drunk on illusion
Bat For Lashes’ flamboyant sense of image-making has also seen her held up as a fashion inspiration – “I think it’s hilarious when you see people’s look books, and they’re all like, ‘We’re going shamanistic next season, baby! It’s all tribal stuff now’, and it sometimes misses the point,” she chuckles. “But it’s cool, I don’t care.” Indeed, her past penchant for a feathered headpiece swiftly sparked a flurry of teenage girls sporting Indian headbands. In mythology, anything worn around the head symbolises a connection to a higher spirit, she explains, smiling. “I wanted a ceremonial thing that I could put on that would help me get into a performance frame of mind. I’m not sure the people buying them in Hennes were thinking the same thing…” She laughs again, checking herself. “But girls in American Apparel adverts wearing headbands and leotards look really hot and sexy. It’s great as an aesthetic. Everything works on different levels, doesn’t it?”
We talk about her London performance at the end of 2007 – intimate and magical at times, though arguably lacking bite – and she explains how in some ways that concert marked the end of the first phase of Bat For Lashes, though it was all “honest, genuine and heartfelt” at the time. “There is a massive part of me that just loves to dance around, and be silly, and be physical,” she adds. “And I got fed up of everyone thinking I was this mystical creature that drinks unicorns’ tears for breakfast!”
I got fed up of everyone thinking I was this mystical creature that drinks unicorns’ tears for breakfast!
Since then, she has grown as a performer, and opening for one of the biggest rock bands in the world has had an impact, as you might expect – supporting Radiohead, she danced around the stage, her band the Blue Dreams thrusting beats, bass and guitar further to the fore than previously. Back in January 2007, Thom Yorke had posted a playlist full of “stuff that really floats my boat at the moment” – “Horse and I” by Bat For Lashes headed up a selection that also indulged his penchant for brutalist techno and apocalyptic dubstep. That same year, he talked to a music website about that song – “I love the harpsichord and the sexual ghost voices and bowed saws,” Thom pondered. “It seems to come from the world of Grimm’s fairytales.”
Playing with them was a challenge, but an inspiration, considers Natasha, who performed to crowds as large as 50,000. “I felt my band and I had been taken under their wing. The audiences were really attentive, and really responded to the new songs. It was a really good thing to have between the two albums.”
She turns to look out of the window, at the early afternoon sun hammering down on the dust and rocks. Nothing outside moves, except the heat itself. “I feel like I’ve gone out into the world, gathered all my little sticks, and now I’m coming home to make my fire.”
Two months after leaving the desert behind, we reconvene in Natasha’s spacious apartment in Brighton. A laptop is hooked up to a sound system, and a keyboard sits beneath the window. Rustling up some jasmin tea, she apologises for the smell of enamel paint that hangs thickly in the air. She has been working on artwork for the album, and points out a painting the record company has already rejected – Natasha and Pearl drifting in the cosmos, nude and entwined, giving birth to two planets. “I can see how people might see a bit of lezzer action!” She guffaws. “But it’s all about the concept! Oh, I don’t know… I think I’m going to fight for this, though.”
The album is now almost finished. Many of the tracks do indeed feature cavernous, tribal drumbeats, and showcase more electronic sounds. There is more texture and range, as throbbing electro-pop nestles up to more contemplative numbers. “Last time, I did the whole thing in three weeks,” she explains, “This time, it felt more like doing 12 oil paintings, really layering it up. And when you have more drums, you need more music on top.”
Two Suns is again a co-production with David Kosten, although she insists that the album is very much her vision. She points to her drum programming on tracks like “Pearl’s Dream” and “Daniel” as evidence of her technical skills, while her singing has developed, too (“I was still shy on the first album,” she says, modestly). She has also subtly incorporated a lot of field recordings, from singing on top of a cliff in Big Sur, to the JMZ train pulling into Brooklyn, all captured with a hand-held recorder she has taken to carrying everywhere she goes. “I think it’s essential,” she explains, “because life isn’t about being in an airtight, soundproof space. Sometimes, you’re almost recording silence… but it creates the space the song sits in.”
“Glass” is likely to be a single at some point, with its gothy, booming toms and splintering synths, although “Daniel” is easily the most radio-friendly track on the album, rocking a rather fetching Stevie Nicks-in-big-hair vibe, and will lead off. “People might be like ‘My God, what is she doing?” she laughs. “But I always loved that cheesy 80s stuff. When I was younger, I always sang Fleetwood Mac, and ‘Love is a Battlefield’ by Pat Benatar! I wrote ‘Daniel’ one morning on my little machine, and I just wanted something I could dance round my room to, like all those songs in the past. Weirdly, I’m much more scared putting this out,” she frowns, “because it’s so naively pop. I feel much more vulnerable than with my weirder songs.”
“But you know, I love the Karate Kid soundtrack, it’s got Bananarama’s ‘Cruel Summer’ on it! I’ve got the cheesiest playlists on my laptop but they make me so happy, and I just don’t care if people think I’m cheesy.”
We talk about loving Prince, Madonna, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel… but also Gang Gang Dance, Portishead, Yeasayer (who have worked on some beats for the album), and Tricky. “I love hip hop. I love to go out dancing, and I love to move, and I just feel more confident creatively to try stuff like that. It’s nothing new to me, it’s just that I’ve figured out how to do the beats!”
It’s nothing new to me, it’s just that I’ve figured out how to do the beats!
At the other end of the sonic spectrum, Natasha lures reclusive avant-garde legend Scott Walker into contributing a vocal for a delicate final duet about a drag queen’s final performance. “I really wanted a male voice on it… obviously, we thought that he would never do it. But he just e-mailed straight back and wanted to know more about the character. We talked about the book Last Exit to Brooklyn, and were initially going to meet up, but then he just recorded it in his studio and sent it over. He was very sweet, but I think he’s just really shy. And I was really flattered because he hasn’t sung like that for a long time.” (Walker’s ghostly croon echoes softly, contrasting with his recent preference for decidedly more challenging orchestral performances of his work, featuring a boxer pummelling a suspended pig carcass by way of percussion.)
The alter ego of Pearl is largely a hinted presence, rather than a defined character, although comes through strongly on “Siren Song”, a track still being worked on. When she plays these almost-finished tunes, she complains about the reverb in her front room, and fusses about, getting us into the right position to experience the full “metal drums” of this arresting “duet”. Other songs she previews include “Travelling Woman”, a dustblown psyche-rock number, and “Peace of Mind”, which she is excited about having some vocal parts by a gay, black gospel choir still to be added in, for that 80s New York disco vibe. “A bit like Prince’s backing singers,” she trills.
Visually, Pearl will be represented as an alternate cover on the back of the album – “I will be holding two suns in a desert landscape, and Pearl will be with disco balls in a New York landscape, but the composition will be symmetrical, like religious iconography,” she explains. “I have very strong ideas for how this will look. But I want people to bring their own magic to it, photographers and lighting, and so on.”
Alexander McQueen is creating a bespoke piece from his McQ line for Pearl – “It’s going to be this beautiful antique lace hoodie,” Natasha explains. “And I would really like him to incorporate fingerless gloves directly onto the sleeves, so – woosh – I can just get straight into it when I’m out on tour.”
“I’ve always liked how she looked,” reflects McQueen, later. “I like people who are not always safe, and have depth. She has a great energy, and I like that she isn’t afraid to reference or be someone else. It’s people like her who should form this generation’s icons – people who are risk-takers, and most of all, individual.”
It’s people like her who should form this generation’s icons – people who are risk-takers, and most of all, individual” – Alexander McQueen
Natasha is now rehearsing “like a mad person”, and discusses ideas for projections and dancers. “It’s all done now,” she smiles. “I’m going to put it out into the world and whatever happens, happens. Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. Now, the biggest thing is making sure I can perform it in the most amazing way possible.”
“It’s a communal thing, ultimately. Music is something that travels through the air, it’s not physically graspable and it just fills any negative space,” she continues, warming to her theme. “Music sinks into your soul, and through your being. It reminds me of a magician walking out of the fog. You might not know what someone is singing about, but your body reacts physically, and it’s a sexual thing, or it makes you cry, or it gives you goose bumps. That’s what I can’t wait to do.”
On the far side of the planet, out in that desert, the stars are shining, and the dust blowing. In the cosmic scheme, of course, none of this matters much. But at the moment, in Bat For Lashes’ world, horizons are that much closer. Much is at stake. Expectations are high. “Oh, I’m going to be terrified,” she laughs, “Just generally terrified and anxious.” She stops speaking for a moment. “But that’s all part of what it’s all about,” she says, and pauses again. “That is what’s exciting. It’s like there’s this huge mountain in front of you, and you’re all like… ‘Fuck. Just how am I going to get up there?’”
Originally published in Dazed & Confused, February 2009.