VIDEO: Bat For Lashes, "Daniel"
"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 12. 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 50 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?"