Indie Rock's Bewitching New Siren
With a hit album and an ethereal look, Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes is fast becoming another Stevie Nicks. She talks to Rachel Syme about mysticism, her drag-queen fetish, and an unquenchable crush on Ralph Macchio.
Looking around at the sea of feathers and sequins in the crowd at New York’s Bowery Ballroom last week, it would have been easy to confuse the current event—a performance by Natasha Khan, who goes by the band name Bat for Lashes—with another taking place across town, the Night of a Thousand Stevies, an annual Dionysian drag-queen celebration devoted to all things velvet, lace, and Stevie Nicks. The girls huddled in the venue together in small covens awaiting Khan’s arrival, many wearing sparkly headpieces and peacock flourishes, glitter dusted around their eyes—playing dress-up for each other in the dark.
“My mystical side came from growing up in England, and reading a lot of fairy tales. You know, swimming in lakes, collecting miniature butterflies and putting them in boxes and writing letters to nymphs.”
When Khan finally took the stage—wearing an oversize Victorian ruff around her neck, a dripping mass of gold chains, animal prints, leather leggings, white lace gloves, and sparkly war paint on her brow bones—the feathered flock went mute. The singer crouched down at the foot of the stage to light some candles and arrange her set-up of Virgin Mary figurines and other idols, singing an a cappella incantation into her microphone about walking city streets alone and encountering crystal towers. Her drummer joined in, filling the room with a booming electronic beat. Back in the crowd, several fans looked as if their hearts had just clicked back on. Khan smiled wide, and sang on about emerald cities, hot white diamonds, and burning rainbows. She played for over an hour, jumping up and down from her piano, dancing out front to synthesizers, strumming on a vintage Marxophone—and obliging two encores.
The whole affair (faux-bohemian fangirls, talks of crystal revelations) felt decidedly retro, and that is exactly how Khan wants it. The 29-year-old from Brighton, England, now touring on her acclaimed sophomore album, Two Suns, seems like a woman from another era—unapologetically fancy, enchanted by fairies and exotic birds, and interested in mysticism and Christian iconography. She cites as her inspirations the darker works of Cindy Sherman and Diane Arbus, and cheesy 1980s cult films (much of her new record is dedicated to Ralph Macchio’s character from The Karate Kid—“Give me a boy in a cut-off grey sweatsuit and he’s mine!” she coos), and though she takes advantage of modern technologies to make her music, she is not much interested in 2009.
“I live in an old house in Brighton; it’s from 1860,” she says to me later, as she dines on “a little nibbly” of pheasant pate at Brooklyn’s Hotel Delmano, a reimagined Prohibition-era cocktail bar. “There is this old lady downstairs called Maude, and she keeps the loveliest garden, with flowers everywhere. I have to live near nature now; I lived in Brooklyn on and off for three years, and I couldn’t deal with the endless concrete situation. There are so many vibrations here that you can’t sit still and let anything bubble up.”
She goes on: “My mystical side came from growing up in England, and reading a lot of fairy tales. You know, swimming in lakes, collecting miniature butterflies and putting them in boxes and writing letters to nymphs. I spent hours watching David Attenborough nature documentaries on the BBC, and being brought up so religious, I loved those archetypal characters, the myths, the duality of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary.”
At first blush, this neo-Nicksian's conjuring could feel fabricated, but Khan is far more spiritually aligned with Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom than Rachel Zoe. And while there is no shortage of new female artists trying to capitalize on an outrageous fashion sense— Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Alison Goldfrapp—or an aura of innate witchy mysticism, something about Khan feels authentic. Perhaps it’s her quiet, sweet demeanor, or the way she talks about her own style. “I bought these gloves at the Sunday high market for 50p,” she giggles, looking down at her black-lace pair with the fingers snipped off so she can play guitar. “I never really thought about dressing up, but I get excited by wearing strange and wonderful things.” She attributes much of her look to her Pakistani father (who left her family when she was 11), and trips to that country. “When I was a little girl, I was painted with Mendhi and liquid eyeliner,” she says. “And then I discovered ‘60s drag queens, special men like the Coquettes, and they were so beautiful and fancy, and I loved it. There is an innate playfulness in me; it's not premeditated.”
In a time of high alert and anxiety, she is preaching something quite simple: a return to nature and to the self, and to indulging our prelapsarian childhood fascinations, whatever they may be.
It is this sense of playfulness that made Khan’s debut record, Fur and Gold, such a hit when it debuted in 2006. Having spent her early adult years as a nursery-school teacher, Khan decided to turn her love of stories and childlike mischief to songs; she ended up creating interesting and magical soundscapes. She recorded one single, “ Horse and I,” in a forest while it rained, with a friend holding a microphone in front of her in the dark. On another song, she and another friend sang the chorus snuggling together underneath a duvet, like a children’s fort. “I keep going back to the ‘80s,” Khan says. “To a place of innocence and dreaming and love.”
Khan looks youthful—even at 29, she seems like a teen—peeking out from underneath chunky bangs and wrinkling her button nose. Still, on Two Suns, she sounds more grown-up, having dealt with love and loss since recording Fur and Gold. The album debuted at No. 5 on the U.K. charts, and her singles have been flying off iTunes since she performed on Late Show With David Letterman on May 1, and with this new record, Khan stands to attract a new fanbase outside of the glittery girls that view her as a fashion icon and the young men who are in love with her from a distance (“Natasha marry me!” was a common refrain at her show). On Two Suns, she sings about sadness and dark thoughts, having broken up with her boyfriend, fellow musician Will Lemon, while writing it.
She also does something that marks a true rock star—she invents an alter ego. On Two Suns, Khan often sings as “Pearl,” a blond party girl that she considers to be a representation of her self-destructive time spent living in New York. “If Pearl were a real person,” she explains, “she’d be a subconscious dreamlike witchy character that lies in her hotel room going, 'Sigh!'” She notes that Two Suns is a “very American record. I dreamt of weird animal heads and strange karaoke bars and leather jackets. That’s my American romance, but also being here can put anyone on edge. And a lot of the record is about me not feeling connected anymore to myself or to nature or to England. It feels for the first half like I’m desperately howling at the moon, asking, where do I belong, where’s my home, what’s good love, and what do I do?”
It is in this way that Khan may turn out to be more than just a passing comet—less of a flameout pop star (like many of her outrageously clothed cohorts) and more of a gentle, needed cultural voice. In a time of high alert and anxiety, she is preaching something quite simple: a return to nature and to the self, and to indulging our prelapsarian childhood fascinations, whatever they may be. “I want everyone to feel peace of mind, settle into themselves and trust it,” she says. “Right now, in the media, there is mass hysteria and stress, and we have become addicted to being in a state of defensiveness all the time. Asking, are you going to hurt me, is this going to kill me, am I going to die of swine flu? Agh! I don’t know if this album is an escape from all that, but it is what I have learned.”
And what is that? “Well, we don’t need to freak out so much. This world is ancient. We are a tiny blip, everything dies and grows, we are all part of this eternal cycle of days and nights.” And as she sits picking at her cornichons and mustard, smiling with an inner glow that I can’t really understand but am mystified by, I feel newly connected to her. No wonder so many girls are willing to feather themselves for this: Achieving inner-peace may not be as simple as a song or even a glitter headband, but just by believing, Khan makes it seem entirely possible.
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.