by Marc Hogan
June 8, 2009
Photos by Brooke Nipar
Natasha Khan is a performer in the truest sense of the word. On her second album as Bat for Lashes, this year’s Two Suns, the UK singer and songwriter hitches her real-life tale of a dying trans-Atlantic relationship to one of the oldest tropes in the book– star-crossed lovers. Then, bolstering her astronomical metaphors with a tragic character inspired by the seamy underbelly of old New York, and trading debut album Fur and Gold‘s orchestral druid-rock trappings for booming percussion and 1980s electro synths, she makes the whole thing magnificently her own. Cult crooner Scott Walker e-mails in a rare guest performance. Exeunt omnes.
However, Khan’s performance goes beyond the records, as well. Bat for Lashes music videos would be memorable just for the visuals, which have included not only synchronized BMX bike jumps, but also a painting of The Karate Kid‘s Ralph “Daniel-san” Macchio across Khan’s back. In concert, elaborate staging and costumes– elaborate for a still relatively little-known artist’s budget, anyway– help bring her songs to life. Downstairs at Bowery Ballroom the day of Bat for Lashes’ triumphant New York return gig, Khan talks conversationally and expressively about Two Suns, hippies, the state of the music industry, the time she punched Thom Yorke, Walker’s indie cred, James Taylor’s indie cred, and how she feels about constantly only being compared to other female artists. Inevitably, Khan’s performance goes beyond what can can be translated to text, so you’ll just have to imagine the way her voice warms when she talks about Yeasayer, or what it sounds like when she starts singing 1980s pop hit “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off”. One night after this interview, Bat for Lashes made their U.S. network TV debut on “The Late Show With David Letterman”.
Pitchfork: “Moon and Moon” was kind of the beginning for Two Suns. Can you tell me a little bit about how that song came about and how it helped pave the way for the album?
Natasha Khan: I wrote it in the studio when I actually was finishing up Fur and Gold. One of the last days in this crazy mansion house in the countryside, I sat down and wrote this “Moon and Moon” song, and it’s actually named after the band and my relationship with the person in the band. So that kind of marked the beginning of our relationship. Two Suns takes you through this whole journey, all the way to the end of the relationship and the end of making the record. So it’s kind of like this strange, synonymous cycle that happened. And then obviously the album’s called Two Suns, so there’s this kind of like “two planets” situation. Just the whole theme of planets chasing each other, you know, night and day chasing each other eternally, and being in England and New York and being separated by an ocean, and lots of different types of landscapes, different types of personalities, and internal conflict. So, all that duality stuff really came as an inspiration from that as well.
Pitchfork: What was the writing process like for these songs? Did it all follow from that overarching theme, or did you just sit down with your piano and go song by song, or…
NK: I don’t really do it song by song, and even though I knew there was obviously an underlying concept occurring, it was very much just whenever I had time to write I’d just quickly steal a moment. I usually write at home, in my bed with my headphones, and I have a sequencer machine. So, I do, like, “Daniel”, you know, I start with a beat, and then the DO-DO, da-DO-DO, da-DOO-DO, da-DO-DO [singing], like the bassline, put the choir part in, then I’ll work out the vocal melody. And so I either write on piano or on my little machine where I’ll do all the elements of the song. So what you’re left with is a mixture between kind of piano-based songs and then like more electronic-based songs. And then we flesh those out and work on those and I’ll bring people in to play certain aspects of them, but I have a really strong kind of vision and idea just from the demo stage. By the end of it, when I looked at it, I was like, “Ah, OK, there’s like a story here,” which I kind of knew would be there, but I didn’t realize it was such a concept album.
Pitchfork: Was the sequencer part of what– you know, starting with [Fur and Gold‘s] “Prescilla”– kind of shifted you toward this kind of focus on being more rhythmic-oriented, the drums being in the forefront?
NK: Well, on the first album, that “Prescilla” beat was me and my friend stamping on bits of wood and clapping in my bedroom. A lot of the first album, we kept so much of what I had made myself. This one I kept quite a few elements but, rhythmically, I think I just got a little bit more confident in terms of my drum programming ability and what I wanted and I was experiencing living in Brooklyn and hearing like Gang Gang Dance, TV on the Radio, Moon & Moon, and the early incarnation of Amazing Baby– these weird, psychedelic kind of bands. Steven [Kurtz], who played for Moon & Moon, has that rolling kind of tom sound that I was just like, “Oh my god, I love that so much,” and I started writing beats that were being inspired by that kind of sound. I just felt like delving into it.