We’ve Got A File On You: Bat For Lashes
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
The start of the coronavirus pandemic arrived in an oddly fortuitous way for Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan. As the world was beginning to grapple with an unknown pathogen, Khan was wrapping up a tour in support of her most recent album, 2019’s Lost Girls. A few months pregnant, the Pakistani-British singer and multi-instrumentalist had coincidentally been planning a respite when everything shut down in early March 2020.
“For me personally, it was sort of a sigh of relief,” she tells me over Zoom from her Los Angeles home. “I was four months pregnant and I already felt there was a vulnerability performing on stage. It was very emotional for me and it was really beautiful to be singing while I had my baby in my tummy growing, but I was definitely ready to go inward. [Shutdown] coincided with the incubation of growing this baby, with everything just becoming very quiet and very home-based. There was a lot of gardening and a lot of exercising gently and going for walks and spending time with my partner and nesting in the house.”
After five albums released over the course of nearly 15 years, including the career-shaping Fur And Gold (2006) and Two Suns (2009), Khan had earned a reputation for creating engrossing mystical pop multiverses that would help mold the aughts’ “indie” aesthetic. She had also absolutely earned a break.
Nowadays, in addition to raising a baby daughter (“I haven’t even had a wash today, so I apologize for that,” she says, gamely turning her Zoom camera on), Khan is creatively calibrating, with multiple projects in the works: She’s drawing a deck of tarot cards, writing a book of letters for her daughter, and composing a children’s lullaby album, just to name a few items on the agenda.
Like a lot of us this year, she’s also spent too much time on social media, where the conversation is not always, shall we say, productive. In response to the negative energy she’s perceived overflowing out of social media platforms, Khan has launched a Patreon, described as a “safe haven… for you to feel part of a creative community and gain inspiration.” It’ll also be a place where Khan intends to feature tarot readings, original music, handwritten letters, a monthly mood board, and creative mentorship.
“Suddenly I’ve woken up out of this sleep, and there’s all these projects ready to start,” she says. “That’s a natural creative cycle I’ve done in my life between albums anyway, but this was almost magnified and concentrated into a real fallow period and then spring is the next step.”
Speaking to Stereogum about her next steps, Khan accepted our invitation to look back at some of her most memorable career highlights and extracurricular activities, such as filmmaking. She was also kind enough to talk about the tribal aesthetic that defined her 2006-2009 costumery, and how that would sit with today’s audiences.
Starting A Patreon (2021)
Congrats on the Patreon! Could you tell me a little more about the intention behind it?
KHAN: I guess for me, having done so many albums and being on a major label where you’re very tied into it — like the album cycle that’s denoted by the record company and how promotion goes and how long it takes to press vinyl and there’s definitely a sort of set amount of time that a body of work will take — I’ve done that for so many years. And in between each album, I was always still drawing and painting and making dioramas or being interested in illustration and creating instrumental music and having a lot of other interests.
So those things have never really gone away since my art school days, but I never had a platform where I felt I could really share this with super fans and people that really wanted to be part of a community and learn more about the other aspects of things I do. So my hope was to set up this Patreon where I have monthly craft shares or recipes and things that sort of represent the more domestic side of myself. But then yesterday I recorded this workshop oracle card reading thing, because I’ve been making a whole card deck of my own that is very much linked to summoning the muses and bringing out your own creativity and accessing your subconscious and your dream worlds and sub-personalities and characters.
There’s a very big part of the Patreon where I want to support people’s creativity and share a lot of the exercises and workshop tasks I’ve given myself in the past, when I’ve been working with albums or characters or lyrics for songs, themes. The Patreon sort of spans that quite cosmic, metaphorical side of myself through to a more intimate, personal home thing. And then there’s things like collages that I love to make, so I’ve been making 3D collages on my window ledge and taking pictures of those and then I’ll sort of poetically describe what these visions are and how they relate to each other. And then there’ll be recommendations for the month of music to listen to or films to see, documentaries, books to read.
In this very busy world of Instagram and Facebook and all the social media, [it] just seems so heavily saturated right now with people constantly posting. It just seems like a very busy, anxious place for me. I just felt with this, it feels a lot calmer and I can curate very carefully, but generously, what I want to give and it feels like a much safer, more sacred space really for the lovely fans and people that want to take part.
Performing At The Mercury Prize Ceremony (2007)
Let’s go back in time a bit to one of your earliest televised performances, the 2007 Mercury Prize, when Fur And Gold was nominated. What was going through your head, having your very first album nominated for such a prestigious honor?
KHAN: I think I was terrified. But if I remember correctly, I had my band of girls with me. It’s cool because I never look back on things, so to me I wish I could see it because I can’t even really remember the feelings I was having on that night. But whenever we’ve done the Mercury Music Prize or the Ivor Novellos, the Mercury’s filmed live, and you’re in the room with all these people from the music industry and there’s all the other bands that perform too.
So I think watching everyone else perform before us, I was just getting more and more nervous, and then I think when we got up there I guess I kind of put myself in this psychic place of being part of the lost boys, Peter Pan group. We’d sort of stumbled out of the wild forest into this TV camera glitzy room and I felt like a bit of a wild animal in the headlights, because it was very early for me and I hadn’t gained a huge amount of confidence and it was, like you said, it was pretty fast to be nominated for something that’s so televised and so big. So I’d love to see it again because I probably could tell immediately from the way I was looking and get myself back in that space of how I was feeling, but that’s probably how I was feeling.
Performing At Glastonbury (2007)
Around the same era, the mid-2000s, I remember how pervasive, the “tribal” aesthetic was in music and fashion. Like, peak Coachella fashion era: feathers, headbands, headdresses. And rewatching some of your early performances, I noticed the headdress you wore at Glastonbury, and in other live settings. Given how our cultural conversation has evolved around this aesthetic, I was curious what your thoughts were around your early-career live costumes?
KHAN: Do you mean in terms of appropriation?
I would say so, yeah. Speaking specifically to the headdresses. I know some stuff has been written about it, but has anyone ever approached you directly with a finger-wag?
KHAN: Yeah, I guess at the time, no matter what headdress I was wearing, I was basically making a lot of my own. My dad comes from Pakistan and when I was little I spent a lot of time in Pakistan and my aunties had these incredible jeweled headdresses and Indian jewelry and would paint their faces and their hands with mehndi, which is like the henna tattoos. And adornment, it always felt ancestral to me, and sort of a way of even looking at religious iconography, like the Virgin Mary and thinking of witches or just women in history. There’s the Egyptians or whatever, there’s always been this sort of adornment or this crown idea where for me the reason to do that was to step into a character but also to open that portal up into the zeitgeist or the source of creativity.
So in a lot of old drawings and religious iconography that I’d studied and mythology that I’d studied, there was always this thing about the crown chakra and the head opening out. And also in a very playful, like I mentioned Peter Pan, but in a very playful way I just wanted to dress up and paint my face and just mismatch clothes and styles and eras and times in history, because being a child of two very different cultures and two very different religions, there was a lot of conflict that came out of that. And as a child, that can be quite hard to reconcile when both of your parents have very different ideas about their god or their history or their ancestors.
So in an innocent way and I think I honestly didn’t think about political or appropriation aspect of this, but I suppose it was sort of a more innocent time for me where I also had studied Native American history and was obsessed with Native American books like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and reading a lot about those things.
And so I think when I went to do Glastonbury, I went to this amazing man’s house in London who had tons [of] incredible jewelry and headdresses and pieces that were historical objects which he’d used to rent out for film and theater, but also as a collection of incredible stuff. And I remember seeing that headdress and just thinking “Wow, that is so stunning.” It made me two foot taller than I was for my first Glastonbury performance. Like it represented the queen and the tribal leader and this person that could stand up there and have a magical, mystical interaction with the audience and bring some [of the] spirit to it that I wanted to.
So I don’t regret doing that. I think it came from a place of very much wanting to honor women of the past and matriarchal leaders and people that I felt I resonated with as someone that feels like a universal citizen, rather than just an English girl. I’ve always felt a global citizen just from having French family, German family, Pakistani family, and roots all over the world and friendships and loves of all different religions and spaces.
Nowadays it’s very difficult, isn’t it, to tread that line and not offend people. But I think if it’s coming from a pure heart, celebrating other cultures to me is still really important.
It is more difficult nowadays, to keep from offending people, especially on social media. Especially when you’re a public figure. And it just keeps getting more intense.
KHAN: I think if we had always been this offended, so much architecture wouldn’t have happened, like the African influence on Spanish architecture, or the Moroccan or Muslim influence. And then you think about the Beatles making all of their hippie Indian-based stuff. There’s so much culture in history where the melting pot of two different things have come together and created a third thing that almost stands on its own, and I would be really sad if everyone just stuck to exactly their own experience and exactly the only thing they can reference, because as an actor or a storyteller or a creator, you’re constantly putting yourself in a position where you may not have lived that life, but that’s the skill of the storyteller is to kind of shapeshift and move across human boundaries and to connect and bring people together.
So I definitely understand the appropriation of things where people aren’t respecting that, but I almost hope that I can still go and use an African drum in my music if I want to, without someone being offended by it, because it means I love it.
“Daniel” Music Video (2009)
Speaking of your earlier work, I was rewatching your video for “Daniel” and wondered if you had been thinking about Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” video, at least in terms of how the interpretive dancers played into it?
KHAN: It’s interesting, because we went to Sweden to do that video and I remember sending them a mood board of the early promotional photos in a boxing ring. I mentioned Rocky, and so I loved Raging Bull, those ’70s films where there’s a lot of slow-motion punching and gore and it’s just a really virile, visceral feeling to see people in a boxing ring. And so that’s where I got my cut-off red top and my little boxing shorts and socks and stuff. That was my outfit that I wanted. And I said that I really wanted to interact with dancers, so it was almost like turning boxing into a dance.
And looking at the poetry and the beauty and the way that someone like Muhammad Ali moves or something like that, and also because there’s definite Karate Kid references, because I was obsessed with Daniel from Karate Kid, and Ralph Macchio, and at the end of the video I stop the car and a boy that’s dressed up as Daniel from Karate Kid, I cuddle him. So it was bringing in karate and boxing and this sports life that I’d grown up with having a dad, he was a squash coach and he trained the number one world champion, so at home we always had matching tracksuits and Reebok trainers and we always trying to join in on his warm-up sessions with my cousin, like doing sit ups and jumping jacks and stuff.
I think because the dance choreographer was in Sweden, after that video, I realized that I wanted to be more hands-on and interact collaboratively with the dance aspects or with the performance aspects, and so I remember getting there and they’d made this amazing dance, but the costumes had all those bobbly black balloons on them and I was like “What does that represent? Why are we doing that?” And I think that she wanted to make the costume avant-garde and ballet-[inspired], looking back at the shapes and strange ways you can use costume. But it didn’t fit so well for me, in terms of the video.
So it was definitely a mishmash of influences and collaborations that made that video, but the elements of “Running Up That Hill,” I know what you mean because it’s sort of a metaphor for the struggle between lovers or the tension, the pull and push in that video as well as in Kate Bush’s.
And Ralph Macchio tweeted at you about the video!
KHAN: I think I was totally freaked out because he had been my teenage pinup for so long, and obsessed with that film and the soundtrack, I had the soundtrack on vinyl. But yeah, I remember when he said he liked it, I was just like that is so sweet because obviously he’d found out that I’d used him as a character in the song, so that was really nice.
US TV Debut On The Late Show With David Letterman (2009)
When you had your US TV debut on Letterman, were you still in that mental space of “this is all happening so fast”? How were you adjusting to international exposure?
KHAN: I remember obviously Letterman [was] such a huge show and it being even big in England. And so when we went to perform on Letterman, I think it was just really surreal and amazing because I remember at the end of the performance he came up and shook my hand and showed the vinyl of the new record and stuff, and apparently he doesn’t do that with everyone, it’s only if he enjoys your performance.
It was really sweet. He came and made a point of saying “hi” and that was awesome. I felt like wow, you’re kind of riding this rollercoaster at the time and it doesn’t really sink in until later, what these things mean. I just remember being, again, super nervous, because when I’m nervous my throat gets really dry. And I was drinking loads of water. [Letterman] has this thing where he gets too hot and sweats really easily so he wants the studio to be freezing. It was like minus 10 or something, everyone in the audience was wearing winter jumpers and coats and stuff.
And I just remember, we did the rehearsal and I was shivering. And my throat was just Arcticly dry because there’s so much air conditioning. And I remember thinking oh my God, this is live and I’m just going to mess it up, like my voice is going to crack or I’m going to choke. And luckily, that didn’t happen so at the end of it, it was like a palpable sense of relief and then he came and shook my hand and I was like it’s okay, I forgive you.
“Let’s Get Lost” With Beck For The Twilight Saga: Eclipse Soundtrack (2010)
I remember in the mid-2010s, one of the markers of indie-to-mainstream success was you snagged a soundtrack slot in a YA movie, whether it was Twilight or The Hunger Games, or, in your case, both! What do you recall about your collaboration with Beck on “Let’s Get Lost,” which showed up in Twilight: Eclipse?
KHAN: Well, Beck actually approached me because he’d been asked to do this song and he wanted to work together and do a duet. So I really loved the idea, and he sent me three or four of these really beautiful looped electronic music pieces, and this one just stood out. I had my little home studio at the time in Brighton and I just put up the track and then started singing over the top of it and did the chorus and all the lyrics. It came out really quickly. Then I popped it back over to him and he did his call-and-response after my verses and added this beautiful piano bit at the end. And I think I added a big drum.
It was this very organic and super-quick and easy collaboration. Suddenly we just had this track, and his guys mixed it and I was like, “This is badass.” I loved the energy of it, I thought it was awesome, it’s still one of my favorite songs even though it’s not on an album. And after that, I actually stayed with Beck in California with his family for three weeks and we did a bunch of recording and stuff that went onto be quite a big part of The Haunted Man record.
Performing At Coachella (2013)
By the time you were touring The Haunted Man, would you say that you were starting to become more comfortable and confident as a performer? Watching your Coachella 2013 set, you’re much more front-and-center onstage, dancing, as opposed to sitting behind an instrument.
KHAN: Yeah, I think because I have such a great band and people that I’d worked with for a long time, I felt like they were almost my warriors in battle. They had my back and musically I just loved that band.
I’d been doing some dance training and stuff, I just wanted to be able to come out from behind an instrument and like you say, just move my body and connect with the audience more and be up front and hold the microphone. I got my beautiful costumes from my Australian designers. Romance Was Born made that outfit for me.
I just felt like a butterfly kind of coming out of the cocoon. I suppose I was sort of turning more into a woman than a girl, I guess. I was probably like 33, 34, and so yeah, I definitely matured over that album and that album followed quite a big heartbreak of mine. I just felt different, I felt more womanly, so I think that performance definitely was me starting to break out.
Performing “Tarantula” On The Late Late Show With James Corden (2019)
Going back to Beck for a minute, I noticed you reconnected a few years ago when Roma was up for a number of Academy Awards. You, Feist, Inara George, and Alex Lilly performed “Tarantula,” led by Beck, on The Late Late Show. Such a great group of artists coming together. How did you become involved?
KHAN: Again, Beck approached me, sweet man, and said all of these wonderful women are singing backup. It’s [Gustavo] Dudamel isn’t it, is that his name? I’m terrible with names, but the amazing conductor was doing the arrangements. And I think I was kind of in a quiet period, where I hadn’t really been doing much. I’m just super shy and nervous about TV and big things like that, but then I thought it sounds like a really fun day and a nice thing to be part of because the film looked so amazing and I loved the way they’d done the track.
I think it fell to me to go to Gucci’s headquarters in LA and pick out a bunch of dresses that I felt fit the “Tarantula” theme for the other girls. So I went and picked a whole bunch of amazing dresses. And then when we got there on the day all of us girls were trying on different things, and I ended up wearing this incredible 1930s to-the-floor heavy, silk black gown, and we got our hair done in pin curls and stuff. It was a really fun, beautiful day. And it was quite nerve-wracking because I’m obviously a lead vocalist and I harmonize with myself, but I’m not the most confident harmonizer, and we had to do the whole thing in harmony with Feist and stuff. Is that ridiculous?
Light Beings Short Film Starring Margaret Qualley (2018)
Film directing and scoring is something that you’ve explored in the past. I had a peek at your short, Light Beings, starring Margaret Qualley. Is film something you still engage with?
KHAN: At the time, I’d moved to LA and I was having a bit of a break from the album cycle of music to direct a little bit more and work in making short films. I’ve always wanted to direct a feature film and I’ve done a script writing course at UCLA, and made a short film that went to Tribeca and stuff, like a 15-minute short. And also just visually, for me, every single album has been a film in my mind. Really, they all are a soundtrack to a narrative or a film that I’ve developed alongside them. It’s just that I never made these films. But I have so many scripts and film outlines and it’s sort of like the unexpressed half of me. I guess because I went so into the music part, I never really got to fulfill my directing dream in the same way because you can only have so much energy for one thing.
But that short film, I really loved doing. Margaret Qualley was really sweet to work with, she’s so lovely, and the landscape of California and just that whole quarry National Park that we filmed in was really magical, with the swimming holes. I did the music score myself, which I really enjoyed, that more synthesized eighties thing which obviously was linking into the Lost Girls palette of sound. There was this sort of magical lovestruck story between her and this light being. All the special effects took ages and ages. I guess I realized afterwards how hard CGI is, to make it look realistic. So obviously that was my first foray and I think I would probably do it differently next time. But it was very interesting to see someone body mapping an actor and covering them in stars and making them this alien being and trying to make it look believable. It’s definitely a flawed piece, but I think it has a really beautiful spirit.
I’m always wanting to direct a film and always having a film idea on my mind, I guess. I just need to make one, or get the support to do it.